Our towns: Singapore

An island nation less than 70 miles above the equator, Singapore is predominantly Chinese with a mix of Malay and Indian plus a substantial European / Australian / American expat population.

Singapore: the Lion City.

About, and about the, town

Named The Lion City by a Sultan who thought he saw a lion (Singapore used to have tigers but no lions) the small Island off the southern coast of the Malaysia Peninsula has quite a lot in common with Hong Kong. It's a small island separated from the mainland by a man-made connection (in Singapore's case, it's a bridge) and it is both a major financial centre and, historically, a place of refuge for the Chinese from a larger neighbour. It's not a tax haven but it is a low tax jurisdiction and it has a large offshore business.

Singapore's history is long but it's a short story: the British arrived in Melacca on the West Coast of the Malay Peninsula in the 18th Century. Gradually, the British took over the whole of the peninsula and much of neighbouring Borneo. But there was little force or coercion involved: for example, they signed a lease with the Sultan of Kedah for the Island of Penang.

Like the whole of the peninsula, Singapore was over-run by the Japanese during the Second World War and suffered both indignity and atrocity in equal measure. When the Japanese left, the British returned but their power was much reduced. All the Malayan States decided to press for independence which was secured in 1956.

After independence from Britain, Singapore first joined the new Federation of Malayan States (Malaya which was later renamed Malaysia - taking the "si" from Singapore and incorporating it into Malaya, where it has remained) and then shortly afterwards changed its mind, becoming a fully independent state once more (in 1959). In Malaysia the Malays out-number the Chinese (except in Penang) but in Singapore the Chinese out-number the Malays. But as the Chinese have been in both places for some 400 years, it makes little sense to draw any distinction between them.

Singapore is small and there's not a lot of contiguous green areas remaining. Around the southern waterfront, there has been great land reclamation so as to preserve the remaining green areas.

But even so, Singapore is a very green city: there are trees and pockets of gardens and lawns everywhere.

Helped by the fact that it's surrounded by sea, there is little pollution and the air is fresh and breezy (mostly). But that's not to say it's not hot. It is. Very. And in the rainy season it's also very wet.

A surprising fact about Singapore is that it's only 95km from the equator. If you want to be in the Tropics, then Singapore is a fine place to test it out before moving to other South East Asian countries that are either more crowded or less developed or, in some cases, both.

Singapore has a just reputation for cleanliness and personal safety. Of course, there are both grime and crime but an army of government employees keeps them in check. They do that with dustpan and brush, frequent street patrols and on the spot fines for litter (which includes throwing down a cigarette butt). And for crime, the reaction time of the Singapore police is very quick with the result that the City does not have the same amount of bag-snatching and pickpocketing that is common in other cities in the region.

Jaywalking (crossing the road other than at a designated crossing place and then only when signals permit) is an offence but the streets are generally so quiet that it's tempting to do it anyway.

If you've ever been to Bangkok and come away worrying if you will ever get the smell of the pollution out of your nose, or been in Kuala Lumpur when the city is covered in smoke from open burning in Indonesia or even in Hong Kong with the grey air that blows down from China, then the freshness - and the clear skies - of Singapore will delight you.

The primary commercial (as in financial services) district is centred in the waterfront district. Ranging from Shenton Way at one end, past Raffles City in the middle to Suntec City at the other end. It's in this zone that you'll find the headquarters of Singapore's increasingly expansive banks, many government departments and one of the world's biggest international financial sectors. In fact, around 40% of about 5 million Singaporeans work in the financial sector.

The main hotel district is around the river entrance but there are cheaper hotels a short MRT ride away. And surprisingly at the South side of the Island most places are within about half an hour's pleasant stroll of each other.

The main shopping district is the world famous Orchard Road. It's catching up with Hong Kong, surpasses Kuala Lumpur and it's far better than most other regional capitals. Sale time has some outstanding bargains and it does have much European style furniture and white goods that are simply not available in Kuala Lumpur and it has a wider selection of fashionable women's clothing than KL - although for very expensive brands, KL often has the same product cheaper.

Singapore is sometimes called a "nanny state" and it's amusing to note that he department of labour is called Ministry of Manpower with its acronym of MOM.

Whilst much of Malaysia has become less British, Singapore seems to have become more English than England. The people are polite, hold doors open and say "thank you," or at least smile. For many, the courtesy is a surprise, particularly bearing in mind that it has been lost in so many other places.

Singaporeans work as hard but not as long hours as Hong Kongers. Eating out is a national pastime and the streets, especially around Chinatown, are filled with food stalls. The fanaticism of cleanliness means that there need be no worries about eating at roadside stalls or in the many "hawker food courts" all over the city. In fact, some of the city's best food is at stalls. There is absolutely no need to go to an international fast food chain - they generally cost more and, let's face it, it's mostly s**t in a bun. As in Kuala Lumpur, local coffee shops make far better coffee than the international chains - and cost a fraction of the price.

The level of English is good - better than in recent Hong Kong - and it's English English although American is creeping in.

Some visitors fear that Singapore is so highly regulated that it is not possible to have fun.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, bars are not (mostly) permitted to have table dancing and the like but the action on the dance floors is as wild as any other major city.

In fact, Singapore has the most lively clubbing scene in South East Asia (although KL is catching up) with mega-clubs such as Zouk drawing in approaching a couple of thousand at weekends.

Also, Singapore has some exceptional dining, often in small out of the way restaurants that you will not find unless you know exactly where to look.

One thing you should not bother with: renting a car. Most four and five star hotels will have a shuttle from the airport. But taxi fares in Singapore are not expensive (a by-product of the heavy restrictions on traffic which means that, in most cases, the traffic is light so journey times are mostly short), taxi drivers are, it seems, universally polite, their cars are clean and well maintained and they always, always, always turn on the meter without an argument. Also, the MRT is a delight. You can get an MRT from the airport straight into the City, in some cases directly into the complex housing hotels.

But the real reason for not renting a car is that it's mindbogglingly expensive. Cars in Singapore are extremely heavily taxed on purchase and the annual road tax is also huge. So rentals are costly to begin with. Like Hong Kong, the prospect of building car parks is fraught with difficulty so those that there are are extremely expensive. And that's before you start to think about road pricing. Taking a car onto the road in the city incurs hefty charges for moving between districts. As your hotel and the venue will almost certainly both be in the chargeable district, you will pay a lot to have a car sitting in the hotel garage and then a lot if you want to take it out. For short trips (and it's quite difficult to make long trips in Singapore), even a hotel limo service will be cheaper if you don't want to use a taxi or the MRT.

Getting to Singapore

Singapore is increasingly a regional hub for airlines and several low cost carriers fly into Changi airport. The national airline is Singapore Airlines and, yes, the adverts are true. Singapore is particularly well served by A380 aircraft: go on, you know you want to... There are also non-stop business-only flights from the US West Coast and New York ( these services are slated for withdrawal in the second half of 2013).

In-flight times from Europe will be around 12 hours and it's somewhere between 7 and 12 to Australia depending on destination.

Singapore is a great place to include on a round-the-world-ticket as you can fly around the back of the world to Los Angeles and then onto anywhere in the USA.

And if you can fix your schedule to make an RTW ticket work for you, you will save a lot of money on making separate trips. e.g. from Europe to Singapore then onto Australia, the USA and, of course, the ticket will get you home again.

Thai airlines generally offer good rates via Bangkok and flying via Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur is also a good option for many.

Our tip for travelling from KL to Singapore is to spend a couple of days in KL and then take a coach to Singapore (or do it the other way around). The coaches are comfortable (if you choose the correct ones) and the ride is surprisingly scenic.

The great thing about hubbing through KL is that you get to go to two of the world's best airports, KLIA and Changi: if you are into modern (not outrageous) architecture it's a real treat.

Things to do

Golf is an expensive hobby in Singapore.

Despite the relative lack of green space in the city, Singapore has some fine courses and just over the border in Johor there are more very good places to play.

The primary "bar street" is Boat Quay.. Here you can imagine yourself to be sitting in Harry's Bar with Nick Leeson. And it has to be said that, although there are lots of tourists, in several of the bars in this row you could well be in some of the trader's bars in the City of London when you hear the accents and "soak up the atmosphere." Restaurant touts are a bit of a nuisance and the prices are touristy but it's worth at least one visit just because everyone at home will ask if you went there. On the other side of the river, past the superb colonial buildings of Parliament and the Supreme Court is Clarke Quay, an object lesson in how to restore and preserve warehouse districts. Packed with restaurants, bars, clubs and shops, it leaves London's Covent Garden for dead in the style stakes.

Much more sophisticated but still in the heart of the city is a strange concept: a sunken area behind a church, accessed by entering through an old market. Called Chijmes, there are several bars - mostly "concept" bars with indoor and outdoor eating and drinking areas. An important thing to remember is that it is illegal to smoke in an air conditioned environment - a very good thing we say. Chijmes is opposite Raffles Hotel.

Stay an extra day and visit Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street. You could take a walk around Raffles but these days it's more of a shopping arcade than the grand old dame it used to be.

Nowadays, the savvy traveller is much more likely to be found at The Fullerton - converted from The old Post Office and right on the riverside, next to Singapore's former Supreme Court and Parliament building and other truly spectacular colonial constructions which have, in so many other countries, fallen to the bulldozer.

Whilst Singapore is not Milan, if "watching the people go by" is your thing, try sitting at one of the coffee shops along Orchard Road.

Use our hotel booking service for best rates.

Things not to do.

1. Spit, chew gum, litter, do anything involving illegal drugs (including importing prescription drugs unless you can produce a copy of the prescription), smoke in a lift or an air-conditioned environment - or within 15 metres of the main door to a building, cross against a red light or walk away from a public lavatory without flushing it.

2. Hang around or look for a hotel in the Geylang district, or go for a quick drink in Orchard Towers (or, to be more precise, if you do go to OT, then be careful where you go). Look it up on any search engine to find out why - but don't even do that if your PC is monitored for inappropriate content: people have been dismissed from very high positions in large organisations for having pictures of the sort that some sites put onto your machine without your consent. But if you really must go there, you should know that the establishments and the girls are licensed and subject to regular inspection. You should also know freelancing is illegal, on the street or anywhere else (but an increasing number of Russian and eastern European women seem to be escaping detection in hotel bars). If you want to go to Geylang to eat (and it's famous for its stalls and good cheap restaurants) then go with a local and don't rely on taxi driver recommendation.

3. Shop for cameras, electronics, etc. in some of the specialist arcades. Tricks and fakes abound. Do some due diligence i.e. internet research to see typical complaints.

That's about it. Really, despite the criticism, it's mostly sensible morality, concern for others and public health: there are many places that could learn valuable lessons. It's certainly not the repressive society you read about much of the press.

Immigration / Customs

All foreign visitors are required to complete an arrival card regardless of method of arrival. Part is retained for surrender on departure.

Passport minimum remaining validity 90 days beyond expected departure.

Most visitors do not require visa. Exceptions listed here - http://app.ica.gov.sg/travellers/entry/visa_requirements.asp

A tourist visa is acceptable for persons attending a conference / convention / exhibition

Singapore government Visa Information: Click here - http://app.ica.gov.sg/serv_visitor/entry_visa/entry_visa_app.asp

Duty free / controlled / prohibited goods information is here:
http://www.customs.gov.sg/leftNav/trav/Dutiable+Controlled+and+Prohibite...

There is a mandatory death penalty for a number of offences related to illegal drugs. Singapore does not publish figures on its capital punishment but various pressure groups claim that the number of executions per capita is amongst the highest in the world.

Further Information

For more information on things to do in Singapore generally and around the time of the Forum, visit www.visitsingapore.com/

© 2009 The Financial Crime Forum.