Singapore: It's a Nice Place to Visit

April 20, 1994|By WILLIAM McCLOSKEY

Recently I returned from two months in Indonesia, an Asian nation with many times more poor than prosperous that has some of the world's most colorful festivals and greatest archaeological sites set among remarkably beautiful volcanic mountains.

To leave, I reached the airport in Jakarta after spending two hours in gridlock traffic that stank of black diesel exhaust. As the plane circled the city I could see the blocked streets dimly through the pollution.

An hour later the plane circled Singapore, the independent city-nation that lies about 400 miles north of Jakarta in the same steamy sub-tropical climate. As we circled to land, I looked through clean air at wide roads where cars moved at cruising speeds.

I love many things about Indonesia but: ''I've come to Heaven,'' I muttered to myself.

A few months later I ran the same traffic and pollution gantlet in Bangkok, another of the great fascinating places of the East, to circle Singapore and breathe the same sigh of physical well-being.

Singapore lacks great archaeology, it sits on flat land, and its Chinese orderliness erupts into color only during festivals. But the traffic moves. The air does not stink of exhaust. I can short-cut through back alleys there in the dark without fear of being robbed. Clean public buses run with such frequency that they provide viable transportation. (No Baltimore-style waits of a half hour or more.) It is Asia's oasis of cleanliness and security, the place to recoup from forays into more exotic places.

On one occasion I stayed at the posh Shangri-La, a hotel of deceptively simple luxury. The receptionist always greeted me by name as I came and went, and in the lobby complimentary champagne stayed iced along with fresh juices and coffee.

The flowers in my vast room and marble bathroom were changed daily. Purple bougainvillea framed the view outside. I had a choice of furnished niches in which to entertain visitors. In such -- vastness I sometimes had to walk a distance over the room's thick carpets to find my socks or underwear.

On another occasion I stayed at the Singapore YMCA for about the tenth the price of the Shangri-La. I had a clean, compact, windowless room, efficiently ventilated, pleasantly decorated, and with access to a large swimming pool.

In both hotels I drank water freely from the faucet, as I did also on the Singapore streets while eating from open booths -- acts which would be folly for travelers to most parts of the world, certainly to Indonesia or Thailand, even France.

Singapore's orderliness comes at a price for those who live there. It is the price of obeying strict civic rules. The rules (P sometimes reach levels of absurdity, such as a recent ban on chewing gum. But carelessly spat old gum will never stick to your shoes or disgust you in the bowl of a Singapore drinking fountain.

When a Singapore friend drove me around one day and parked, he carefully tore a coupon from a strip in his glove compartment and stuck it under his windshield wiper. The purchased coupons had time designations. He used one for two hours, although our projected stop was to last only about an hour.

When we returned, no parking officer had claimed it. ''Great,'' I said. ''You might use it again.'' My friend regarded me with wonder as he tore up the coupon and carefully dropped each piece into a nearby trash can. ''You can bet it would be used again in the States,'' I joked.

''The penalties here are too severe even to consider it,'' my friend remarked with Chinese soberness.

In Singapore, anyone caught selling or using illegal drugs is sentenced to death. Heavy stuff, but no city in the world is more free of drugs. And, in Singapore, no one worries that if he fails to lock his car a thief will take it, or that someone on a whim will deface it in any way. The penalties have put it out of the question.

A carelessly arrogant American teen-ager who vandalized cars on a Singapore street may suffer a painfully cut rear end from the mandatory six baton strokes of his criminal sentence, and have permanent scars to show for it (not permanent injury). But he will probably never again deface someone else's property . . . not at least in Singapore. And in Singapore, unlike Baltimore, the residents will continue routinely to expect to find their cars intact when they return to them.

William McCloskey, a Baltimore writer with a professed affinity for Asia, has stayed in Singapore several times.

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