I didn’t much time to spare at the end of my Christmas trip to Ireland but I was determined break up the long London-Brisbane leg. Singapore is hardly the most exotic Asian location around but it is strategically placed and convenient and with just 24 hours to kill is easy to get into and around. Though ruled by the same political party since independence in 1965 Singapore ranks 5th on the UN Human Development Index and the 3rd highest GDP per capita and also ranks highly in education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety and housing.
I took the metro from Changi Airport to Bugis station where my hotel was just a short walk away. I went for a walk towards Marina Bay towards the colonial heart of the city. The National Gallery of Singapore is housed in the adjoining City Hall and old Supreme Court Building. The latter reminds me of the Four Courts in Dublin with its blue-green dome, Corinthian columns and classical design but this was only built just before the Second World War. It finished work as a courthouse in 2005 and re-opened as the national gallery in 2015.
Just across the road is the Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall. The hall was built in 1905 and contains a 614-seat theatre and a 673-seat concert hall. In 2010, the heritage-listed building underwent a four-year refurbishment to restore its neo-classical facade while getting new facilities inside.
The Singapore River meets Marina Bay in the heart of downtown. Ferry boats ply tourists up and down the river overlooked by skyscrapers and the Marina Bay Sands resort. The resort includes a 2,561-room hotel, a 120,000 sq m convention centre, a 74,000 sq m mall, a museum, two large theatres, two floating Crystal Pavilions, a skating rink, and the world’s largest atrium casino. Sitting on top of the complex is the world’s largest public cantilevered platform holding a 340m long Skypark.
Along the side of the river is Boat Quay and bars and restaurants line the pedestrianised streets. It gets lively on a Friday night with expats enjoying the British-style pubs while couples sought a river-side table to enjoy dinner and the nightlights of the city. Boat Quay was the busiest part of the old Port of Singapore, handling three-quarters of all shipping business during the 1860s. The bend of the river at Boat Quay resembles the belly of a carp, which according to Chinese belief is where wealth and prosperity lay. For that reason they built many shophouses crowded into the area.
The river empties out into Marina Bay which links to the Singapore Strait and the sealanes of the world. The port of Singapore is the world’s busiest port in shipping tonnage handled, with 1.15 billion gross tons handled in 2005. In cargo tonnage, Singapore is behind Shanghai with 423 million freight tons handled.
The tourist highlight of Marina Bay is the Merlion. The merlion is a mythical creature with a lion’s head and the body of a fish and serves as a mascot and national personification of Singapore. The fish body (“mer” as in sea) represents Singapore’s origin as a fishing village when it was called Temasek, which means “sea town” in Javanese. The lion head represents Singapore’s name—Singapura—meaning “lion city”. However the symbol is relatively new, designed as a logo for the Singapore Tourism Board in 1964 and has been its trademarked symbol since 20 July 1966. The statue was built on the estuary in 1972 but moved to a more central location in 2002 when a new bridge blocked its view.
Fort Canning Hill overlooks downtown and the area was once the centre of ancient Singapura in the 14th century. When Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was appointed Lieutenant Governor of the British colony at Bencoolen in Sumatra in 1818 he wanted to end Dutch domination of the Malacca Strait and established a new port on the island of Singapore signing the treaty of Singapore with the Sultan of Jahore. The hill was the site of the first British Residence and also a botanical garden and a fort was built in 1861 named for Charles John Canning, the first Viceroy of India. The official British surrender to the Japanese was signed here on 15 February 1942.
The Arts House at Old Parliament House plays host to art exhibitions and concerts. Built in 1827, the Old Parliament House is the oldest government building and possibly the oldest surviving building in Singapore. It housed the Parliament of Singapore from the nation state’s beginning in 1965 to 1999, when it moved next door to accommodate a larger number of MPs. The Arts House opened in 2004.