We stood at the vast open bay area admiring the view. Immediately in front of us was the iconic Marina Bay Sands standing astride with three tall towers and a large ship-like platform straddling the length of the property. We looked up at the dome, knowing that somewhere on the top floor in a pool with no end, someone was looking back at us while others took selfies. What was going through their head as they observed Singapore from such a height while treading on water hundreds of metres above ground.
We couldn’t see it but we knew what stood at the back of that marvelous structute. Behind that structure, away from the bay area, was another man-made marvel (or monstrosity) that looked like a landing bay for alien space ships, it was a garden, ‘creatively’ named the Gardens by the Bay.
The tall launchpads were meant to be trees, but a more awesome version of nature (hence SuperTrees) while the pair of domes housed plants from all climates and all parts of the world. Our eyes turned to the left as we spied a set of skyscrappers whose orderly make up was dashed by a complicated hodgepodge of architectural structures – there was a large ferris wheel, a floating platform and a pair of spinky domed structures that gave the sense of calculated chaos to the scene.
The pièce de résistance arrived when we turned right. A new district had emerged in barely 5 years. Modern, slim, slick skyscrappers with navy blue hues rose up in a sexy dance the sun bouncing off their smooth glass exterior.
The sun stood at a distance, distant and setting.
“Doesn’t ever get old does it?” She looked at me and asked.
We stayed at the scene in silence, before turning back to each other with the setting sun gently caressing our faces*…
This was the magic on Marina Bay… a city that emerged out of water. Literally.
This is the Singapore that everyone comes to visit these days, soaking in the infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands and visiting the Gardens by the Bay having replaced drinking the Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel and visiting the Night/River Safari as must dos on tourist guides (see if you can find the Raffles Hotel or River Safari in this Expedia video).
Just like the buildings that now look dated in their presence the Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Financial Centre sit on a large swathe of reclaimed land.
This is new Singapore.
It’s easy to be drawn in by the metallic majesty of the area and lose sight of the deeper reasons behind the establishment of this shimmering new district. Singapore is not exceptional and the fundamentals that keep the city going do not change. This new, sparkly part of the city was built to help keep the city going and it shares the exact same DNA as the older parts next to it.
What are these fundamentals?
Singapore’s positioned at the centre of maritime trade within South, Southeast and East Asia means that the city must always be a connector for the region. Call it what you will, the current catchphrase is hub, Singapore’s role is to be at the epicentre of activity and the Marina Bay Financial Centre was an attempt at establishing a large centre of financial services for the world. Being a connection for Asia also means that Singapore was Asia-lite, a sort of gateway/beachhead into establishing a business in Asia.
Now, even this concept is not new, a different attempt based on the same concept was made in the 1990s when the Singapore Stock Exchange sought to be the intermediary for financial market trading after London had stopped trading and before Tokyo had begun. It wasn’t overly successful for a number of reasons but also because the Hong Kong Stock Exchange was competing for the same role. Singapore’s success in bringing Shell to its shores to refine oil (the third largest oil refinery in the world, in a country that has no oil) is a more successful example of the same fundamental.
Another fundamental was on display in front of us. The very establishment of the Marina Bay Sands (and the second casino, Resorts World Sentosa) displays another fundamental of Singapore, a city teetered to practicality. The Marina Bay Sands is a controversial site in Singapore because its raison d’être is a site for a casino. This is a sore point for many, myself included. In brief, as it appeared to the public, a decision was made by the government in 2004, and a debate was called for in parliament. The debate and consultation was however toothless as the government went ahead with this decision despite majority opposition to it. For context, the same government was previously heavily opposed to any sort of vice and its impact on the youth in Singapore and at that time had a super majority of 82 out of 84 elected Members of Parliament (as of Jan 2018, it has 82 out of 89 elected seats in the current parliament). To soothe angry souls, the casinos were called integrated resorts (although the data showed that the majority of income came from the casinos and nowhere else) and an SGD 100 charge was imposed on Singaporeans. Putting aside social-political problems, the casinos thrived in their initial years but then saw diminishing returns as other larger countries got in on the act, the desired clientele did not arrive and China’s Xi Jinping clamped down ostentatious displays of wealth among the Chinese elite.
The British did the same when they were in charge. Their tea trade system with China was on the verge of collapse, and the free port of Singapore was not able to bring in the tax recipients that the British East India Company needed, so they decided to encourage the sale of opium in Singapore and tax prostitution (which is still done today, prostitution is not illegal in Singapore).
If the first fundamental was geography and the second fundamental was mentality, then the third fundamental is personality. A city with global ambitions will unsurprisingly draw its talent pool from people all over. The people staffing the many shiny buildings are therefore not just Singaporeans (multi cultural as that population is). This is the third fundamental, openness to the world.
This openness functions on many levels (interpersonal, cultural, social) and has come under attack in recent times. It is perhaps one of the most difficult to negotiate in a city that is also a country.
And lest you think it is the older generation that is the conservative one, you would be surprise.
But that is a different topic for a different time.
We turned our backs away from the view, it was time for dinner.
The view remained.
P.S: The fundamentals I mentioned here are obviously some but not all the points. There are many other key fundamentals, drop me a reply on what you think are the key fundamentals that I did not mention.
*let’s leave the cliffhanger shall we 😉
ON THE MAP
*let’s leave the cliffhanger shall we 😉