From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4689-4718:
As early as the 1960s, Albert Winsemius had seen services like banking and finance as supplementing the port and manufacturing. Tourism too could buttress the economy, offering an experience of the “Instant Orient.” Yet, as he noted, Singapore has no intrinsic attraction to the tourist. It has no scenery, no ancient ruins or buildings of great historic interest, no real sites. In a thoroughly urban environment, wild animals can be found only in the zoo. Winsemius would have found it incredible that ultimately every year Singapore would receive more money from tourists than India does.
The richness of the cuisine certainly draws some visitors as it does to Hong Kong. But Singapore offers even more choice of menu, reflecting its wider cultural mix. Since eating is such a Singaporean delight, both malls and food courts abound to satisfy such pleasure. A rich promiscuity among Indian, Malay, Chinese, and what is simply referred to as “Other” foods, makes ethnically pure cuisines imaginary. Some would judge that the Malay-Chinese Peranakan cuisine draws from the best of each, but much else entices. The late New York Times reporter R. W. Apple, renowned for his journalism, his culinary tastes, and the size of his expense account, traveled widely and reported frequently with gusto about food. In the fall of 2006, he wrote of Singapore, “A Repressed City-State? Not in Its Kitchens.”
Apple found there a new dignity to the term “fusion, that unruly beast.” He speaks fondly of a dinner with “hot seared scallops with prawn ravioli and clam laksa leaf nage, a subtle melody of marine flavors.” Another memorable dish called “Dancing with the Wind,” turned out to be “a steaming soup containing crab, prawns, scallops, mushrooms and (surprise!) red dates in a gentle coconut broth … [served] in a young coconut.” Fried green tea dumplings gloried in the name “Drifting Clouds of the Autumn Sky.”
Ordinary names illustrate the historic roots of Singaporean cosmopolitanism. Sarabat from the Arabic “to drink” became the stall selling drinks. Laksa derives from the Persian laksha, noodle. Satay, related to kebab, comes from the Tamil meaning flesh. The peanut, originating in the New World, so identified with satay, is but a late addition to the sauce. Prawns or bean paste are served with a Peranakan hybrid, roti prata from the Urdu roti and Hindi paratha, bread without yeast.
Rice and noodles remain the basic staples of the Singaporean diet, with chopsticks and hands the chief eating utensils. The hungry can find a wide variety of less poetic dishes than those Apple describes at considerably lower prices in hawker stalls, street foods now carefully inspected and approved by the government. There one can indulge in dumplings of many description as well as a simple meal of “Pig Organ Soup” or fish head curry washed down with “Iron Buddha” tea for less than five dollars.
Beyond the table, the tourist sights tend to be glossy and unseasoned, artificial like Disney, theatrical like Venice but without the patina of charm and character that only age can bring. Nonetheless, many visitors have responded enthusiastically, like those world wide who flock to theme parks, preferring the synthetic to the real thing. “Asia Lite” is the message touted, an experience reassuringly comfortable and safe yet with just a whiff of exoticism.