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I always have some kind of stereotypical idea of a place before I go there, and it's nearly always wrong. All I had really heard about Singapore was that it was both modern and densely-packed, and that they banned chewing gum and littering combined with heavy fines.
My opportunity to visit came thanks to the fine people of PyCon SG, who invited me to keynote at their conference last week - so, on Monday at 1:30am, I climbed aboard the first flight of a 36-hour trip to the tiny country of Singapore, and finally finished on Tuesday evening - it's a long flight from SF, especially when I had a 6-hour layover.
My first surprise - when I was boarding the second plane - was learning that, contrary to my (and apparently many people's) expectations, Singapore is not in fact near China or Hong Kong. It's way down on the Equator, which explains why the flight from Tokyo is 7 hours.
When I arrived, though, the modern, high-rise and clean part of my impression of the place rang true; tall apartment buildings and skyscrapers comprised most of the horizon. My first shock, though, was the humidity.
Now, the temperature when I was there (and indeed nearly all the time, since it's equatorial and so has no real seasons) was 30°C, which by itself is bearable (though I'm the sort of person who complains when SF gets to 25°C). The problem comes when that's combined with the sort of humidity you'd expect after a twenty-minute shower, constantly making you feel like you're walking in soup.
I quickly found out that darting from air-conditioned building to air-conditioned MRT train and back was the only real way to stop myself losing half my body weight in sweat, and after a while got used to walking a bit more slowly than normal.
Before I talk about some of the upsides of Singapore, however, let me talk about a few of its issues. For me, the most grevious one is their stance on homosexuality - namely, it's illegal, and punishable by jail time. This is a stance that's unacceptable in any country, let alone one that claims to be first-world, and almost made me turn down the invitation, though I accepted in the end as they have not prosecuted almost anyone since 1999, and because it only applies if you actually have sex in the country itself, which means that (unlike some countries) I can't be arrested for merely entering.
But that's one facet of what seems to be a pretty convervative government, including the continued use of corporal punishment, the dealth penalty, and the suppression of freedom of expression. This does come with the counterside, however, of a relative lack of corruption and an impressively low crime rate, though I personally think they could keep those without hanging people who import small amounts of drugs.
That said, though, walking around the city-state, you wouldn't think about these things. It feels surprisingly like a European or Australian city - including a lot of Western brands - and, helpfully, the main language is English (and the plugs are UK style, one of the nicer remnants of being a former British colony).
On top of that, the Singaporean government has what I can only describe as an enviable gusto for building infrastructure and new buildings. They have two new underground train lines scheduled to open in the next few years, they control the numbers of cars to stop overcrowding, the MRT (the metro system) is incredibly frequent and reasonably priced, and they approve huge gardens on reclaimed land with giant convervationist greenhouses.
In fact, I think the Marina Bay Sands/Gardens By The Bay area may be my favourite of all of Singapore. Not only are the gardens and their two giant, air-conditioned greenhouses lovely (sustainably air-conditioned, nonetheless, and with a 7-storey waterfall inside one), but the main hotel building of the Marina Bay Sands is simply stunning.
Now, I'm not particularly pleased that the whole thing is built around an absolutely massive casino, but you have to admire the architecture at the end of the day, including the giant, boat-like platform that sits 55 stories above the ground and provides absolutely amazing views over Singapore (I think it's a testament to the city that the hotel's infinity pool faces inwards towards land rather than out to the ocean - though that may be due to the hundreds of cargo ships out there going into one of the busiest ports in the world.)
On top of that, all the people I met, especially the organisers of PyCon SG, were friendly and welcoming, and I had a great time overall (and saw plenty of things, including a cable car built through an office building, the national orchid gardens, and two whole shopping malls dedicated to electronics, to name a few). There's also an impressively high immigrant population that lends the place a real mixing-pot feeling; my impression, at least as an outsider, was that everyone seemed reasonably well integrated and nobody cared if you were a native, a local or a tourist.
If it wasn't for the appalling stance on gay rights, I'd say it was a very livable city - one could get used to the heat and humidity, I'm sure, and it's not like the US and UK aren't without their own freedom of speech, corruption and judicial penalty issues.
At the moment, it's more of a tourism interest (if you're alone or a couple they consider legal), but if you do feel like going I'd recommend a few days there, and I'd probably try and find a way to spend at least one night at the Marina Bay Sands so you can access their rooftop pool (non-guests can only get access to one tiny end of the roof). It's an impressive country, for sure, I just hope they get the rest of the way to being first-world soon.