Singapore -- An Easy, But Bit Dull, Introduction To Asia

SINGAPORE - Squeaky-clean Singapore. If Procter & Gamble were handing out awards for cleanest city on Earth, this island nation in Southeast Asia undoubtedly would win (clean) hands down.

Welcome to the gateway to the Orient, a modern, efficient, prosperous, no-nonsense city of two million where once, according to Noel Coward, only mad dogs and Englishmen went out in the midday sun.

This is not, however, the Orient of Marco Polo and the Kublai Khan. It is not Bangkok - there are no sex shows, no grand palaces. And it is not Hong Kong - the shopping is plentiful but not as good, the pace is less frenetic and no one is worried that the country will revert to China in 1997.

Yet, as commonplace - some would say dull - as Singapore might seem, it has a tinge of the exotic, thanks to the culture and cuisine of its multi-ethnic mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European.

Singapore offers a tranquil way to get acclimated to the wonders of the Far East, especially after an incredibly long plane ride from the U.S. It is soothing to arrive in a civilized, English-speaking country (English is one of four official languages) where the signs also are in English, a country whose standard of living is reputedly the highest in Asia.

Not only is Singapore immaculate - fines of $100 to $600 for littering, spitting on sidewalks, flipping cigarette butts and not flushing toilets - it is clean as a whistle morally.

Cameras mounted above stop lights catch drivers who run red lights ($150 fine and six points).

Jaywalkers risk a $30 fine.

Gambling is illegal (except for horse-racing bets placed at the turf club).

Smoking is discouraged and is illegal in public buses, elevators, theaters, cinemas and government offices ($300 fine).

The government has gobbled up Pac-Man and other video games, outlawing video game centers because they allegedly harm children.

And the government banned chewing gum because it is a "perennial nuisance" in public facilities.

The government also controls movies shown at theaters (nothing too racy) and programs on its state-owned TV stations. The state-owned newspaper, The Straits Times, is censored.

Some say the government's autocratic attitude is over-reaction to the Singapore of the past - a freewheeling world port and British military installation with all the things that went with it.

But none of this is of concern to tourists unless you spit, smoke, chew gum, jaywalk, run traffic lights or do drugs. What does concern tourists is that Singapore is safe - 24 hours a day.

A city-state located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore also includes 57 smaller islands, about half uninhabited.

A major seaport, modern Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles as a British trading station.

When Raffles arrived, it was a tiny fishing village at the mouth of the Singapore River settled eight years earlier by about 100 Malays. Chinese and Indians were brought in to help develop the jungle-covered island.

Now, all races - 76 percent of the population is Chinese, 15 percent Malay, 7 percent Indian and 2 percent others - live in harmony and help celebrate each other's colorful festivals.

These ethnic quarters today give Singapore an abundance of flavors, both superficially and sensually.

Follow your nose and you'll find yourself in Little India, permeated with smells of pungent spices and herbs, for sale at shops that line the streets and used in cooking at the various restaurants.

Follow your eyes to the imposing gold-topped dome of the Sultan Mosque and you'll be in Arab Street, the Muslim and Arabic district where a Middle Eastern mood prevails. You can buy batik, basketware, perfumes, prayer rugs, silks and sarongs.

Traditional trades and customs are kept alive in Chinatown, largest of the ethnic districts, where herbalists sell remedies handed down through the centuries, calligraphers read fortunes and craftsmen carve idols for the temples.

Renovation is under way in Chinatown to restore traditional shop-houses, the two- and three-story buildings that serve as a shop downstairs and residence upstairs. Many of the buildings were destroyed or turned into slums.

In its rush to modernization, Singapore tore down much of its past, and now there is some regret. A five-year program is under way to restore some of the flavor of old Singapore and make it more exciting to visitors and residents alike, to make it more the legendary Asia of Somerset Maugham.

"We are trying to inject more life," says tour guide Rosinah Yusoff. "A lot of younger Singaporeans, all they know is big glass and chrome buildings." MORE INFORMATION

-- Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, 8484 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 510, Beverly Hills, CA 90211. Phone 1-213-852-1901.