November 22, 2011
Singapore was one of the world’s smallest countries in area, but it was one of the most spacious. Moreover, as Southeast Asia’s poster city for economic progress and urban modernism, the city looked not much older than a year or so, especially at the Marina Bay area. On a city tour with my elderly mother, I was curious how she would regard this post-modern city.
My sister, itching to go shopping for the day, deposited my mother and me at Suntec Singapore, where we would embark on the Singapore Duck Tour, a land-and-sea city tour on a remodeled Vietnam War military craft. Repainted and refitted like an amusement park ride, the amphibious vehicle took us through the surreal sights of Singapore’s ultra-modern Marina Bay area.
The tour would take about an hour without bladder breaks, which called for a restroom stop before climbing onto the Duck. Fellow tourists filed in fast, relegating Mom and I to the back row. The first structure that made us do a double take was the Concourse Building, designed like an uneven stack of cards, as odd as any modernist architecture.
The fun really began when the Duck made a splash on Marina Bay. After the bumpy watery touchdown, it was smooth sailing from then on. Having the back row to ourselves, Mom and I slid from one end to the other to gawk at the views on both sides. We had tuned out our Indian tour guide by then, equally distracted by the sights and her incomprehensible accent.
The newly-built Gardens by the Bay, still closed to the public then, was the opening salvo. Its undulating glass leaf design was momentarily eclipsed by a group of young rowers waving at us as they zipped past.
Singapore’s modern architecture was so forward-thinking, it thrust us right into a seemingly futuristic world. Passing under the Double Helix Bridge, we were greeted by the upturned-hand design of the ArtScience Museum. The designers commendably took inspiration from the lotus flower, the Buddhist symbol of purity and perfection, as a nod to the city’s cultural heritage. Given Singapore’s sanitized urban environment, the symbolism was not lost on me.
The three-tower integrated resort-casino
monstrosity complex called Marina Bay Sands soon revealed itself. This feng shui‘d architectural feat was topped by a curved plane that conjured up a marooned surfboard, which all looked awkwardly put together.
Despite the advent of these visually arresting buildings, the iconic landmark of Singapore remained to be the Merlion. The water-spewing statue stood on Merlion Park, where the Duck would make a U-turn. The mythical half-fish, half-lion creature embodied the city state’s humble beginnings as a fishing village and its stature as an economic powerhouse today.
Back at Suntec, Mom and I boarded a double-decker bus to take us to the highlight of the city tour. She marched up the steep winding staircase to the upper deck. Such surefootedness would come in handy for our next stop, the doyen of all Ferris wheels: the 165-meter tall Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest observation wheel.
Again, our first stop was the restroom. The wheel capsules were not outfitted with toilets, and busting our bladders during the 45-minute flyer ride was not part of the plan.
Boarding the wheel caught us by surprise. Given Mom’s age, no one had informed us that the wheel did not stop. Passengers had seconds to hop inside the glass capsule when it leveled with the embarkation platform. No big deal really, unless you have 78-year-old ankles. Still, this derring-do did not faze Mom who hopscotched her way into the capsule with a little arm support from the attendants.
Once in, we could barely detect any movement. We shared the capsule with about 15 other passengers who all abandoned the center benches and flocked to the sides for an unobstructed panorama of the cityscape. It turned out the most scenic time to get on the wheel was at 6:30pm when the ride straddled twilight – the ascent starting with daylight, the descent ending at dusk.
From about a hundred meters up, we looked down on a bustling city tempered by calming green belts. In Singapore, the coldness of steel and concrete was balanced by the vivid greens of wooded parks and open spaces. Despite its size, the city state did not look as dense as, say, Hong Kong.
As darkness had fallen halfway through the ride, city lights sparkled like jewels strewn around the man-made Marina Bay. The dark space in a ring of electric brilliance was the city’s most precious resource – a freshwater reservoir.
Views from the Duck and the bird’s eye view from the Singapore Flyer gave us a sneak peek at the most progressive Southeast Asian city that had redefined urban development. Unlike my city choked by unbridled development, Singapore was a city that breathed. As for Mom, she had other ideas about Singapore:
Forget about the tour of Singapore’s urban spaces, avant-garde architecture, and efficient infrastructure; our restroom stops had already made a strong positive impression on Mom. Ever the practical one!