Singapore Swing

Peaceful and prosperous, Southeast Asia’s famously uptight nation has let its hair down

Building on the past is one of Singapore's strengths. Bathers at the Fullerton Hotel—a former British post office—enjoy a view befitting the nation's prosperity. (Justin Guariglia)
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It was 3 a.m. and I was fresh off a Singapore Airlines flight from Newark—at 18 hours, the longest regularly scheduled, nonstop commercial flight in the world. Jet lag was playing havoc with my system. So I left the hotel and headed over to Boat Quay, not expecting to find much except fresh air and solitude. This, after all, was Singapore, long ridiculed as a prissy, soulless place, with no DNA for fun, culture or the arts. Singapore? Isn't that where chewing gum is illegal and Cosmopolitan magazine is banned as too racy? Where bars close before anyone starts having a good time, and everyone is so obsessed with work that the government launched a smile campaign to get people to lighten up?

The first time I saw Singapore, while on an R & R break from covering the Vietnam War in 1969, the quay was part of a decrepit waterfront, crowded with sampans and junks. Gaunt, dull-eyed faces peered out of opium dens in a Chinatown alleyway I happened upon. The newly independent country—a city-state about the size of Chicago—was in the process of leveling vast areas of slums and jungle, as well as a good deal of its architectural heritage. There wasn't a lot to do after you had seen the teeming harbor and Bugis Street, where transsexuals sashayed by every evening to the delight of tourists and locals. I stayed only two days, and left thinking I had discovered a remarkably unremarkable country destined to join the impoverished fraternity of third-world nobodies.

Located just north of the Equator, Singapore has never recorded a temperature lower than 66 degrees Fahrenheit, and tropical heat hung heavy the night I returned. I turned onto the stone promenade that followed the Singapore River. Glass-fronted tourist boats were moored at the docks, but there was not a sampan in sight. Boat Quay, renovated, ablaze in lights, startled me. Outdoor restaurants with tables under colorful umbrellas stretched along the waterfront. Across the river, floodlights illuminated the old colonial British post office that has been transformed into the Fullerton Hotel and voted the best hotel in Asia in a recent international survey. The shoulder-to-shoulder bars in the quay were packed with hip young Singaporeans and European expatriates, drinking Guinness and Old Speckled Hen on draft and cheering a replay of the Liverpool-Reading soccer game on flat-screen TVs.

I ordered a Kilkenny. The bartender was doing a Tom Cruise Cocktail routine, flipping bottles behind his back and pouring with a flourish. His assistant, a Chinese Singaporean with silken black hair falling to her waist and low-slung jeans, applauded and gave him a hug. I asked the bartender what time last call was. "Dawn," he said. "We're in one of the new entertainment zones."

Whoooa! Could this be the stuffy, somber Singapore I had been warned about? This tiny nation—whose ascendancy from malaria-infested colonial backwater to gleaming global hub of trade, finance and transportation is one of Asia's great success stories—is reinventing itself, this time as a party town and regional center for culture and the arts. "Prosperity is not our only goal, nor is economic growth an end in itself," says Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. Translation: let the good times roll. Suddenly people are describing the city with a word that, until recently, wasn't even in the local vocabulary: trendy.

The government has lifted its prohibition on bar-top dancing and bungee jumping. Cosmopolitan is very much for sale on the newsstands (though Playboy still hasn't made the cut) and sugarless chewing gum is available (with a doctor's prescription saying it is for medicinal purposes, such as dental health). Plans are under way to build two Las Vegas-style casino resorts, worth a combined $3.3 billion, on Marina Bay. International brand-name clubs, such as Ministry of Sound, the mother of London rave clubs, and Bangkok's Q Bar, have opened satellites here. A colonial-era girls' school, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, has been reborn as a complex of upscale restaurants known as Chijmes. All this is enough to make Singapore's traditionally well-behaved 3.6 million citizens feel as though they went to sleep in Salt Lake City and woke up in pre-Katrina New Orleans.

"Night life started taking off in Singapore when the government extended bar hours, just as Bangkok, South East Asia's traditional party town, was cutting them back from 4 a.m., to 2, then 1," says David Jacobson, the American co-owner of Q Bar Bangkok. "It was a pretty draconian turnaround for Bangkok, and what you find is that a lot of people looking for fun these days are avoiding Bangkok and heading to Hong Kong or Singapore instead."

But the new Singapore isn't only about partying. In a city that long considered a cultural event something you found in a movie theater or a shopping mall, Singapore's government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on museums, cultural festivals and the arts. It even subsidizes avant-garde theater that sometimes dares touch on sensitive or controversial subjects. Performers such as Eric Clapton, Bobby McFerrin, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna Boys' Choir have appeared at the $390 million Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, which sits on the site of an old British gun battery. No one in the Esplanade audience even seemed to notice that the guest conductor of the National Orchestra, Jacoma Bairos, had a ponytail. This in a country where authorities a generation ago could deny entry to long-haired male travelers. Recently, so many people were on hand for a Vatican exhibition at the Asian Civilizations Museum that doors were kept open round-the-clock to accommodate last day procrastinators. The director, sensing a marketing opportunity, showed up at midnight in a housecoat to address the crowd.

"I went to London when I was 16 and had no intention of ever coming back," says Beatrice Chia-Richmond, artistic director of the Toy Factory theater ensemble. "I was determined to breathe the air Byron and Keats breathed. But in a sophisticated place like London, no one is surprised by anything, because everything has been done. That's not the case in Singapore. You can make mistakes of the most dire kind, and you can live to direct again. That makes this an exciting time. Suddenly, it's no longer cool to be an uptight country."

Truth be told, Singapore may never have the edginess of Bangkok, the flashiness of Shanghai or the cultural charm of Hanoi. The over-50 crowd, conservative and cautious, wants neither to see the social order turned upside-down nor the pursuit of fun become too much of a distraction. As Chan Heng Chee, Singapore's ambassador to the United States, puts it, "We are fun-loving, but not recklessly fun-loving. Everything is just so." Some artists, too, are skeptical, saying the evolution of art and culture needs to bubble up from the people rather than trickle down from the top by government decree. Can creativity, they ask, truly flourish in a society where there are limits on freedom of expression, politics and policy are not openly debated and the state-controlled media tiptoe around controversy as gracefully as ballet dancers?

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