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What with all the hair dye and complaining about the lousy music the kids are always listening to, most of us cringe at the thought of turning 50. Not Singapore.
The entire city-state went into high-octane party mode in 2015 to celebrate 50 years of independence, with a series of big events for the weekend of National Day.
As part of the Republic’s Jubilee celebrations, Singapore President Tony Tan declared a new public holiday in August, creating a long weekend for locals and visitors alike to celebrate. For every one of those years, we’ve picked 50 reasons the city-state popularly known as the Little Red Dot (see reason No. 46 for an explanation) is the world’s greatest city.
1. A party like it’s 1965
Question: Which was the coolest debut of 1965?
A) The Beatles release “Rubber Soul”
B) Actress Gong Li is born
C) Singapore achieves independence
There’s a lot to love from ’65, but if you answered “C,” you’ll want to stand tall amid the red and white flags waving at center stage this weekend when Singapore unleashes its Golden Jubilee birthday bash.
Celebratory events last the best part of the year, highlighted by the August 9 National Day Parade, with aerial stunts from the Air Force and a fireworks display we’re told will make others look like cheap sparklers by comparison.
2. An airport people love
Singapore Changi Airport is consistently voted the world’s best airport in both industry and consumer polls. Among unexpected highlights there’s an outdoor nature trail, swimming pool, movie theater, hawker-style food stalls, beauty and reflexology centers, children’s play areas, sleeping areas and massage chairs all over the place. If only the flights were delayed more often.
3. Perfect place to workshop your veddy Bwiddish accent
Raffles Hotel sounds British and looks it. But it was conceived by three Armenian brothers, who wanted to ape the Brit style and attract wealthy 19th-century travelers.
Raffles became a hub of Singapore society and bolthole to stars from all over the world. Today it remains as posh as Victoria Beckham.
4. Best-ever crustacean dish
Chili crab was created in 1950 by Singaporean chef Cher Yaw Tian and her husband Lim Choon Ngee. It’s since become the unofficial national dish of a food-loving nation. Restaurants and coffee shops serve it by the ton nightly.
The runner-up crustacean dish, Singapore’s signature black pepper crab, would take center stage anywhere else.
5. Fashion Week for the rest of us
Unlike the official fashion weeks in Paris, Milan, London and New York, which are open only to media, buyers and celebs, Singapore Fashion Week sells tickets to the general public.
6. Cocktails beneath lantern-lit skies
Intimate, lantern-strewn bars dot rooftops from the Central Business District (Southbridge overlooking the river, Lantern Bar overlooking the bay) to Chinatown (The Rooftop Garden). With year-round balmy evenings, the city’s many rooftop bars are open most nights, unlike in other cities where they close down once summer is over.
7. No waiting around
When it comes to public services, visitors seldom have to wait. Strict performance targets at the airport, for instance, mean travelers don’t have to loiter around the luggage carousel.
The first bag off a wide-body airplane has to be on the carousel in 12 minutes; the last has to arrive within 30 minutes. It just gets quicker from there – Singapore trains always run on time.
8. Sharing popcorn (among other things) simplified
At Gemini cinema, the comfy seats come two by two and with moveable arm rests, making a cozy space for couples.
9. English no one else understands
It never fails to amuse locals when foreigners try (and fail miserably) to use Singlish, Singapore’s own animated colloquial slang. But that doesn’t mean visitors shouldn’t learn a couple of expressions.
When bargaining, you can say: “So expensive! Cheaper can? I no money lah.”
Singlish is a blend of the country’s many languages and dialects, including the Queen’s English, Bahasa Melayu, Tamil, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Bengali and Punjabi. While some Singaporeans frown on Singlish as an embarrassing crime against grammar, others see it as a colorful and unique expression of the nation’s multiculturism.
Who needs photosynthesis? Singapore has 18 man-made “trees” between 25 and 50 meters tall, each loaded up with intricate vertical gardens. The colossal solar-powered supertrees are part of the 250-acre Gardens by the Bay. The evening light show gives you a neon appreciation for Singapore’s unique relationship with nature.
11. A bridge to another world
Sentosa Island has sandy beaches, resort hotels, a marina, beach and yacht clubs, adventure parks and historic displays – and it’s reachable by bridge from mainland Singapore.
12. Tissue is an iron-clad social compact
Hawker centers get packed during lunchtime. Locals “chope” (reserve) a seat by placing a pack of tissue paper on a table. Cooperative eaters have invented this quirky system to secure a seat at these self-serve food halls before heading off to order their meals.
13. World’s coolest hybrid
What other place would even think of making a bizarre hybrid of a lion and fish its international ambassador?
The Merlion’s body represents Singapore’s humble roots as a fishing village. Its head represents Singapore’s original name, Singapura, or “lion city” in Malay. Sounds good to us.
Looks even better to the countless tourists who can’t resist the city’s most irresistible selfie backdrop. The best, water-spewing Merlion is located next to One Fullerton, overlooking Marina Bay.
14. Identity in a glass
The Singapore Sling, a pink drink including gin, cherry brandy and lime juice, was created in the Long Bar at Raffles hotel in 1915, neatly making this the 100th anniversary of the cocktail.
15. More uncles than you knew you had
Regardless of their age, Singapore taxi drivers are typically called “Uncle.”
Jump into a cab and if you’re lucky to be driven by a chatty taxi uncle, be prepared for a discussion on anything from international business to what’s for dinner.
16. More taxis than you knew existed
With close to 30,000 official taxis servicing a population of fewer than 5.5 million people, it’s usually easy to get a ride.
And they’re cheap.
It’s rare for a ride to be far enough away from anywhere that it costs more than US$20.
Plus, due to local regulations, all taxis are meticulously maintained.
17. Caviar followed by curry
At latest count Singapore had 6,750 eating establishments.
Pakistani curry restaurants, a Russian caviar bar, Malaysian and Peranakan places and Argentinian steakhouses all co-exist with an overwhelming variety of Chinese restaurants to cement the city’s position as a world culinary capital.
18. No one (with any pride) complains about being cold
With year-round temps around 32C (90 F), and almost never dipping below 23C (74 F), no winter clothing is required – except inside the occasionally over-air-conditioned shopping mall or restaurant.
19. Best lah
There’s L.A., there’s the immortal “la la la” song lyric, there’s the rock band from Liverpool – but there’s no “lah” like the one in Singapore. The word “lah” can be, and often is, added to the end of any sentence in Singapore.
With no absolute definition of its own, its meaning can change depending on the sentence. Lah can be used to either emphasize a point or soften a command. Or it can be used to save words, by dramatically shortening sentences: “Come on, don’t waste anymore time!” becomes simply “Come on, lah.”
The word is one of the most commonly used in Singlish.
20. Wild, moonlit prowls
Singapore’s Night Safari is the world’s first nocturnal safari park. It showcases more than 2,500 animals in their natural nighttime habitats. No more going to the zoo to look at a bunch of dozing animals.
21. Spirit in the sky
Singapore has made many of its green spaces accessible by linking them with a network of aerial walkways that take you high above the birds and trees. A highlight is crossing the fabulous Henderson Waves footbridge to the Mount Faber cable car station.
22. Nowhere is far
Other big cities can leave you sitting forever in a taxi or subway, making many trips an expedition. Singapore is compact and easy to get around. Maps are easy to follow and taxis won’t break the bank, with few rides lasting more than 15 minutes.
23. A ‘stalker’ you can live with
At Singapore Zoo, which glosses itself “the world’s best rainforest zoo,” 24-year-old polar bear Inuka (Inuit for “Silent Stalker”) is a leading attraction. The first polar bear born in the tropics, Inuka is a graceful swimmer despite his 1,200-pound girth.
24. Walks on the mild side
Singapore’s streets are extremely safe. Crime rates are low. Lots of parents are even OK with their teenagers returning home in the small hours of the morning after a night out – or so the kids tell us.
25. An artsy ‘banana split’
Singapore is home to two of the world’s three most expensive buildings (including the high-rise “stranded surfboard,” formally known as Marina Bay Sands), a concert hall shaped like a durian fruit and a museum that looks like a split banana.
There’s enough monumental brutalism, artistry and the odd abomination to keep architecture students snapping pictures for weeks.
26. Running away is easy
Look at a map: amazing destinations like the beaches of Thailand and Malaysia, the teeming rainforests of Borneo and the archaeological marvels of Cambodia and Java are just a short hop away. It’s easy to live on a small island when you’re so close to so much that’s so great.
27. Coming home is even easier
After you’ve done rainforests, city congestion and traveler haunts across Southeast Asia, it’s a relief to get to a city free of jams, scams and keening touts. Even the freeways here are surrounded by flowers and manicured trees.
It’s not just this year’s Jubilee bashes.
With a population spanning Chinese, Malay, Indian, Caucasian and others, the religions of Singapore include Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Christianity. That adds up to a lot of cultural and religious festivals and public holidays:
– Chinese New Year is celebrated islandwide.
– Vesak Day marks Buddha’s birthday, with flower and candle offerings at temples.
– Some weeks later, Hari Raya Puasa, not to be confused with Hari Raya Raji, celebrates the end of Ramadan, when Muslim areas such as Geylang and Kampong Glam are filled with decorated street markets.
– In October or November, Little India is lit up with colorful displays and bazaars during Deepvali.
Though not public holidays, Thaipusam is marked by Hindus, and the Hungry Ghost and mid-Autumn Festivals are also widely celebrated by local Chinese.
Christian days are celebrated too – Singaporeans love a feast and a consumer opportunity.
29. An easily accessible time machine
Take a bum boat from Changi Point to Pulau Ubin and you’ll find a traditional fishing island that shows how Singaporeans used to live. Fewer than 50 residents live on the island, and their rustic way of life has remained largely unchanged for decades. There are also good seafood restaurants here, with views across the water.
30. Top chef convention … every day
Numerous cities have their own home-grown celeb chefs. But for such a relatively small place, Singapore has a huge concentration of internationally renowned French, American, Japanese, Australian and British foodsmiths with local restaurants.
Adding to a roster that includes Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali, Gordon Ramsay has opened his first restaurant here, Jamie Oliver his second and Wolfgang Puck his first Spago in Asia.
31. World’s highest, largest rooftop pool
The view from Marina Bay Sands’ world’s highest 495-foot rooftop pool is truly magnificent. Swarms of people take selfies here every day to prove it.
32. Beauty of a beach bar
Sentosa Island’s Tanjong Beach Club is everything Pulau Ubin isn’t. One of the world’s best beach bars, it draws models, bankers and beach bums. At night, DJs play to an enthusiastic crowd who like to feel the sand between their toes as they dance.
33. A museum dedicated to public housing. Really!
OK, so a museum dedicated to the HDB (Housing Development Board) probably isn’t high on everybody’s must-see list.
But if social housing isn’t your thing, it might be after a visit to this thoughtfully put-together museum that tells Singapore’s public housing story through multi-sensory exhibits that include floor-to-wall seamless projection, a first-of-its-kind life-sized hologram and an emotive rendition of the popular national song “Home.”
Who says public housing can’t make you cry? In a good way.
34. Street food for timid eaters
Lots of places have fabulous street food. But Singapore food stalls are concentrated into hawker centers and rated for hygiene, alleviating concerns many travelers have about subjecting their stomachs to unfamiliar street foods.
The CBD’s Lau Pa Sat gets a lot of publicity for its attractive Victorian architecture. Maxwell Centre is good before or after hitting the bars of Chinatown. But the East Coast is generally recognized as having the best food.
35. World’s freakiest theme park
Singapore’s most bizarre attraction is Haw Par Villa. The 1,000-plus statue theme park built in 1937 depicts a walk through the 18 levels of hell according to Chinese folklore. The goriest and most graphic section is the Ten Courts of Hell, which portrays the gruesome tortures sinners endure when they descend into the underworld.
36. Play dates for adults
With the Universal Studios Singapore and MegaZip zip line at Sentosa, the KF1 Karting circuit at Kranji, casinos at Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa and water parks throughout the city, Singapore might be seen as a giant playground for adults.
37. 24-hour dim sum
While Geylang may be known for its vices, it’s an equally popular area for the many Chinese food stalls that line its streets. Throughout the early hours of a Saturday or Sunday morning, the post-clubbing crowd crams into famous joints such as 126 (126 Sims Ave.; +65 6746 4757), which serves dim sum and stays open for 24 hours.
38. Dedicated bag ladies
Thanks to the warm weather, Singaporean girls have a penchant for wearing as little as they can get away with. The typical “uniform” consists of a spaghetti top, denim shorts, sunglasses and latest designer “it” handbag. Yes, the women here are serious bag ladies.
39. Colonial architecture
No place does preserved colonial architectural splendor like Singapore. The island is dotted with grand white monoliths, all columns, balustrades and verandahs, built by the British in the 19th century. But unlike other former colonies in the region, all have been perfectly maintained since the government began protecting heritage sites in 1971.
The recently restored Victoria Theater and Concert Hall has reopened its doors, while the vast Supreme Court is currently being renovated and due to open as the National Gallery by the end of 2015.
40. Rotating reminders of the cool old days
If the constant shift between equatorial heat and shattering blasts of air conditioning leaves you cold – or even hypothermic – you can track down a place where the cooling is done by the gentle swish of a ceiling fan.
Chances are it’ll be a wood-floored bar or romantic old colonial building. No wonder everybody looked so cool back in the day.
41. Movie-worthy rain
Sitting so close to the equator, Singapore gets heroic tropical downpours, photogenic blasts often accompanied by the boom of thunderstorms. Being caught in one is like starring in your own Hollywood love scene. Quick, find someone to kiss. Or break up with.
42. Aggressively polite peer pressure
Be Courteous, Speak English, Speak Mandarin, Stop Dengue, Save Water, Stop Littering, Be Kind, Don’t Spit, Stop At Two.
Making local celebrities of characters such as Bag-Down Benny and Move-In Martin to encourage considerate behavior on the MRT, many public campaigns attract smirks. But, overall, Singaporeans love urging people to be gracious citizens.
43. Craziest adrenaline junkie
Khoo Swee Chiow, aka the first Singaporean to summit Mount Everest (and once more without oxygen), aka the record holder for the world’s longest journey on skates (6,088 kilometers in 94 days), aka the man who broke the world record for the longest submergence underwater in a controlled environment (220 hours), aka the cyclist who rode from Singapore to Beijing in 73 days (8,066 kilometers) …
You get the idea. He’s the ultimate inspiration for anyone looking to shed some couch fat.
44. Fast and curious
Singapore hosts the first Formula One night race in the world and the whole population seems consumed by the “F1” event that stretches over three days.
Top international musicians are flown in to perform and the Grand Prix itself takes place on a circuit that goes through the heart of the city. The spectacle looks stunning from any number of the central district’s rooftop bars.
45. Toilets you can eat off
The Restaurant Association of Singapore wants public toilets so clean you can eat off the lids. To do that, they comb the island in search of restrooms that offend their sensibilities and spread the good word on proper toilet etiquette.
46. It’s appellation nation
The Lion City. The Garden City. The Asian Tiger. The “Fine” City.
All venerable nicknames, but the longtime favorite is the Little Red Dot.
The term gained currency after former Indonesian President B.J. Habibie dismissed Singapore as a mere “red dot.”
Singaporeans made the phrase their own and it’s commonly cited in accolades the island regularly receives, such as the “best place to do business” and “most livable city in Asia.”
47. Even fish get a holiday
Singaporeans understand that fish have needs, too. That’s why they’ve got a hotel for pet koi. Nippon Koi Farm in the countryside of Kranji doesn’t only sell the colorful and collectible koi, they take care of koi for absent owners.
Its koi hotel caters to owners who are on vacation, going through house renovations or having pond problems at home. Owners can even upgrade their koi’s quarters by housing them in an individual “project pond.”
48. Green peace
At Gardens by the Bay, visitors looking to escape the humidity can step inside the world’s largest column-less greenhouse. Thousands of plant species from all over the world are housed under a giant domed roof where the temperature is permanently set around 23C (75F).
Next door, the Cloud Forest contains a dizzying 115-foot-tall hill shrouded in lush, mist-covered vegetation and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall.
49. Deals are always just around the corner
At any given time, local restaurants and stores offer discounts applicable to different credit cards. Canny locals keep a string of cards so they can always produce the one qualifying for the discount of the day.
Singapore is also a shopping center, in all senses of the term. Best times to shop are during the Great Singapore Sale (strictly eight weeks between May and July) and Christmas season and Chinese New Year.
50. A uniform even fashionistas would approve of
Designed by Parisian Pierre Balmain, Singapore Airilnes’ figure-hugging flight attendant unis have changed little since debuting in 1968 – proof of their timeless beauty. The traditional Sarong Kebaya uniform is made in batik material and tailor-cut to each of the flight attendants.