There looked to be a problem before our tour of Singapore had even started: our tour guide was observing Ramadan, and could not partake of food and drink between sunrise and sunset. The tour organized by the Singapore Tourism Board included sumptuous dinners at some of the city’s finest restaurants. (The dinner at Saint Julien at the Fullerton Boat House was so good, some of us burst into tears.)
“Not a problem,” shrugged our guide, whose wardrobe was inspired by Pinoy singer Freddie Aguilar. “I’m used to it. I’ll just not eat.” And for five days, as we tucked into some fairly spectacular meals, he sat at the table regaling us with tales of Singapore life, impervious to the feasts appearing and disappearing right under his nose.
The tour was designed for visitors interested in arts and culture, cuisine and night life. Barely a decade ago the words “night life” and “Singapore” would not have occurred in the same sentence. Back then, cyberpunk author William Gibson described the city- state as “Disneyland with a death penalty.” Many viewed it as an antiseptic nation of robots in which punishment was meted out to drug users, gum-chewers, and people who did not flush the toilet. It was an impression that the government of Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew did not waste time dispelling – they had other priorities, such as transforming a tiny country with no natural resources into one of the wealthiest (and cleanest) on the planet.
Now that the mission has been accomplished, the citizens are being urged to cultivate pursuits outside the office. Translation: They must learn to have fun.
Property developers have been acquiring old buildings and repurposing them into chic hotels with theme rooms executed by local designers. For instance, the New Majestic Hotel in Chinatown has 30 theme rooms ranging from the Mirror Room (“Watch and be watched!”); Hey Diddle Diddle, a reinterpretation of the nursery rhyme; and the Pussy Parlour, which I leave to your imagination. It’s all excruciatingly hip and a tad self-conscious, but let no one doubt the Singaporean determination to achieve coolness. Yes, they have toiled for the right to party.
Another boutique hotel, The Scarlet, aspires to the look of an upscale Victorian bordello: all deep red hues and plush furniture. It’s like early ’90s Victoria Court with a budget, with Temptation Island tossed in. The rooms have names like Lavish and Passion, the gym is called Flaunt, and the boardroom is the Sanctum. Even the mailbox is made of leather.