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Instant Asia

Published by Forbes on 1988-08-22

WHAT STRIKES YOU MOST about this safe, modern and efficient metropolis of 2.6 million is the strict enforcement of laws that are largely ignored in the rest of the world.

Anyone caught peddling drugs, for example, is hanged -- as a Malaysian mother and son discovered recently.

Jaywalkers are fined on the spot; taxis pick up and discharge passengers only at specific points; spitting or littering on Singapore's mirror-sparkling streets warrants an instant $ 245 fine. Street crime is almost unheard of. Last month the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board flew back an Indian tourist to testify in a court case involving a pickpocket incident at a shopping arcade.

Tourists come basically for the shopping, while business travelers are generally here on banking, oil or trade affairs, or to attend conventions. Regardless of the purpose of their visit, all visitors get a bargain. Hotels? You will find all the big names: Hilton, Sheraton, Inter-Continental. There's the famous Raffles, of course, and the Shangri-La, Mandarin and Meridien area all to be recommended. A deluxe hotel room (with breakfast) starts at a negotiable $ 50 a night.

The city, 85 miles north of the equator, is a tropical dot only 355 square miles in size, and, despite its sanitized appearance, Singapore can be fun. In the shadow of its skyscrapers nestle bustling, picturesque ethnic neighborhoods (80% of the population is Chinese, the remainder a mix of Malays, Indians and Pakistanis). You'll understand quickly why the city is often called "Instant Asia."

If the steel-and-glass shopping complexes on Orchard Road don't yield bargains enough, there are tiny mom-and-pop stores that offer terrific buys. Oriental antiques and electronics are readily available at prices lower than in London and New York. Similarly, cameras and designer watches are sold at substantial discounts.

Besides shopping, there is terrific dining -- or just plain eating -- in over 1,000 Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indonesian and Western restaurants. A major attraction for gourmands can be Singapore's street markets and food stalls. In Newton Circus, for instance, or at the Rasa Singapura on Tanglin Road, you can sample everything from fried noodles to tongue-burning Indian curries to steamed chicken in ginger broth to chili crab to pork buns. Virtually 24 hours a day. Dishes start at less than $ 1. And do sample the durian fruit -- even though your fingers will smell for hours afterward -- and local mangoes, jackfruit and pineapples.

For business people or those who simply like to keep in tough with home, communications are a dream. You can direct-dial the world from almost any telephone (all local calls, except those made from public booths, are free), there is 24-hour telex service at major hotels and mail delivery is the best in the world.

Singapore's Changi Airport is palatial, with luxury lounges, smiling and efficient staff and -- no surprise -- superb shopping. The country's national carrier, Singapore Airlines, is a pleasure to fly, but there are many other excellent choices among the carriers serving the city, including our own United Air Lines.

For those inclined toward outdoor activities, there are walkways and bicycle paths. Jogging tracks can be found along the east coast. And for a change in scenery, Malaysia is only ten minutes by car, or by ferry across the Straits of Johore.

Today's prosperous Singapore of big buildings and big money is largely the creation of one man, Lee Kuan Yew, who's been the country's prime minister for almost three decades. Lee, head of the ruling People's Action Party, does not quite measure up to some U.S. ideas of how to run a democracy, but he is immensely popular with the voters. His prospering free-market economy has been tapped for formidable sums for free education, health care and housing programs. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the developing world, women enjoy equal economic status with men. Singapore's per capita income is almost $ 3,000. Only Japan's is higher in Asia.

The flip side of all this, of course, is that dissent has been stifled, and Lee's critics contend that he's established a one-party democracy. He's also immensely thin-skinned about criticism. Thus you'll have trouble finding the Asian Wall Street Journal, because its distribution has been curbed following some unflattering stories about Lee associates. Singapore is a democracy, but something of an authoritarian democracy.

Three years ago Singapore had high hopes of luring many of Hong Kong's big financiers -- and their capital -- to the city, as control of the British Crown Colony passes to China. This hasn't yet happened in a big way, but this city certainly has the infrastructure to handle it should the People's Republic make Hong Kong less attractive after 1997.

If you have business to do there, Singapore's a pleasant and rewarding place in which to do it. And if you're a tourist, it's a worthwhile stop on any Asian swing.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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