The four faces of Singapore

Singapore is the little island that can. Can turn a small settlement on a mosquito infested swamp into a strategic port by an act of will. Can become a financial powerhouse by being sufficiently British whilst remaining distinctly, impenetrably Asian.

This photograph tells that story if you decode it. The Singapore River snakes past the colourful history of the Boat Quay shop houses. Their public shop-face is downstairs with two or three floors of mystery above. Three bridges connect the cultural and political centres in the foreground to the commercial heart of modern Singapore on the far bank.

The red tiles of the “C” shaped Singapore Cricket Club match those atop the Victoria and Albert Concert Theatre with its lovely white clock-tower. The more distant riverside Asian Civilisation Museum makes three colonial architectural templates all in a line.

In the centre of the image is the old Parliament House, a classical miniature whose beauty is augmented by the foreground dome of the old Supreme Court of Singapore. To the right, resembling a flying saucer dropped in from the future, is the new circular Supreme Court building with its all seeing windows that – like Singapore’s power elite – overlook everything and miss very little . . . and also nicely framing the new parliamentary buildings closer to the Singapore River.

Across the river on the left, is the grand Peninsular Excelsior Hotel, rebuilt in the 1960’s on the site where Singapore’s first architect, Irishman George Drumgoole Coleman built his own house. The Peninsula’s Coleman café is a grand place for a quiet, elegant evening drink – maybe a local one like a Bandung or a Mata Kucing – comfortable and free from the noise and hoi-polloi gaucheness of a higher octane Singapore Sling in the Raffles Long Bar; and tasting the sweeter and less beguiling for it.

Around the concreted channels of Singapore River are the erect, pulsing modern business towers that are the Asian head-quarters to multi-national banking and commercial enterprises . . . which are in their turn, just a short stroll from the remnants of the industrious and sometimes nefarious back alleys and shop houses that underpinned the economy of Singapore as it morphed from a pirate port to a modern economic powerhouse.

Author William Gibson once darkly remarked that Singapore was like Disneyland with a death penalty. Perhaps . . . but again, perhaps not. It depends on your point of view. This photograph is a favourite of mine because it offers you that point from which to view. A vantage from which to contemplate the complex history that reveals and conceals Singapore, the little island that can.