Efficiency and cleanliness add to joys of shopping, culturally diverse dining

IN SINGAPORE, THEY RUN A TIGHT SHIP

January 20, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

If you go crazy waiting in line to go through immigration, have to stifle a scream when the service in a hotel or a restaurant isn't just perfect, or pace frantically when the subway is a minute late, Singapore is the vacation spot for you.

Hey, you wound-as-tight-as-a-golf-ball personalities, Singapore is a Type A's nirvana. Everything -- including the subway -- runs on time. And everyone -- from the immigration clerk to the bell captain -- does his job as if he were the person waiting to be served. You may even have the urge to relax, put your feet up and leave the worrying to someone else. For, in a world where everything has to be done twice, amazingly Singapore works . . . the first time.

The mania for doing things right and on time became evident within minutes of our landing at the ultramodern Changi International Airport. It offered the express lane of immigration lines -- with one agent to check paperwork and another to stamp passports. No waiting. No hassles.

Our guides met us at the airport and immediately handed us baggage tags with our room numbers filled out. Room keys and introductory packets were passed out on the bus, eliminating long check-in lines. Already we felt relaxed. This was really vacation.

It was as if Big Brother were taking care of us. In fact, he was. The reason this small island republic runs as well as it does is Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a controversial leader who took the country from slums to solvency in 25 years. He rules over a clean, beautiful island that could be a model for the cities of the future.

Although visitors marvel about how well everything runs under this regime, they soon realize that Singaporeans have paid a price for all this efficiency. No traffic jams? From 7:30 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. and from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. there is restricted entry into the central business district, and drivers must buy a coupon to be able to drive during those hours. No litter? Drop even a cigarette butt on the street and face a fine up to $500. Clean air? Smokers can get hit with a $250 fine for smoking in public places. Tidy public rest rooms? The fine is $75 for not flushing. It makes you wonder who's watching.

You may not wish to live in such a restrictive society, but it sure is a great place to visit.

Singapore is known for a lot of things -- from the Raffles Hotel, where Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling held court, to some of the most distinctly flavored food you can find anywhere. But when most people talk Singapore, they talk shopping.

The Singapore Tourist Promotion Board even puts out a 36-page, full-color brochure promoting the country as a shopper's paradise. It is true that a shopaholic can get a wonderful fix here -- from the modern stores of Orchard Road to the one-stop shopping for Asian arts and crafts at the Singapore Handicraft Centre on Tanglin Road to the small shops of Arab Street where you can find ethnic treats from camel-skin bags to woven baskets.

Although Singapore is promoted as a place "where so many irresistible goods are gathered from the four corners of the earth to be sold at prices often lower than [in] their countries of origin," we found that prices often were much higher. For example, the same jade-handled mirror with a pewterlike finish and dragon design that I paid $17 for at the jade market in Hong Kong was $80 in a small shop in Singapore.

If your trip includes a variety of countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand and Malaysia still have the overall best buys. Batiks were far cheaper in the villages of Malaysia, where you can see them being made by hand, and native Thai items were better bargains in the government stores in Bangkok.

But you can find good buys in Singapore by doing some homework before you go. Check the prices at home of the major items you want to buy, particularly cameras and computers. And never pay the first price that is asked for an item. Like other Asian countries, bargaining is the name of the game in nearly every shop.

Singapore has a booming business in designer knockoffs, and there is a not-so-subtle underground network that is easy to tap.

Cab drivers asked us if we wanted to go to "copy centers," and they weren't talking about a place to get photocopies. Other sources involve slightly more intrigue. A hotel contact gave us an address for a designer knockoff shop in an office building on Orchard Road where we had to use a password to gain admittance. The outer office contained only a few desks, but once we were trusted the salespeople opened two adjoining doors to reveal a variety of watches behind one and luggage, purses and T-shirts with designer logos behind the other.

Despite the joy of the hunt, buying these items is a risk. Although you can get a good-looking fake Rolex for $30, judging quality is difficult and it can stop working before you get home. Even if you get it home in working order, be aware that U.S. Customs can confiscate knockoffs because they are a violation of U.S. copyright law.

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