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.

One of Singapore's loveliest up-and-coming neighborhoods is Kampong Glam, home to Arab, Yemeni, and Pakistani traders since Sir Stamford Raffles founded the city in 1819. Men step out of the area's Moorish mosque, the 1928 Masjid Sultan on Muscat Street, in songkok (skullcaps) and sarongs. At night the area glows softly with the lights from Moroccan-style tea shops, and the air is sweet with smoke from water pipes. Recently given a face-lift, it's packed with two-story shops selling fabrics, dates, spices, and perfumes. Drop by Samar restaurant for a karkedeh (an Egyptian hibiscus beverage), but skip the food. After this, there's still the neighborhoods of Katong and Joo Chiat, with their Technicolor Peranakan houses to explore. At the Katong Antique House, Peter Wee, who lives in part of the building, will take you on a tour.

6. It's safe

In 2003, there were just 201 fatal car accidents. Taxi drivers are honest, and mostly polite. (You can't say that about New York.) Some taxis even have warning bells that go off if the taxis go over the speed limit on freeways. You probably won't get mugged either: "Snatch thefts" decreased by 4.4 percent in 2003, from 405 to 387. And women wearing tank tops can walk down the street unmolested, unlike in Malaysia or India.

7. Even the housing projects are nice

While you might take a pass on a visit to the housing projects of Chicago, consider that 84 percent of Singapore's 4.24 million citizens reside in the government's cookie-cutter Housing and Development Board flats. Venture into the HDB heartlands--Bedok, Ang Mo Kio, and Toa Payoh--for a glimpse of the everyday Singapore. At the heart of each one, you'll find neat town hubs with shops, food stalls, and locals at their most relaxed--kids in crisp school uniforms, seniors doing tai chi at dawn. Note: These shopping centers often have the best bargains.

8. There's support for the arts

Singapore aspires to be the region's arts and entertainment center. Just look at Exhibit A: The Esplanade. (Its full name is The Esplanade--Theatres on the Bay, but the government has yet to insist that anyone actually call it that.) Completed in 2002 at a cost of $368 million, the Esplanade looks like a giant hedgehog with silver spikes. Locals love it or hate it--they call it the Durian, after a smelly, indigenous fruit--but it's hard to argue with the fact that Singapore clearly makes the arts a priority. You can catch anything from Broadway acts to Yo-Yo Ma recitals at the 1,600-seat concert hall (many events are free; tickets for paying events start at $12). Another example of commitment to the arts is The Arts House at the Old Parliament, in the Empress Place neighborhood. Once the Parliament House, this handsome 1827 neo-Palladian building consists of seven venues, including a cinema and a gallery. In the former debating chamber, people on guided tours line up to pose for photos in a certain front-row seat. As the brass nameplate on the back points out, the leather chair belongs to Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister and founding father. Lee Kuan Yew's son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current prime minister, and the man behind many of the recent quality-of-life advances.

9. They take shopping seriously

Truth be told, only two thirds of the Durian is a dedicated arts venue--the other third houses yet another shopping mall. It's no surprise: Shopping is a national pastime and is pushed hard by the tourism board. Last year, 23,000 shops participated in an annual eight-week event called the Great Singapore Sale (this year, May 27-July 24). More than 91,000 foreign tourists bought package trips to visit the sale. Stores mark down just about everything, and, as always, tourists can get a refund of the 5 percent sales tax at the border on receipts of more than $184. Generally, however, prices have gone stratospheric since the '70s, when shopping was cheap and cheerful. Electronics and computers can still be a pretty good bargain, if you know your stuff. Where to go: Sim Lim Tower, Sim Lim Square, and Funan the IT Mall. Orchard Road is block after block of glitzy megamalls. There's funky clothing at The Hereen and Far East Plaza. Even if you're not in the market for anything, walking down Orchard Road can be quite fun: It's shady, and there are lots of benches when you want to rest. For Indian merchandise, try Punjab Bazaar at the Little India Arcade on Serangoon Road, and the popular Roopalee Fashions for beaded bags starting from $18. Chinatown's People's Park Complex is the place for ginseng and Chinese silks--and a reflexology treatment for your aching feet. For Tang Dynasty statue reproductions and Chinese furniture, visit Home of 100 Happiness.

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