There’s something reassuring for a Brit about landing in a former British colony like Singapore. Somehow, the footprint remains almost half a century after the Union Flag came down.
Not only are there evocatively British street names (Clive, Kitchener, Mountbatten), but the traffic drives on the left, the car-registration plates are distinctly British in shape and dimensions (mostly with the white characters on a black background that died out in the UK in the 1970s) and – most useful and endearing of all – the power-sockets are British square-pin standard, so there’s no need to fiddle about with adaptors.
It’s fascinating to discover, patched in between the mainly undistinguished post-war buildings, vestiges of the colonial past.
St Andrew’s Cathedral, for example, is an immediately recognisable, rather blocky Commissioner’s-Gothic Anglican church with a squat English-cathedral spire, painted in brilliant white, designed by Colonel Ronald MacPherson, a military engineer who could clearly turn his hand to any constructional task, and built by Indian convict labourers. Opened in 1862, it became a cathedral in 1870. Its aisles are dotted with generous memorials to men, women and children who spent their lives in this sticky, remote and dangerous place: some died here; others died back in Britain but were memorialised by the colonial community.
Rather more surprising is the Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator, a compact cruciform classical design of 1835, its original onion dome replaced by a gothic spire that sits incongruously on top of a pediment. Its churchyard is littered with modern statuary, and the church itself is a compact circular space, with doorways open to breezes on three sides.
Elsewhere, British eyes lock on to the 1930s central fire-station which would look entirely at home in Birmingham and a Masonic hall, bristling with compass-and-square symbols. A half-day city tour showed me that there’s much more to see than can fit into a jet-lagged weekend – every possible kind of place of worship, a carefully conserved Chinatown and a thriving Little India, all reflecting the polyglot energy of the place.
Singapore is a very comfortable place to be, if you can cope with the climate. The only delinquency I saw was economic – touts trying to lure people into shops. The policemen smile and greet visitors: the only time I saw a policeman act aggressively was when a woman tried to cross the road instead of using an underpass. The police apparently hand out tickets for good driving, with rewards a bit like air miles.
Posters exhort Singapore citizens to promote “graciousness”, and there are notices at the top of escalators reminding people to use the escalator “correctly”. The Straits Times has the language and attitudes of a 1960s grammar-school magazine.
When I walked into the headquarters of the Singapore Cricket Club at eight o’clock on Sunday morning and asked, as is my habit, for a restroom, I was treated promptly and courteously – and it was an exceptionally fine restroom. I wonder if I’d get away with that at Lord’s or the Oval. I hope so.
Singaporeans are notoriously picky about litter: in the hotel, a magnificent lady reception greeter in a split skirt and full make-up picked up specks from the carpet and fetched a cloth to wipe smears from the marble floor; I even saw two men in a small boat sweeping the harbour.
And, they disapprove of tipping.