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Abi Campbell returns to her childhood home of Singapore to see how this progressive nation has evolved into a thrilling family playground
When my family moved to Singapore, I was nine years old. My first memory was the humidity engulfing me as I disembarked onto Changi Airport’s steaming tarmac and the stench of rotten eggs. It was the early ’80s, a time of exponential economic growth. Expats seduced by incentives came in droves to put the infrastructure in place to support the government’s vision of a brighter future.
Kampongs (jungle hut villages) were bulldozed flat, making way for sprawling complexes of high-rise flats that resembled concrete pigeon coups, but to the proud new owners, sanitation and electricity far outweighed nostalgia for the clicking cicadas and tropical birdsong. Posters encouraged productivity, kindness and courtesy, while catchy TV and radio jingles – “never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is best” – permeated the airwaves and the national psyche.
It was ingenious marketing of social and moral codes. Singapore may be built on mangrove swamps and reclaimed land, but its foundations were laid on solidarity, mutual respect and understanding among its diverse multicultural population. Now, it is considered one of the most progressive, educated, efficient and safe nations in the world.
Singapore is a busy transit hub with a whistlestop reputation, and is a centre for commerce – not, perhaps, the most obvious choice for an extended family holiday. But Singapore is Asia’s answer to Manhattan, with its population of 5 million crammed onto an island not much larger than the Isle of Wight. Attractions don’t exist solely to entertain tourists, but also the discerning locals, who love escaping vertical living whenever possible.
To prove Singapore’s merit as a family-centric destination, I took my own family on a two-week vacation, revisiting some of the places that had defined my own childhood. Resorts World Sentosa is a perfect example of the high-end distractions on offer. Located on a tiny island off the south coast, the metamorphosis from the mosquito-infested day trip I remember is staggering.
Sentosa now resembles Orlando in miniature, and for two days provided us with refuge from sightseeing, shopping malls and the freneticism of downtown.The headliner was Universal Studios, followed by, Adventure Cove Waterpark, Kidzania and the aquarium. Aside from the big guns, there are myriad smaller attractions: the alpine lift to a go-cart luge, which was a riot, and the Segway adventure, which was a nice alternative to seeing the island without breaking a sweat.
The beaches on Sentosa were surprisingly vibey, with subtle hints of Miami, save for the towering shipping tankers that we could almost touch from our sunlounger. We had a delicious dinner and sundowner at Coastes on Siloso Beach while we watched the kids make sand (imported from Bali) castles. Our return trip was on the cable car revealed the full scale of this fantasy island, and its impressive backdrop of glittering metropolis.
Exposing kids to gritty culture is high on my agenda, but life before progress is elusive in Singapore. Ironically, to get the most authentic experience of what jungle life was like on the island, we had to leave it. From Changi Point, we took a fabulously smelly bumboat to Pulau Ubin. Only 10 minutes from the mainland, it’s one of the few rural areas left in Singapore where you can still experience the bygone era of charming fishing and farming communities. Plastered in Deet, we jumped on rental bikes and took the bumpy tropical road to Chek Jawa to explore mangroves via a pretty winding wooden boardwalk. We didn’t see crocs, but settled for cliques of chatty primates and a ridiculously friendly resident boar. There’s a viewing tower that we climbed, and plenty of local sealife to see at low tide.
Another way to soak up Singapore’s history is to visit Raffles, one of the most famous colonial landmarks in the city. This luxury hotel once had the ocean lapping at its feet, but now sits like a rare jewel in the shadows of towering architectural giants. It has been returned to its glory days, with immaculate stretching white marble halls juxtaposed against dark-wood verandas that have been walked on by so many iconic figures they could rival the Oscars red carpet. Mr Leslie is a historian who’s worked at the property for nearly half a century. He disarmed us with charm and humour through the hall of fame, hung with faded monochromes dating back to the early 1900s. A tiffin curry lunch – a monthly treat for me when I was little and still highly recommended – was delicious. I think it’s safe to say that Raffles is <the> place to stay, if your budget will stretch.
Culinary delights abound in Singapore and aside from endless hawker stall dining, another nostalgic memory was dim sum trolley service. It’s not easy to find any more, but The Clifford Pier restaurant still honours the time-old tradition of steaming fresh dumplings wheeled past the table for you to gobble up, which my kids loved. I tried hard to persuade Ellis to sample stingray, but he had a meltdown, having watched Finding Dory the night before. You can tick off another point of interest here, since the venue was once a working pier choked with ferries taking passengers to outlying islands.
Over the road from The Clifford Pier is the National Gallery, which opened in 2015. This is a beautifully calm space that showcases the best of South East Asian art. There is a floor dedicated to children, offering the most innovative exhibition I’ve ever seen for young ones. Mine happily spent a few hours at the hands-on activity stations creating their own mini masterpieces. In the atrium, we stumbled upon a charming harp recital of beloved Disney tunes that had Jemima begging me for lessons.
Pounding pavements in 90-degree heat and 100% humidity can be oppressive and, at times, induce a sense-of-humour failure, but one way to get around with wind in your hair is the Trishaw Uncle tour. This is the most fun we’ve ever had on three wheels, partly because we didn’t have to pedal, but mostly because our driver weaved deftly through traffic, hogging the road and ringing his little bell.
It was so hilarious. Our tour took us via colourful and aromatic Little India and Hindu and Muslim temples, ending up back at Bugis street market, a once insalubrious area frequented by ladyboys, but now, like most things in Singapore, homogenised and squeaky clean
The Night Safari is highly recommended. An open-sided tram winds through the tropical rainforest and animal kingdoms of six geographical zones, exposing the secret nightlife escapades of 2,500 species. We broke up the ride with the ‘creatures of the night’ show in an amphitheatre and a wander on foot to get a closer look at the wildlife.
We came across ‘The world’s best, biggest, first’ frequently on this holiday, and Gardens by the Bay was no exception. The scale and ambition of this eco-friendly, self-sustainable nature park was mindboggling. We entered a fantastical utopia of otherworldliness when we walked inside two ginormous greenhouses – one of which, the Flower Dome, is the world’s largest glass greenhouse.
We entered a fantastical utopia of otherworldliness when we walked inside two ginormous greenhouses – one of which, the Flower Dome, is the world’s largest glass greenhouse. The Cloud Forest dome has a snaking suspended steel ramp that raised us up 35m through mist and Jurassic greenery to the indoor waterfall – the worlds tallest. In contrast, it was perpetual spring the Flower Dome, reminiscent of the Land of Oz, with 1.28 hectares of blooms in brilliant technicolour. The environmental video on exit was sobering and worthwhile for the inquisitive and important ecological conversation it sparked.
At the end of two weeks, my kids complained that it had gone too quickly and said they didn’t want to leave. And I really get it: when my family moved us back to the UK, I couldn’t face leaving either. A little piece of my heart still belongs there. Singapore has changed beyond recognition since I lived there, but it’s evolved without giving up its values or cultural identity. The unwavering patriotism I remember has been successfully passed on to the younger generations – no easy feat in our rapidly changing world.
The unwavering patriotism I remember has been successfully passed on to the younger generations – no easy feat in our rapidly changing world. But Singapore’s meteoric rise happened so fast, they know how to buckle up for the ride. Perhaps it’s that national pride and willingness to “never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is best” that gives Singapore the edge over so many other first-world countries. If that’s not a role model of society for kids to aspire to, I don’t know what is.
Singapore Airlines offers return fares from £770 per person.
What to see and do
Gardens by the Bay: free. Entry fee for domes:
Adults, £16; children (3-12) £8
Kim Choo: In-house guided tour £7pp
Pulau Ubin: Bumboat S$5 per person from Changi Village
Sentosa: A two-day FUN Pass is £80 per adult, £57 per child and gives you access to enjoy one day at Universal Studios Singapore and one day at DAY FUN PASS attractions (20 attractions).
National Gallery: General admission £11. Children aged six and under are free
Trishaw Uncle tour: Prices from £22 for adults and £16 for children
Singapore Zoo Night Safari: Adults £33/children £22. Discounts available online
Where to stay
Family Package stays at Raffles Singapore are from £520 per room, per night, B&B, based on two adults and two children.