The lion city revs up

Major investment is bringing a heady mix of fast cars, new resorts and world-class entertainment to Singapore. But can the city transform itself from ho-hum stopover to hot destination, asks Maria Shollenbarger.

February 12 2010
Maria Shollenbarger

On a klieg-lit stage in Fort Canning Park, Beyoncé – dressed (barely) in a teensy sequined leotard, dipping and shimmying her way though Single Ladies – is sweating something fierce. So are the 10,000-odd fans below her, cheering and dancing under a black sky; at half past midnight it’s still a stifling 89°F, but the collective energy level doesn’t appear to be flagging. Two hours earlier the Black Eyed Peas held the same fans in thrall, while a couple of miles away the full-throttle, 170mph roar and whine of Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and a dozen others sluicing along the circuit in the Grand Prix qualifier was distinctly audible. Formula One and F1 Rocks have landed in Singapore; and no one’s about to self-impose a curfew on the Lion City when there’s such an unprecedented array of sights and sounds by which to be dazzled.

This bumper crop of flown-in sex appeal is officially packaged as the Singapore Grand Prix Season, a coordinated programme of big-ticket artist performances and VIP events culminating in the race itself, the first ever to be run at night, which instantly became the franchise’s most high-profile event when it debuted in 2008. Together with the glittering sideshow in the Formula One Paddock Club – to which guests paid £3,800 for a prime starting-line view, access to the pit, an array of private lounges and a seemingly ceaseless flow of sushi prepared by a smiling Nobu-san himself – it made for an undeniably thrilling experience. If also a slightly surreal one: 72-odd hours of extravagant, at times mildly louche, glamour – all efficiently packed up and shipped off by the following Monday evening, leaving in its wake, well, Singapore, same (read: businesslike) as ever.

Except that it increasingly appears that Singapore won’t be the same as ever for long. The Grand Prix is just one component (albeit the most high-profile one) of a joint effort between its Tourism and Economic Development Boards and private investors and developers, both foreign and local, whose collective goal is to add “World-Class Leisure Capital” next to “Business Capital of South-East Asia” on Singapore’s CV. And in these early days of 2010, the fruits of its ambitions are visible everywhere one looks, literally – and rapidly – altering the island nation’s horizon.

Alongside this, Singapore has seen the quieter but consistent growth of a legitimate leisure culture of new and unique shopping, dining and hotel venues. The two facets – manufactured-from-above attractions and genuine from-the-street-up character – are poised to dovetail nicely, with the felicitous result that Singapore is becoming the destination both its government agencies and its creative classes want it to be.

It’s a single strategic private investment, in the form of Formula One, that has recently put Singapore on the map in a new way. The man behind it is Ong Beng Seng, the Malaysian-born property magnate whose personal financial commitment to the actual race, franchised to Singapore for five years, is in the region of $60m annually. Famously press-averse (though almost as famously a friend of Bernie Ecclestone, whom he purportedly lobbied for years to have the race brought here), Ong will speak in no formal capacity about his eventual ambitions for the Singapore Grand Prix, or for Singapore’s rebranded future as a lifestyle capital. But his contributions are cited both by the producers of Grand Prix-related events, such as F1 Rocks, and government agencies.

Among them is Aw Kah Peng, CEO of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), which foots the other $90m-odd required every year to stage the race. Aw is a driving force behind the development of “new leisure products” such as F1 Rocks (the launch of which she aggressively pursued for Singapore, says the event’s CEO and chief creative officer Paul Morrison). “In the year between the 2008 race and the 2009 one, private businesses [like Ong’s] took it upon themselves to create the whole GP season,” she says. “They made the platform; they’re the ones most interested in what’s worked and what hasn’t, and the final quality of the execution, so it will be that much better next year.”

Execution is of paramount importance with goals such as the ones the STB has set, which include doubling visitor numbers and tripling tourism receipts by 2015 (from 8m and S$10bn [about £4.45bn] to 17m and about £13.36bn); it’s also aiming to increase the average visit length from three days to four or five. Its initiatives range from a rejuvenation of historic Orchard Road and grants for emerging arts institutions (including the National Art Gallery scheduled to open in 2012), to financial support of multiple hospitality and entertainment programmes – most notably the construction of two massive luxury “integrated resorts” (hotel-casino complexes), both opening this year.

One need go no further than Marina Bay – effectively, downtown Singapore – to admire some of the results. There’s the Singapore Flyer, which supplanted the London Eye as the world’s tallest observation wheel when it debuted in 2008, at a cost of $180m. Adjacent to it is the Marina Barrage, also built in 2008, a water recreation and nature centre connecting the East and South marinas. Flanking this are the Gardens by the Bay, which will eventually comprise about 100 hectares of tropical landscaping when they are completed at the end of the year.

Towering over it all is the behemoth Marina Bay Sands Resort, a £2.4bn, five-star resort slated to begin opening in stages next month. The three 55-storey towers house in excess of 2,500 rooms and a laundry list of celebrity chefs are lending their names to its restaurants, including Daniel Boulud (of NYC’s Daniel), Sydney’s Tetsuya Wakuda and the American Mario Batali. Louis Vuitton’s 15,000sq ft store will keep company with Bottega Veneta, Yves Saint Laurent, Patek Philippe and around 30 other luxury boutiques in one of the resort’s glass-and-steel floating island pavilions. But all this is trumped by the Sands SkyPark, a 1.2ha leisure park that will extend across the tops of the towers and feature a 150m infinity pool (the world’s largest), two open-air bars and a vast observation deck.

Across the city on verdant Sentosa Island, Singapore’s other new integrated resort, the £2.7bn, 49ha Resorts World Sentosa, is close to completion. Home to six hotels (the most luxurious of which, the all-suite Crockford’s Tower, opened in January), as well as two dozen private villas surrounding an Espa “wellness sanctuary”, its attractions will include a 6.6m gallon lagoon (in which guests can swim with rays and explore extravagantly constructed reefs), a Universal Studios and another small constellation of celebrity-chef restaurants, including several Joël Robuchon outposts.

Both developers of these monoliths and the STB are betting on them turning Singapore into south-east Asia’s hub for high-end revelry (and, of course, gambling; the resorts’ casinos promise near-instant profitability, which will help mitigate the tens of millions of dollars in budget excess each has reportedly amassed). But meanwhile, what’s to occupy the visitor looking for a more authentic, cultured take on the city – less Vegas and Dubai, more Shoreditch and TriBeCa?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. Singapore’s ethnic enclaves are developing in ways that muddle the borders of their historic Jackson Plan-established identities: in Chinatown, for instance, a stroll around Ann Siang Hill turns up delightfully original designers and retailers, such as small-press booksellers and publishers Polymath & Crust on Club Street, and concept store Asylum, stocking a sophisticated edit of fashion, homewares and music. A few blocks away the New Majestic Hotel, a 30-room boutique property which opened in 2006, shines brilliantly with strictly contemporary technicolour interiors designed by Singapore’s best-known emerging artists; while around the corner the 85-room Scarlet can claim status as one of Singapore’s hottest scenes with a rooftop bar and restaurant, Breeze. And Kampong Glam, aka the Arab Quarter – once strictly the province of textile and carpet vendors and Muslim coffee houses – has sprouted its own mini shopping destination along Haji Lane, where Swedish menswear, rock’n’roll memorabilia and mid-century furniture reissues are sold at slick boutiques that punctuate the souk-like shop fronts.

Some of Singapore’s outlying areas have also grown up. Both the British army barracks at Dempsey Hill and adjacent Holland Village have been remade over the past few years as an enfilade of lifestyle stores, cafés, antiques shops and art galleries; there are outposts of Australian gourmet food emporium Jones the Grocer and PS Café, a sideline of Singapore’s own übercool Orchard Road fashion emporium-café, ProjectShop Blood Brothers. On any given Saturday terraces are thronged with chic locals (and the requisite smattering of Sydneysiders) lunching and table-hopping in the shade of massive angsana trees. And on Sentosa Island, the Resorts World Sentosa isn’t the only show going. The Foster + Partners-designed Capella Singapore, which opened last March, makes good on its promise to provide a “private world of splendid serenity” 15 minutes from the city centre; its vast, airy rooms, outdoor restaurants and swimming pool are distributed along a terraced hillside overlooking tropical rain forest and turquoise water.

Singaporeans also tout the emergence of a bona fide art scene, which is being engendered in galleries and exhibition spaces around the city – and, with government help, in larger museums. Foremost among them are a satellite of established Hong Kong gallery Osage, opened in 2009 in the vaguely bobo Mount Sophia neighbourhood; Valentine Willie Fine Art, founded two years ago by long-time local consultant Valentine Willie; and Fortune Cookie Projects, an Asia-wide dealers whose American directors made Singapore their headquarters in late 2008.

“The [government] agencies have the mandate, and the will, and the funds, and they are definitely opening doors for the arts,” says Howard Rutkowski, Fortune Cookie’s co-director. He cites the impending arrival of the 2011 biennale, which will bring dozens of internationally renowned dealers and artists to town. He also speculates positively about Singapore’s organically emerging culture being recognised as a major draw – one that, indeed, the government is already marketing along with the massive resorts and the Grand Prix Season.

But will the hoped-for 17m visitors come? There is, of course, a certain class of business traveller who is likely to be readily converted to a leisure one by the winning axis of Daniel Boulud-Louis Vuitton-Espa – or even to a return visitor, flying back in for that target four- or five-day stay with partner (and possibly progeny) in tow. Others might not be convinced by all the dazzle, preferring to get their tropical fix in Bali or Phuket and their urban culture in cities that will always outdo Singapore on that front. Those top-of-the-line hotels, entertainment venues and civic attractions are calculated – and bound – to benefit Singapore’s collective coffers; now it’s just a matter of waiting to see if they will in fact beget a sea change in how the city is perceived.

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