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Published: September 9th 2007
Bumboats still ply the Singapore River just below the historic site where Sir Stamford Raffles first set foot on the island.
© L. Birch 2007
The doors opened with a pneumatic hiss as the MRT train glided smoothly into the station at Orchard Road. The train and station area were antiseptically clean. Chrome and glass shone with hardly a sign of a fingerprint, let alone any trace of graffiti but this was Singapore of course, our 9th country and one of the cleanest in South East Asia. Hardly surprising since the act of leaving your 'tag' mark on a wall or spitting out a wad of chewing gum, could land you with a heavy, on-the-spot fine or worse, a few lashes with a bamboo cane known as the rotan
Singapore's reputation as something of a 'nanny state' was gained during the governing years of its former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew who finally stepped down in 1990 after more than 30 years as leader of the country. Back then, you could be fined for almost everything or refused entry as a traveller if your hair was too long. Travel legend has it that - under such circumstances - you were only given a limited number of days to pass through the country, the words 'Suspected Hippy In Transit'* stamped in your passport (*or S.H.I.T. for
Are We in the Right Place?
During our time at "Treetops", we kept having to pinch ourselves and couldn't get used to the idea that we were actually staying somewhere quite so sumptuous.
© V. Birch 2007
short... someone in the immigration department obviously had a sense of humour). These days however, things are considerably more relaxed. It is also abundantly clear, from even the most cursory glance, that Singapore has become one of the most modern and forward thinking countries in Asia - a fact no doubt attributable to both Lee's leadership and that of successive governments.
But despite an enlightened government, the overland border crossing between Malaysia and Singapore had been tediously slow to negotiate. This was largely due to the sheer number of people making the crossing but also because the immigration authorities were paying particular attention to detail, going through people's passports and looking them piercingly in the eye as they did so. Bags and parcels were carefully checked, pockets turned out - and isn't it strange how an immigration official can make you feel guilty... even though you have nothing to feel guilty about? The whole process took so long that it was dark by the time we got into the centre of Singapore, tower blocks rearing to impossible heights all around us. The MRT was just as we had remembered it; futuristically modern, clean, reliable and yes, some of the
Statuary and ornamental plants completed the poolside arrangement at "Treetops".
© V. Birch 2007
public toilets still carried a warning to flush after use - or risk a fine if you didn't. That just seemed so Singapore but I couldn't help wondering how they caught transgressors. Were there hidden cameras, or men in plain clothes just waiting to grab you if you forgot to flush? Talk about being paranoid... it was likely to make you look around any toilet cubicle with a vague sense of suspicion and unease.
Having arrived so late, it was fortunate that - on this occasion - we didn't have to traipse around looking for somewhere to stay. Some weeks before, we had called on expat contacts living in Singapore and managed to secure a few nights accommodation in their serviced apartment. "Yes," they had said, "There's room here, come and stay." A city taxi took us there but as it drew up outside the address we'd been given, our jaws dropped in astonishment. Surely there was some mistake, we thought.... "Treetops" was far too posh. In fact, it was one of the most exclusive addresses in Singapore. A smartly uniformed doorman insisted on collecting our battered and dust covered backpacks, while we were directed to a tastefully decorated
'Old' and New Singapore
The spire of the Victoria Clocktower rises up against a skyline of city towerblocks in Singapore's Central Business District.
© L. Birch 2007
front desk. Still convinced we had come to the wrong place and would be shown the door at any moment, we approached the reception desk - intimidated by the lavish and obviously expensive furnishings all around us. When we announced who we were, the be-suited concierge consulted a PC screen. "Ah yes, Mr and Mrs Birch isn't it? You're expected." We were given a room key and directions - and still in a state of shock - stumbled across an immense high-ceilinged foyer with marbled floors. It took us several minutes to find the apartment we were looking for as we had to stop and gawp at everything; it was all so sumptuous - oozing expensive taste and style. The door was opened by Liz, a vivacious girl in her mid to late twenties who welcomed us in with a laugh as she took in our still bemused expressions. Liz and boyfriend Amit were British expats who we had 'met' via an internet club for international travellers. The pair of them had travelled extensively themselves but were sitting still for a while. Liz taught English while Amit worked for a Singapore based law firm who paid for their apartment. "I
Raffles Among the Towerblocks
Surrounded by towerblocks, a statue of Sir Stamford Raffles stands on the site where the founder of Singapore first set foot in 1819.
© L. Birch 2007
know," said Liz, still amused by our expressions, "It does take some getting used to."
A free buffet breakfast was provided next day by the poolside. With Liz and Amit at work, we had the run of the place and sat planning our day over the first continental-style breakfast we had eaten in months. We still couldn't believe our good fortune and Viv planned to make the most of it. But before we settled down to enjoy the facilities at "Treetops"; we had a few chores to complete that involved a trip into the city. An MRT train took us to Raffles Place, passing such familiar stops as Orchard Road and Bugis Street - once the site of an infamous market where you could buy anything and where "anything went". With our business concluded, we made a visit to the Singapore Riverside and the site where - on the 19th January 1819 - Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles had first landed and established a trading post that would later become the bustling port of Singapore. At the time, Singapore - an island roughly the size of the Isle of Wight off England's southern coast - was probably a wretched place of mangrove swamps and dense jungle. Raffles however, who was then Governor of Bencoolen in Sumatra, saw that the island held great potential due to its position at the foot of the Malay peninsula. Shipping en-route to the Far East from the British colonial ports of India and the Mediterranean would all have to pass the island which was ideally placed as a refuelling and supply stop. Such was Raffles vision that the Lion City of Singapore grew rapidly and never looked back. Today, Raffles is widely - and proudly credited with being the founding father of modern-day Singapore and you cannot go anywhere without being reminded of his achievement. Pick up a map of Singapore and Raffles' name is commemorated everywhere you look from Stamford Road to Raffles City and of course, in the name of that most legendary of all Singapore institutions - the "Raffles Hotel". In the past, we had followed in Raffles' footsteps, visiting the ruins of the former residency in Benkulu where he had been Governor, retracing the routes of his expeditions in Java - and Sumatra (where he had discovered Rafflesia
, the world's largest flower.... which we had seen recently and documented in our entry titled - "Into Borneo"
). His had been a life full of great achievements and now we could add having visited the site of one of his finest moments to our list.
Back at "Treetops", Viv fulfilled her promise to make the most of the facilities. After a plunge in the pool, there was a bath to indulge in... with hot water! Air conditioning, internet links, hi-tech environmental controls and wide screen TV.... whatever would Raffles think if he could see what Singapore had become? In a little less than 200 years, Singapore had grown from an island of malarial swamps to become the tech-savvy Asian Tiger that it is today. I couldn't help thinking that he would be rather pleased.
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