Singapore: The Island; The City; The Country

Singapore: The Island; The City; The Country

Breaking the bank for a Sling in Long Bar, Raffles Hotel, Singapore in 2009

Singapore, in case you didn’t know is a hat-trick of things all in one. It’s an island (or strictly, lots of islands), it’s a big city (or metropolis) and its a country. It’s also used by many people as a half way point between the United Kingdom and Australia. Without wanting to be obvious or to follow this rule, we did it anyway. It was hardly an obvious route to Australia we were doing anyway. London – Bangkok – Taiwan – Malaysia – Singapore – Sydney. Although that actually involves 6 countries, we hardly count Bangkok or Thailand. We were there for 99 minutes at the airport waiting on a flight. The others, including the strict Singapore we got to see, experience and enjoy. Details of the train to Singapore appear elsewhere. A gorgeous train journey through Malaysian countryside, and across the bridge into Singapore. The world’s busiest port was our next “port of call.”

Singapore: The Island; The City; The Country

On the train to Singapore in 2009

Some people will describe Singapore as a city. Its true that there is Singapore City itself, where all the rich offices, Skyscrapers and commercial things happen. Some people see it as a strict country, strong in diversity, yet with too many rules (you cannot chew chewing gum for one, or drink water on a train). Some people see it as a mega port, the gateway to Asia. Some see it simply as an island which wanted independence from Malaysia. In reality it is all of the above. However I wanted to get my own opinion of this country, at first hand. And to see as much as I could in the short 2 day allocation there. With minimal sleep I always manage to bung in all the things I want. Prioritisation was a sad but useful little trick from my time working in PR a few moons ago.

Singapore: The Island; The City; The Country

Backpacking in Singapore: Top 5 Sights

Singapore itself is quite a phenomenon. It’s an island – Singapore. It’s a country – Singapore. It’s also a city – Singapore. It’s an Asian country which doesn’t necessarily fit into the rest of Asia. For a start, almost everybody speaks English there. It’s the world’s busiest port, bar none. Its a modern, westernised metropolis. It’s very strict. It’s very modern. It’s very clean. Let’s just say its out there on its own. There ain’t nowhere I’ve been that’s quite like Singapore…and this is one long blog post, I’m trying to condense it all into one here, so bear with it.

Lots of people end up in Singapore, on route to Australia via the UK. For us it wasn’t quite like that. Natalja and I ended up in Singapore because I wanted to do the Sleeper train to Kuala Lumpur, where we were already due to be for our onward flight to Sydney. Being able to do and see Singapore was the added bonus. I kind of didn’t want to be that close and not do it. It’s a bit like not seeing Tasmania or Papua New Guinea while based on mainland Australia. They are both ridiculously close and easy to get to – so why not?

Singapore became a “why not?” My links to Singapore actually began spookily back in 2007. I saw no significance at the time in the fact that I did some PR for Tiger Beer. I was working for Bite Communications in London and one of my bosses, Andrea Christopherson asked me to help on the Tiger account at one point. I was very keen, and its the only time I have worked with a Singaporean company before. We had some Asian Grindhouse Film festivals on in London, and we were given crates of Tiger and told to get journalists down there.

I did all the phone calls, e-mails and media outreach at that time, and got some minor press coverage for Tiger. An important element of PR is the factual one. You cannot have your company mis-quoted or mis-represented in the press. I remember how important it was to promote Tiger as a Singaporean Lager. Not Asian, not Indian. SINGAPOREAN. From my time doing PR for Tiger, I enjoyed some free beer, kept an elegant Tiger bottle opener and collected some press clips for my portfolio. Thanks to Andrea for giving me the chance to work for Tiger Beer. Two and a half years later, an older Jonny Scott Blair would somehow end up in Singapore.

In the intervening time, I also worked with a lovely Singaporean lady, the attractive Mya Than Da. A lady of much culture and language. A lady who lived in Bournemouth during my final few years there. Mya and I worked together a few times, and I enjoyed her company very much. We worked for a company called Red Uneventful Cuisine, without doubt the WORST and most disgraceful company I have ever worked for. I’ll go into that another time, but I put all my effort one Christmas working for them, only to have my hours cut back. Having worked in more than 15 different bars in my life, I think I’ve earned my confidence at knowing I’m a good bar man. So Mya had also given me a reason to visit Singapore – if she is reflective of the country then the people are bound to be decent folk.

A quick Facebook message to Mya before our trip to Singapore gave us a nice reply from the lady herself with some ideas, including Night Safari (which we did) and Sentosa (the island we didn’t go to). thanks Mya…and great country you have there 😉 So we arrived late in Singapore, tired, hungry and culture shocked. If seeing England, Taiwan and Malaysia in one month wasn’t enough, try crossing that bridge into Singapore. A magical wee country. Or island. Or city.

The trip to Singapore and the Sleeper Train merit posts of their own, as does the Night Safari, so for here and now we shall concentrate on what we did in Singapore itself, with an added bit of history that I learnt while there. For such a small country, Singapore has projected itself far and wide and is a leading example for many other nations. In itself, being the world’s busiest port is a big deal. As you glance out at the Malaysian Peninsula (Singapore itself seems to occupy the very area where the Indian Ocean meets the South China Seas), you will always see hundreds of boats, container ships, ferries and yachts in a slow queue for port. They may have to wait hours to dock. They must use up a lot of fuel. Singapore is such a busy port, there is simply not enough “dock room” for all these boats at once. It makes a good photo opportunity. The term “traffic jam” normally refers to traffic on roads, try a “boat traffic jam”, at Singapore you get it daily!

On top of this, Singapore is rich and booming. Its a major financial centre, its an example of world equality. It is a model of ethnic and religious tolerance. It is racially harmonious. I can’t say there is a war in Singapore at present. A model this, even for England (with its race and religious problems) or Northern Ireland (ongoing sectarianism). I’m not going to simply big it up and say its amazing. It’s not, because there are strict laws in place in Singapore. Ones which I simply don’t agree with. You cannot chew chewing gum anywhere. You cannot smoke anywhere obvious. Even stranger and very annoying – you cannot eat or drink on the MRT Underground system. How ridiculous. In the blazing heat of a 33 degrees Singapore Sun, I reached for a sip of my compulsory water on a train, only to realise I’d be breaking the law. I did respect the law, I just didn’t agree with it. It’s hot, let me have a sip of water.

Perhaps its these laws which sets Singapore out on its own and gives it that identity. In Singapore, it also appears the people and the region likes to claim to be the best at everything. Its funny and sarcastic rather than arrogant and over-bearing. While in Singapore we’re led to learn(or believe) the following:

– Singapore is the world’s busiest port
– Singapore is the world’s second largest oil refiner
– Singapore Night Safari was the world’s first
– Singapore has more plant species than the entire of North America (for Goodness sake, Singapore is SMALLER than Luxembourg!!)
– Singapore Flyer is the highest “big wheel” in the world
– The Fountain of Wealth is the world’s largest fountain (yeah right!)
– In one of the shopping malls, they are selling “the world’s thinnest plasma TV screen” (who really gives a flying fuck, eh?)
– Singapore has the world’s first floating football pitch (actually, I’ll give you that one, that’s pretty cool)

…and that just tips the iceberg. Everything in Singapore has to be mega. Even as we speak, they are building the world’s largest (or highest?) Casino, one to rival Las Vegas. A Singaporean Taxi Driver bigged that one up to us. Whether its all exaggerated or not, it hardly made our visions of the country any worse. It is simply a great place, with an array of activities for anybody. We stayed at an excellent backpackers hostel in the East of the city, near Kallang MRT Station. I found the hostel two days before, on the internet, lucky I booked it as we would arrive late at night (how do we get in?) and they were full. The hostel I would definitely recommend. Its called CITY BACKPACKERS. 

The receptionist lady there, Kelly, a very pretty local lady talked away to us. The hostel was close to “the world’s best fish and chip shop” (apparantly, but we never went in; you’ll find Bishop’s in Belfast, Northern Ireland much nicer!). In two parts this hostel – one the reception, internet room (free internet) and luggage storage – two the lounge, library (bookcase), kitchen, beds and washing/toilet facilities. We shared a 4 bed dorm, Natalja and I with a Malaysian guy called Richmond and another guy we never actually spoke to. The reception had lots of ideas and tips, and free maps (compulsory for the modern traveller). It’s one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in. Ironically in a city of open mindedness and multi culturality, round the corner from our hostel was a hotel called “Gay Word Hotel”, really? Who on earth would stay there?

Location wise the hostel was 2 stops on the MRT from central Singapore City, though only a 25 minute walk in hot humid conditions, which we did. For some reason there are NO hostels in the city centre of Singapore, just hotels (and lots of them, not just Raffles). I queried this with a few people whilst in Singapore and got my answers. Singapore is not particularly big on backpackers. A few years back there apparently used to be a lot more hostels and backpacker places in the centre of the city, but as its up market, high end and very modern, the hostels etc. have been forced out/replaced by hotels (of minimum 2 or 3 star). The cost of these hotels per night is much more than the hostel, even a poor quality hotel costs more than £20 a night. Our hostel in Singapore Dollars cost 36 per night for both of us. That works out at less than £10 each a night. Bargain. We didn’t meet or see any backpackers. It was totally different to what I expected. Australia, here is booming with hostels and backpackers. Singapore, a much more elegant stop-over or short term visiting city for travellers. I was happy with a short visit. We just wanted to do and see everything we could, under our budget.

We walked all the way through the city by night and by day. The experiences are very different. At night time, dead and quiet, with the odd night worker working on the road system. Which is Singapore has massive junctions through the city, even by the harbour. They drive on the left hand side here as well, like in the UK. At night the skyscrapers make it look American. All lit up. Very hot though. Full of insects. I was bitten a few times in Singapore. The Road signs and names are all English or British sounding. You cannot forget the past and history of Singapore as a British Trading Post. Thanks mainly to Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781 – 1826). Raffles was one of the ambassadors in bringing Singapore to life and realising its potential as a trading entrance to Asia. Its geographic location makes it an ideal gateway to the continent. By night, great views and peace. And lively bars and restaurants by Boat Quay and Clarke Quay. Most places don’t stay open late. And don’t forget while in Singapore you MUST visit the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel and have your mandatory “Singapore Sling” cocktail. Check opening times of the bar before you go though, we missed it one night and had to come back the next day.

By day Singapore is hot. The lowest ever temperature they’ve had is 19 degrees!! Really. That is true! You need to wear shorts and T-shirt and you need to carry lots of water and sun cream. You could burn in SUNgapore. The attractions to see are wide and varied. I visited the city’s oldest Church, The Armenian Church. A simple basic, white painted church with a small graveyard and garden, this on Armenian Street. Its official name, The Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory The Illuminator. Built in 1835 – 1836, its the country’s oldest Church. Built and commisioned by a Protestant Irishman, I’ll have you know!! George Drumgoole Coleman. 

On the signing in book I wrote simply “Jonny Blair – Northern Ireland”. The most important two words to ever follow my name (actually with a secret exception of a lady I love). A map of the former USSR states on the wall, shows Armenia. The Church was built for Armenian families living in the area and it served refugees fleeing the war between Russia and Turkey. Hardly the best Church I’ve ever seen, but you enjoy the fact its the country’s oldest, the Irish link and the history behind it. I giggled to myself when I saw the advert outside the Church by a bus stop – Tiger Beer! “Hey I once did PR for you guys!”

Close by is also the Scottish St. Andrew’s Cathedral. When I went, there was a service on, in progress, so I didn’t venture in. In the heat I read the various plaques in the gardens. They featured a Scottish Saltire fleg. ITs quite amazing that on a Sunday in this very Cathedral, they hold services for Myanmar, Indonesians, Phillipinos and Catholics. Definitely an example for the rest of the world. In the gardens there was also a newer building, with a chapel and a “sanctuary.” Its a glorious all white building, in a pretty garden. While in this area, near City Hall MRT station, there are so many things to see within walking distance. 

I’ll touch on a few in the Civic District – a football pitch…Singapore FC (not really, but a random football pitch bang in the centre of the CBD, next to a busy road), a Cricket Club, the Old Supreme Court House, The City Hall itself…I sat down in the “football stadium” and had a photo took with my Northern Ireland fleg. I also noticed an Olympic Logo near the city hall – in 2010 Singapore will be proud to host the World Youth Olympic Games, and a countdown timer counts us down in days, minutes and hours to the opening ceremony. If I’m anywhere near a Television when that begins, I may just catch a glimpse of that…Before I move on, it has to be said that Belfast is surely an older city than Singapore, and therefore the canny resemblance with Singapore’s City Hall to Belfast City Hall didn’t escape me. 

The same colour, shape and the exact same green/blue dome. This was surely a copy of Belfast City Hall, itself lending its architecture from a City Hall in South Africa. Hardly a bad thing, just another reminder of “home”, and a fuel for my passion of my home nation. Wee Norn Iron.

…and within 2 minutes walk you’re at Boat Quay overlooking a pretty river, next to a statue of that man again – Raffles. This statue marks his “landing site”, and fancy swanky restaurants line both sides of the river, where I crossed a bridge called Elgin Bridge and looked up at the Skyscrapers of Singapore, not realising they’d have so many until I was actually there. On round and back towards City Hall I passed the “Dewan Parliament”, which is basically their House of Commons building. Pretty gardens and no armed guards guarded my camera from nothing. Good photos to be had and that interesting Singapore National Fleg – do you know the one? 


Red and White with a crescent and stars on it. “Majulah Singapura” reads the motto on the Singapore Parliament Plaque. I also passed, less relevantly the Old Fire Station (similar in looks to a typical British Fire Station, maybe even the one which Bournemouth turned into a night club) and the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The building for that itself looked Chinese. Street names in the area had a British twang, Stamford Road (Raffles), Raffles Avenue (Raffles), Coleman Street (an Ulsterman, or a Connaught Protestant?) and Victoria Street (Queenie).

To be honest you can walk round most of Singapore’s city centre attractions quite easily, even in the heat. Where are all the people though?? Its quiet and there’s never anybody about! That’s because a lot of the shopping centres and malls are underground and specially air conditioned and the people seem to be there. There are countless shopping centres, ones I visited were – Suntec City, Marina Square, Raffles City and City Link Mall. Essentially they are all within half a mile of each other. There is also the war memorial park, worth seeing and pondering on. You may not have known that during World War 2 100,000 Singapore residents were killed by the Japanese up until 1945. For such a small nation, that is even more tragic a loss considering the population ratio.

I had a pocket guide to Singapore (Berlitz) and an 8 page booklet (free from The Lonley Planet Magazine) before arrival in Singapore and i have to say I visited every single place I put a star at and wanted to go. Its not often I bung it all in, but it was an easy place to navigate round. You also have to go to Marina Bay, Clarke Quay and Orchard Road. Marina Bay is the seafront esplanade. There are large Theatres there, with a quite misleading name of “Esplanade – Theatres On The Bay”, somehow its not quite the structure of Sydney Opera House, or even Brighton Pavilion Theatre. Yet somehow its half a golf ball by the harbour at Marina Bay. Nice buildings and Natalja and I had a sandwich in the reception of the theatre, as we weren’t sure where and when you could eat. Strictness gone mad I tell you. This is all off Raffles Avenue. On the opposite side of the bay is the well known Merlion – simply Singapore’s Tourism Icon. Its another must see. But you can do it in a minute. Walk there, get yer photy took, enjoy the view and off ye go! What is it? A concrete lion statue squirting water into the harbour. That’s all it is. But it was nice and the views across the harbour are worth seeing.

One thing Natalja and I didn’t plan to see was the Singapore Flyer, basically the world’s largest “big wheel”. It was also in close proximity and we walked round to the entrance nonchalantly. There was nobody about, you wouldn’t even know it was open. It was so quiet. But it was open. I went to reception and told a lie that we were flying with Singapore Air, just to get 10% off the bill, which was an added bonus. They never checked our flights or passports, I blagged it. Try it. Pull it off. Still, the tickets were dear enough anyway, 24 Singaporean Dollars even with the discount (probably around 13 quid), yet the experience was worth it, and surprisingly good. We walked up 2 escalators, had our bags checked and boarded one of the “cars” hanging from the wheel. We got our own “car”, the place was quiet. We also had our photo took on the way in, and although later on the photo looked good, I always have to resist paying the 20 Dollars or whatever they want for these things. I had my camera as ever and took my own photos, even if it meant missing a “group” photo of me and Natalja. We got a portable radio, which Natalja listened to the whole way, whereas I ducked and dived into parts of it. As the flyer took us up and over, the radio served as an informative introduction to Singapore and a clever circular paper guide made it easy to follow from the height, where each building and relevant landmark was.

I took time to chill out, update my notes for my blog (these blog entries are an elaboration of the notes I make daily as a traveller), read my Singapore book and enjoy the spectacular views. There was a lot to see. A hot sunny day, a clear sky, skyscrapers a plenty, a great view of the harbour and the world’s first floating football pitch!! Each booth was pretty big, you could have had a party, or even sex in there (they were monitored on CCTV), and I found it a cool job that the cleaner goes into one booth with all his stuff, cleans the entire booth during the half an hour he gets enjoying the cracking views and then he comes out and starts all over again in the next booth. Not a bad job at all really. The motto for the Singapore Flyer was “a moving experience at every turn”, I won’t disagree, I did enjoy it. 


Numbers on the circular guide came up on the radio so you could find easily what you were meant to be looking at. We also saw the island of Sentosa from up there, the only time we’d see it. The Flyer ride lasted exactly 30 minutes, it seemed longer at the time and was a good elaxing way to see Singapore from so high up. World’s Highest Ferris Wheel, eh? Well if that was the case we followed it up by going to the World’s Largest Fountain.

Through Marina Square and Suntec City Mall we walked, stopping at some shops on the way and having a nosey around. There at the end, with a large brown ring arched up onto the road and then bearing down onto a stony surface below was The Fountain of Wealth. It is listed in the Guinness Book of Records in 2009 (and has been since 1998) as the World’s Largest Fountain. I was less than impressed. Small dribbles of water dropped merely a few metres down to the surface. It certainly wasn’t a big fountain at all. For a man who has seen fountains in shopping centres the world over, I’ve been much more impressed by fountains in Connswater/Castle Court in Belfast or even in a park in somewhere as remote as Bobruisk. This was nothing. 

Really, Singapore your large fountain is crap! Still, we got out photos took by the sign which proved we had visited the “world’s largest” fountain (yeah right) and did the obligatory walk. You walk up to the fountain (when the brown ring part is turned off) put your hand into the water, walk round 3 times clockwise and make a wish. I’ve made my wish and I promise not to diss the fountain any more after that. If my wish comes true, all will be forgiven.

I also wanted to step onto the world’s first floating football pitch, but security was on that day and they wouldn’t let me through, so I had to make do with a photo by the stands and pitch featuring my NI fleg again. There were also a few random moments, I saw on the underground the sign for “AFT Blair Road”, but I never saw Blair Road itself. There was also a primary school mural competition on a wall at Raffles Avenue, and one of the students had drawn an obvious swastica, clear for all to see as part of the art exhibition. And we also passed through a small village/town which looked very different to the rest of the island. That was Selatar near a Lake near the Night Safari.

Separate posts will show our compulsory visit to another of Singapore’s “must dos”, namely the Singapore Sling at Long Bar and Night Safari. I think I’ve nearly mentioned everything we saw and did in Singapore. Perhaps except Clarke Quay, where there are lots of nice bars and restaurants (not cheap, mind) by the river. We went to an excellent Beer Place there, which also does guided Brewery Tours. There I drank some 7.2% Sinagpore Ale called Moh Gwai, and Natalja had a Red Wine (a Montes Merlot). 

It was nice and relaxed, if dear. The cost was about £11 for a round. Singapore is dear for alcohol mind you, which is hardly a surprise we didn’t drink much when there. That bar was called Brewerkz however and comes strongly recommended. Its a restaurant and micro brewery (

Another thing I found cool about Singapore was the underground system of tickets. Cheap and easy to use. For 2 Singapore Dollars you can get a single ticket to almost anywhere nearby. Thats about one pound in British. What’s more is you will get a green credit card type thing from the machine/robot, and this is you swipe ticket. You can re-use it and top it up, or if you don’t want to, you can push it back into a machine and get a Dollar back, meaning your return ticket cost about 50 pence. I liked it so much I decided to keep one of the tickets. I could always go back someday to get my dollar back. But I’ll have the ticket and the memory, thanks. Just don’t be drinking water on the train!

I hope I’ve covered most of Singapore there!! Phew it was a lot to take in and do. There are also numerous boat trips you can do and the beaches and the many islands (Sentosa the main one), but I totally enjoyed the Singapore experience. I’d recommend it to anyone, anytime. Its so different from the rest of Asia. Its unique and special. Even if the fountain is over-rated. You’ll love it.

Where We Stayed – CITY BACKPACKERS, Singapore, 2A Jalan Ayer, Singapore, 389141 (heartily recommended)

Nationalities Met – Singaporean, English, Malaysian, Taiwanese.

Transport Used – Day Train, Sleeper Night Train, Taxi (10 Dollars – Ouch! BUt we got a free guided tour on route from Chris, our football keen taxi driver), MRT Metro Underground System, Singapore Buses (SBS Transit number 138), Singapore Flyer, Night Safari Tram.

Favourite Drink – Carrot Juice (in a tin)

Favourite Food – A very different, unique style burger and chips, in an open kitchen at Keppel Road Train Station.

Thanks To – Mya Than Da, Andrea Christopherson, Tiger Beer.

Don’t – Expect the World’s Largest Fountain to be amazing
– Chew chewing gum
– Drink water on the MRT
– Miss your Singapore Sling

Key Songs – Ash – Singapore Song

Beers Tried – Tiger Beer (of course), Singapore Ale 7.2% called Moy Gyru

Bars Visited – Long Bar, Raffles Hotel; The Gluttons Bar, Marina Square; Sleeper Train Carryout – Jonny’s Bar!; Brewerkz, Clarke Quay.

Spooky Thought – On the way into Singapore, on train I had my iPod on random play. No joke, but after the Woodlands Passport Checkpoint, the next song on was REM’s “Departure”, probably the only song from my 6,000 that contains the word “Singapore”, even more mysterious the lyric is “just arrived Singapore, 24 hour trip”, OK so the timings weren’t perfect, but it had been a long trip!










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