Singapore: This Article Has Not Been Authorized

In an effort to draw tourists and industry, Singapore is trying to change its image -- and the international media has run many a story about how the "nanny state" is finally letting down its hair. But we prefer to admire Singapore for what it is, even if that's not the message the government wants to send.

A trio of police officers
A trio of police officers (Christopher Wise)
A trio of police officers (Christopher Wise)

What you'll find in this story: Singapore travel, Singapore culture, Singapore attractions, Singapore lodging, Singapore neighborhoods

Singapore is famous for micromanaging everything it can get its fussy, white-gloved hands on. Even its citizens' love lives: To correct falling birth rates, the government offered incentives to couples who have more than one baby, and launched an initiative called Romancing Singapore. There are jingles, a cake of the month, dating tips, and a pair of special fragrances created by local polytechnic students. Hers is floral; his is musky.

Romance is one thing, but vice is something else altogether. To boost tourism and foreign investment, the city-state--a 239-square-mile island off the southern tip of Malaysia--is chipping away at its rulebound culture. You can now dance on tables, attend gay parties, and buy Cosmopolitan magazine. In a refutation of Singapore's most infamous law, you are also allowed to buy gum.

Restrictions apply. The gum must be sugarless and therapeutic, and it's only available by prescription.

Singapore can talk about changing, but it is what it is: a former British colony that puts the stiffest, prissiest English nanny to shame. Would you want to live there? Perhaps not. But as a place to visit, Singapore has plenty to recommend it--and most of its charms are directly related to the efforts of the tough-love regime. For those who've toured Southeast Asia, the order and decorum are a refreshing change. And if you've never been to the region, Singapore is the perfect baby step.

1. It's remarkably green . . .

Thanks to a government program dating from the '60s, Singapore--a.k.a. the Garden City--is one of the world's greenest cities. There's a strict cap on the number of vehicles allowed on the island, and there are fees for driving in downtown zones. Compared with a place like Bangkok, where diesel-fume-belching tuk-tuks are everywhere, Singapore is literally a breath of fresh air. More than 5 percent of the island is reserved for nature, and there are many tree conservation areas, where laws govern the felling of any tree more than one meter in girth. The Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve has real mangrove swamps, and the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is Singapore's biggest tract of primary rain forest. Those who like nature with a wild streak should try the Night Safari, which is within the vast Singapore Zoological Gardens. It's a 99-acre zoo with 1,200 animals representing 110 species. Whether you take the tram or the walks--or ideally, both--the subtle lighting will help you spot striped hyenas and Malayan tapirs prowling close by.

2. And it's lickably clean

Singapore is beyond anal-retentive. Spitting is banned; first-time violators may be fined $611, while repeat offenders might find their picture published in the newspapers. (A far cry from Mumbai, where residents spit betel-nut juice on the streets, staining them bright red.) Littering is also verboten ($611 or community service), as is smoking in public places ($611). The subway stations could pass for hospitals, and even restrooms are ranked by cleanliness; high marks go to Caltex gas stations. Remember to flush or, yes, you may get fined up to $92.

3. Street food won't make you sick

The government has spent millions upgrading the "hawker centres," where all kinds of street food is sold. There are more than 120 centers--with a total of 16,000 stalls--all over the city. Ambience isn't the draw: Lighting is fluorescent, and stools and tables are plastic. But the centers are cleaner than a Caltex loo. Maxwell Road Food Centre, in the Chinatown area, typically gets the locals' vote for having the best food. Order the Hainanese chicken rice at stall 10, Tian Tian. Other worthwhile options are Newton Hawker Centre for hokkien mee (yellow noodles with stir-fried prawns), Chomp Chomp Hawker Centre for fish soup noodles, Lau Pa Sat in the evenings for beef and chicken satay, and Changi Village for nasi lemak (a coconut-rice dish with anchovy chili paste).

4. Everyone speaks English

The Speak Good English Movement, started by the government and led by citizens, encourages the use of proper English (as opposed to "Singlish," Singapore's colloquial twist on English), as is clear from the bossy posters all around town. What's more, street signs are in English, as are most menus at hawker centers.

5. Preservation isn't a dirty word

Unlike other cities--Beijing, for instance, has been relentlessly demolishing its past--Singapore has kept vast tracts of its old architecture intact. At last count, there were 67 conservation areas involving more than 6,400 buildings. Spend a morning wandering around Chinatown, exploring the Straits Chinese and Victorian shophouses--multistoried buildings with five-foot-long walkways and colorful tiles. If you're lucky, the saloon-style doors will swing open to reveal three-generation families, kids doing their homework on mother-of-pearl Ching Dynasty furniture, or the aroma of frying ginger. For background on how the Chinese got to Singapore, visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Its three linked shophouses were once the lodgings of immigrants, whose tiny living quarters have been faithfully re-created. Original lodgers have been interviewed on video; their stories are touching testimonies of sheer grit. Then try the fragrant bak kuah barbecued-pork slices at the stalls on New Bridge Road or the frog porridge at Tiong Shian Porridge Centre. As you meander you'll come across traditional clan houses decorated with plaques of Chinese couplets. Indoors, elderly men will be playing mah-jongg.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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