Things I learnt about the Singapore MRT (and a comparison with Melbourne)

See also: my other posts from Singapore

This post pulls together some things I saw on my on my holiday, together with information gleaned from a briefing with the Singapore Land Transport Authority (organised by chance courtesy of the Victorian Government when some of their people discovered they’d be in Singapore at the same time I was), together with information trawled off the web.

MRT and Metro

Singapore: MRT stands for Mass Rapid Transit. It’s Singapore’s train network, which started service in the 1980s, which is why everything seems so new. Surprisingly however, they do have wooden sleepers on some parts of the network, which are steadily being replaced with concrete, and other upgrades are underway.

Melbourne: Metro is a brand name owned by the Victorian Government. The network we have now dates back to 1854, and has gradually been extended and updated, though there’s an awful lot of very old equipment.

Singapore MRT vs Melbourne Metro

Network

Singapore: Five lines, with more under construction, all completely independently run. All double track all the way. Consistent train lengths on each line – not all long trains, either – the Downtown line runs 3-car trains, but frequently. (For this article, I’m not counting the LRT – Light Rail Transit, which is a feeder to the MRT. I didn’t look at this during my visit.)

Melbourne: Fifteen lines including branches. (Sixteen if you count the part time Flemington line, seventeen if you count the V/Line metropolitan line to Wyndham Vale). Lots of junctions, shared track, single track, intertwined drivers, services, fleets and other resources. Mostly consistent train lengths these days, since the ridiculous practice of running half-length trains on weekends and evenings was removed. The PTV Network Development Plan is geared at separating out the various lines, though progress is very slow.

Singapore: System length 171 km, with 101 stations (according to Wikipedia). Many interchanges between lines. A mix of radial “compass” (east-west, north-south, etc) lines and other connections. No central terminus.

Melbourne: System length 372 km, with 207 stations (Wikipedia) – so the overall station spacing is similar, though it probably varies more widely. Limited interchange between lines. All lines are radial. Central terminus station (Flinders Street) where everything stops and waits, and no timetabled through-routing can be guaranteed.

Singapore is catching up to us. They plan to get to 360 km of routes by 2030, and at the rate they’re building, it looks like they’ll get there.

Singapore: Jalan Besar station under construction

Singapore: Lines have names, colours and initials on the map, and stations have numbers (as well as names) along each line, making navigation easy. Plus every train stops at every station (though in some cases trains do terminate before the end of the line).

Melbourne: The current map has colours for zones that mostly no longer matter. Lines have names which are confusing thanks to branches, and stations have names only. Stopping patterns on some lines vary wildly (just look at the Ringwood line during PM peak; a real mess). There has been a new, much better map in the works for some years.

Singapore MRT: SMRT status screen

Operators

Singapore: The various lines are run by different private operators: SMRT and SBS Transit (a subsidiary of ComfortDelGro, which runs some buses and taxis in Melbourne). The government says having two operators is to foster competition. This seems to work okay given the lines are completely independent.

However there is (I’m assuming mandated by the government) a high level of integration, including fares, with some stations providing paid area interchange between different operators’ lines. And you’d barely notice that there are two operators, let alone that they are private — the facilities and most of the signage seem to be identical. (One exception that seems to have snuck through is the SMRT status screen shown above.)

Both operators (or related companies) also run bus routes, LRT lines and taxis. I’m told it’s possible the MRT will be nationalised in the future, but for now the private operators continue.

Melbourne: One private operator: Metro Trains Melbourne. This is probably for the best given the intertwined nature of the system (having two companies didn’t work well), though the Five Group Railway plan ultimately seeks to completely separate the various lines.

Singapore MRT: Little India station

Singapore: The government’s Land Transport Authority builds the lines and pays for them. The operators run the lines, and are expected not get any subsidy – just fare revenue.

Melbourne: The government’s various authorities build the lines and pay for them. There’s a very messy franchise agreement which I suspect nobody outside government really truly understands (even if you can get to read it; it’s currently not available online), whereby MTM gets paid.

The city

Singapore: Wikipedia says the metropolitan population is about 5.5 million over just 719 square kilometres. Density 7697 people per square Km. The density has to be seen to be believed. Imagine the dense areas of South Yarra, across much of the metropolitan area.

Plus cars are constrained through limited registration and road pricing. Obviously this all means mass transit and high frequency services are a lot more viable, and it really shows.

Singapore’s Land Transit Authority reckons current public transport mode share is about 60% of trips. They’re aiming to increase this to 75% by 2030!

Melbourne: Serves a metropolitan population of about 4.5 million over 9990 square kilometres; density 453 people per square Km, about a twentieth of Singapore 3.7 million people over 2543 square kilometres; density 1450 people per square Km. The densest parts of inner-suburban Melbourne rival “suburban” Singapore, but outside about 5km from the CBD, we’ve really got nothing to compare.

Services

Singapore: Frequent service all day, every day. Peak frequency is around 2-3 minutes. I never waited more than 5 minutes for a train, even fairly late at night, though the official page says frequency may be as low as 7 minutes. As noted, the high metropolitan density helps makes this viable.

Melbourne: Every 3-20 minutes at peak, every 10-20 minutes off-peak, 20-30 minutes evenings. We may not have the density nor the operational line separation to support 5 minute services all day, but given suburban traffic congestion, we can at least get to 10 minutes all day every day, which would make the system a lot more usable than it is now.

Singapore: Last trains around midnight. No all-night services on weekends.

Melbourne: Last trains around midnight, but hourly trains on Friday and Saturday nights.

Fares and ticketing

Singapore: Fares are per kilometre. They seemed really cheap to me (bearing in mind the Singapore dollar is worth about the same as the Australian dollar). But no season passes/periodicals – they used to have them, but phased them out.

Melbourne: Basically one flat fare zone. Both systems obviously have their pros and cons, but this makes short distances relatively expensive, and heavily subsidises long distance trips. Option of Pay As You Go (Myki Money) or Pass.

Singapore MRT: General Ticket Machine

Singapore: Re-usable EZ-Link card, like Myki but faster. Not perfect though; for instance the app for checking the balance won’t work without a local mobile phone number. Ticket machines at every railway station, some bus stops and interchanges. The machine I used didn’t seem to spit out unwanted receipts.

Retailer, Online topup (note how they explain actually getting the funds onto your smartcard) and Auto Load options. Refundable “standard ticket” option.

Melbourne: Myki, kind of like the rest of the world’s PT smartcards, but slower. (Finally this is improving with the new readers.)

The trains

Singapore: Acceleration and speed on all the trains seems quite good. The East-West line covers 49km and 35 stations in 70 minutes (eg average speed 42 Km/h), with a maximum speed of 80 Km/h. It probably helps that they don’t have to stick to a public timetable.

Melbourne: Acceleration and speed is mixed, with varying types of trains on most lines resulting in a lowest-common-denominator timetable, with lots of padding. The Frankston line covers 43 Km and 27 stations in 73 minutes (eg average speed of 36 Km/h). Maximum speed generally 80 Km/h, but reaching a max of 95 south of Mordialloc.

Singapore: Interior of Downtown line train

Singapore: Lots of doors and lots of standing space on the trains, hardly any seats. Lots of places to hold on.

Melbourne: Previously designed to maximise seats, this has been curbed recently, allowing more standees and greater capacity, but most models of train still have too few places to hold on. The new model trains will change this.

Singapore: Bayfront MRT station, showing platform screen doors

The stations

Singapore: Every station that I saw had platform screen doors, made possible by all stations being underground or having full-length platform shelter; consistent train fleets; automatic train operation (some lines with drivers, some without) to stop consistently in the right place. This in turn makes possible markings on platforms showing people where to stand, which cuts dwell times.

One interesting side-effect of the full height platform screen doors in the underground stations: you don’t really see the trains or the track. The trains arrive behind the partially-covered glass and the doors just open. It feels more like a giant horizontal elevator than a train.

At aboveground stations the doors are half-height; you can see over them, but couldn’t easily climb over them. (See the video above, which shows how they work.)

Melbourne: No platform screen doors yet. The first will be on the new underground stations on the metro rail tunnel, which will run only specific train types. No suburban stations have full-length platform shelters, but having seen them in action, it emphasises to me that the rebuilt Dandenong line stations should have full-length platform shelters to help facilitate them in the future.

Singapore MRT: Redhill station

Singapore: Every station appeared to be staffed, with fare gates. Platform despatch staff were spotted at busy stations at peak times. No visible security or ticket inspector presence that I saw, but this may reflect the overall law-abiding nature of the country.

Melbourne: About every third station is a “Premium” fully staffed station. Fewer have fare gates, though the policy now (which is coming into play with the grade separations) is to install fare gates at newly built Premium stations. Some platform despatch staff at busy stations at peak times. Authorised Officers (ticket inspectors) roam the system, and Armed PSOs are at most stations after 6pm.

Singapore MRT: Redhill station

The tracks

Singapore: No level crossings. All lines that I saw are underground or elevated.

Melbourne: Lots of level crossings, and it’s only in the last few years that there’s been a serious effort to start getting rid of them.

Singapore: Powered by 750 volt DC third rail, except the North-East Line which is 1500 volt. So much for the theory that all modern systems run 22,000 volt AC.

Melbourne: Overhead wire 1500 volts. The metro rail tunnel and Sunbury to Dandenong line will introduce 3000 volt power.

Singapore: Redhill MRT station and bus stop

Connections

Singapore: There doesn’t appear to be any timetable co-ordination with buses (arguably pointless when trains run so frequently). Bus many stations have bus connections, and these are well signposted, with some major interchanges having extensive bus parking and passenger waiting areas. Many bus routes aren’t spectacularly frequent, with services “every 13-19 minutes” being fairly common. That’s still better than most Melbourne routes though.

Melbourne: Some attempts at timetable co-ordination. Connections are generally well signposted, but at some locations little thought has been given to getting the buses to stop close to the station exits. Most routes every 30-60 minutes, only a few are more frequent.

Singapore: Tanah Merah station, interchange for Changi Airport

Singapore: Lots of interchange stations. Between lines, this usually involves lengthy connecting corridors. How lengthy? Think Platform 1 to Platform 13 at Flinders Street. Notably for the Changi Airport branch line, there is cross-platform interchange in both directions, but not with timed connections… but it doesn’t matter thanks to the high frequencies.

Melbourne: The structure of the network doesn’t really lend itself to interchanges, yet, though some exist for the branch lines (eg Alamein, Altona Loop) as well as between Direct and City Loop trains (North Melbourne, Richmond). The infrastructure could be improved in this respect; even at recently rebuilt stations like Footscray, it often requires exiting the paid area to change trains.

Singapore MRT: bicycle parking

Bikes

Singapore: Only folding bikes are allowed on the trains outside peak times. Bike parking is provided at some stations, and some of it puts ours to shame – see photo.

Melbourne: Bicycles permitted on trains (but discouraged in peak hours). Parkiteer bike cages at some stations, but there are some huge gaps in the network, for instance on most lines there are almost no cages in zone 1.

Singapore MRT: Foldable bicycle dimensions

Wheelchairs

Singapore: Platform and carriage door heights are closely aligned, so wheelchairs, prams and wheeled luggage can be easily wheeled aboard without help or ramps.

Melbourne: Most platforms have a considerable gap. Harrington Humps have been installed at some stations, but most of the time the driver has to deploy a portable ramp, slowing down operations.

Singapore: MRT station toilet cleaning schedule

Cleanliness

Singapore: Trains and stations spotlessly clean. It took me a week to spot any litter. This is no doubt reflective of Singapore society as a whole, which has a reputation for being very law abiding (though I saw a fair bit of jaywalking.)

Melbourne: Trains and stations often littered and tagged. Some efforts have been made to keep them clean, but it’s an ongoing challenge. Siemens trains in particular are notorious for dirtiness.

Shutdowns

Singapore: Almost no planned disruptions to train services. All works are carried out at night. The only concession to this is earlier closures and later Sunday morning starts. On the Thomson East Coast Line under construction, I was told interchange tunnels would be built under tracks up into the centre of the existing Orchard Station platforms, all without interrupting train services.

Melbourne: My station is closed for 3 months to remove the level crossing, and the trains will be interrupted for five weeks straight. Nuff said?

Singapore MRT: early closure/late start for works

Singapore: Sign showing LRT disruption

Singapore: Unplanned interruptions to service seem to be rare, but not unknown. One night I saw signs indicating an LRT disruption, and it made the papers the next day.

Melbourne: Melbourne, sadly, is notorious for delays and cancellations.

Singapore MRT: Exam notice

Politics

Singapore: I don’t know if there are any organised user groups, but I’m told the political pressure is immense to keep improving the system. Crowding can be severe at peak times.

Melbourne: Lots of political pressure, such that during the last state election the debate was around which rail tunnel to build. Crowding can be severe at peak times on some lines. Active user group that really needs your membership.

Singapore MRT: Queue for fare gates at VivoCity/Harbourfront station

Can we get there from here?

Can we learn from cities like Singapore? Can we improve Melbourne’s rail system to be more like Singapore’s? You bet. Reliability in particular can be improved, but so can frequency.

There’s a limit — Singapore-style density is unlikely in many Melbourne suburbs in the forseeable future. And we may not want trains with virtually no seats, given long trip distances.

But we can do a lot more to grade separate level crossings, operationally separate rail lines for efficiency, improve interchange facilities, improve train designs and efficiency… and the clincher, the most important aspect for a more usable system: run more frequent trains at all times.

As I’ve said many times, ten minute services are possible on most of the rail network with the track infrastructure and fleet we already have. There are impacts for driver numbers and maintenance capacity, but the government should push ahead with it.

Singapore day 6: cable cars, giant lions, and lazing on the beach

We awoke in the resort on Sentosa, with one more full day before heading back to chilly Melbourne.

Breakfast buffet. I totally ate too much, and I didn’t even get to have an omelette (made fresh by chefs in the buffet area).

But anyway, time to explore!

View from the cable car at Sentosa, Singapore

View from the cable car at Sentosa, Singapore

Sentosa island has two cable car lines. One goes east-west across it, the other heads north across the water to the mainland of Singapore. We went across the island first, looking down on the various attractions, theme parks, hotels…

Near the eastern end of the cable car is the Merlion, a 37 metre-high symbol of Singapore, a guardian of prosperity. This particular one was apparently sculpted by an Australian.

Merlion, Sentosa, Singapore

The area around the Merlion definitely had a kind of Luna Park feel to it. The monorail from the mainland (which connects the giant VivoCity shopping centre to Sentosa) zoomed past every few minutes.

Most of the time when I spotted the monorail trains, they were overcrowded. In the evening when a lot of people were heading back to the mainland, there seemed to be long queues on the station platforms. Their capacity isn’t great. Like the cable cars, they’re really a toy, not a mass transit solution.

Not impressed.

After a look around, we caught the cable car back halfway and switched to the other one to go to the mainland. This took us way up high over the water and shipping, but what really got me feeling a little giddy was after a station in the middle, it went even higher over roadways and forest, up the mountain to nearby Faber Point.

View from the cable car to Sentosa, Singapore

View from the cable car to Sentosa, Singapore

View from Faber Point, Singapore

At Faber Point was a glorious view over the Harbourfront area, and a nice breeze to cool us down – it was getting pretty warm by this point, and the cable cars aren’t air-conditioned.

We caught it back to the middle station at Harbourfront, which as the name might indicate is all about shipping. Walking around there we encountered a load of passengers about to board a cruise ship, all pulling their suitcases along.

Into the VivoCity shopping mall, not looking quite as frantic as the day before, and we caught the MRT one stop, then changed to the East-West line and hopped off at nearby Redhill. I wanted to look at an example of an elevated railway station – M didn’t really care, she just wanted to stay out of the sun.

Redhill station, Singapore

I’ll write all about that later, but from there we went back to VivoCity and after some hunting, found some lunch in a faux hawker stall.

Lego cable car, Sentosa, Singapore

The cable car was more crowded heading back to Sentosa. At the interchange station they had a cable car museum, including a slightly odd fully-sized cable car made of Lego.

We got back to the hotel. When we’d first arrived at the resort, I’d noticed a warning on the hotel window about roaming monkeys on the balconies. I read it but thought little of it.

Warning notice, Shangri La resort, Sentosa, Singapore

But now I looked out to see… a monkey! I grabbed my phone and got a photo, then dashed back for my “real” camera to find it had gone.

Monkey at Shangri La resort, Sentosa, Singapore

I went out onto the balcony and looked around. Other people on nearby balconies were looking as well. One said it had climbed all the way to the top of the building, but I didn’t spot it again.

We got changed to have a laze on the beach, accompanied by drinkies. My sister and her family were heading to the airport to go home, so we said goodbye to them.

It was pretty hot, but pretty relaxing at the same time. It’s quite luxurious having your drinks served to you on your beachfront lounge chair.

Drinkies at Shangri La, Sentosa, Singapore

After some serious relaxing for a while, we went back to our room, then headed for dinner.

Famous dumpling house Din Tai Fung (which also has an outlet in Melbourne’s Emporium) is back near the Merlion, so we caught the cable car back there (for an extra dollar, we’d paid for two round trips… at this point evidently enough boxes had been ticked on our tickets that had the cable car ticket checkers seemed to start to eye us with a little suspicion… clearly we weren’t going to get away with any more rides than we had paid for).

Din Tai Fung at Sentosa, Singapore

There was a 25 minute wait at Din Tai Fung, but we happily took the time to look around and fill in the menu/order form, and the food when we got in was totally delicious.

A relaxing cable car ride back (“Where are you going?” “Siloso beach”) and back to the hotel for one last night in Singapore.

Singapore day 5: Boring tunnels and resort islands

About a week before leaving for Singapore, I’d been in a meeting with some people from the Victorian government, talking rail tunnels and level crossing removals.

I mentioned I was going, and asked what I should look at. Turned out they were about to send some of their people off overseas to exchange ideas with counterparts in various parts of the world – including Singapore, on a day I’d be there. And would I be interested in tagging along? You bet I would!

So it was arranged, on Saturday morning I headed for a hotel off Orchard Road for our meeting. We were taken to the nearby Orchard station site for a briefing and a tour.

Thomson-East Coast Line MRT construction near Orchard station, Singapore

Much of what I saw has been included in my post about the Singapore MRT, but some other things worth noting:

  • The Thomson-East Coast Line is designed to relieve other lines, as well as speeding up travel times to key destinations
  • Blasting for underground tunnels includes going underneath a hospital. Timing is worked out to not clash with MRI sessions. They’re also tunnelling close to the Prime Minister’s house.
  • Each station on the line is separate contract, but the whole Thomson-East Coast line is costing S$24 billion. It has a projected daily ridership 400,000, which isn’t too much lower than the ENTIRE Melbourne rail system.
  • Underground stations are developed with provisions for development above, but there’s no real certainty it will happen – it’s up to property developers. From what I saw around Singapore, development around and above stations is common, but not universal.
  • Part of the project includes a triple deck train depot (to save space – approximately 60 football fields – we’re not the only city that measures land area in these terms) combined with an adjacent bus depot, to store 220 trains and 550 buses.
  • Importantly, they make a big effort to keep people informed. There’s a construction blog, and an education centre for hosting briefings like ours.

We looked at the tunnel boring machine (TBM) on the site, which was very impressive, and not at all boring.

Thomson-East Coast Line MRT, Tunnel boring machine, Orchard station, Singapore

Thomson-East Coast Line MRT, Tunnel boring machine, Orchard station, Singapore

Model of a rectangular tunnel boring machine to be used on the Thomson-East Coast Line MRT construction

Interestingly the Singapore project is using a new development in TBMs… a rectangular “box jack” TBM. This got the Melbourne people rather excited – parts of the Melbourne metro rail tunnel project would benefit from emerging technology like this.

This of course is the whole point of getting our people heading around the world to look at others’ projects – the exchange of ideas could be of huge benefit.

Alas I couldn’t stay for the whole tour – they went on to look at a lot of different parts of the network.

Parliament, Singapore

Singapore river

I headed back to the hotel. We had to head to the island of Sentosa for the wedding.

But first we walked down to the river, past the Singapore Parliament building, and found lunch in the back of the museum: a rendang burger and crisps. Yes, crisps. And a Nutella milkshake. Nom nom nom.

Old Parliament House, Singapore

Man pushing bicycle cart, Elgin Bridge, Singapore

Back to the hotel and we picked up our bags and caught the MRT to Harbourfront, exiting to the huge VivoCity shopping centre above. It’s like Chadstone with a railway station.

Ah. Saturday afternoon. Peak shopping time? Huge crowds, both coming off the train and throughout the centre itself, made progress with luggage a bit slow.

Harbourfront station, Singapore

Our destination was a hotel on Sentosa, a resort island on the south-western side of Singapore. It’s an island dedicated to recreation – with beaches, amusement rides, cable cars, theme parks, restaurants and hotels.

We eventually found the stop for the shuttle bus to the hotel. Of the various transport facilities I saw in Singapore that weren’t under construction, it was the least well-appointed. I wonder if that was because it was provided by private enterprise, not the well-organised Singapore government.

With the assistance of some fellow shuttle bus riders (no don’t get off here; that’s the hotel staff entrance), we arrived at the very fine Shangri La resort and checked in.

We headed up to the room, with me desperately trying to Google whether I should tip the porter/bellhop or not – before he arrived with the bags. (The conclusion, as far as I could make out, is that you never tip in Singapore, except in the case of porter who bring your bags up to the room. Lucky I had a $2 note handy.)

Shangri La resort, Sentosa, Singapore

Shangri La resort, Sentosa, Singapore

Shangri La resort, Sentosa, Singapore

We went to explore the resort. Of course it’s right on the beach – with a view of numerous container ships sailing past – but also has swimming pools, and numerous other facilities for either active (swimming, table tennis) or passive (lazing around sipping drinks) recreation.

And so to the real reason for being in Singapore: the wedding of my cousin Justin and his fiancee Valerie.

It started in the afternoon, and the reception went into the evening. The rain held off, and I’m not going to drone on about it, but it was all perfect, and a pleasure to be there.

Wedding, Sentosa, Singapore

Cleaning up after the wedding, Sentosa, Singapore

Singapore day 4: the zoo, the prang and the architecture

We were meeting my sister and her family (also in town for the wedding) to catch a shuttle bus to the Singapore Zoo for breakfast. Not just any breakfast – breakfast with the orangutans.

Yep, you get to eat a buffet breakfast while apes frolic nearby. Have I mentioned that Singapore is the land of buffet meals? During a week’s holiday, we had buffet breakfasts, buffet lunch, buffet dinner… all delicious.

After getting our photos taken with some friendly beasts (the zoo staff will happily take your photo with your phone or camera, and they’ll also try and sell you additional photos) we looked around the rest of the zoo for a few hours.

Breakfast with the animals, Singapore Zoo

Rhinos, Singapore Zoo

Zebras, Singapore Zoo

Kentucky Fried Zebra, Singapore Zoo

Singapore Zoo

Singapore Zoo

Singapore Zoo

Proboscis monkey, Singapore Zoo

As you’d expect, they specialise in animals from their region, but also have exhibits from other parts of the world. Alas the Australian exhibit was closed for maintenance, but there was plenty of other stuff to see.

At one point I saw a distinctive proboscis monkey, which left me chuckling, reminded of a scene in Tintin: Flight 714, which of course was set in the jungle. Note: minor spoiler from 1968 ahead.

Evil genius Rastapopoulos and one of his henchmen (Allan, I think) are chasing Tintin and friends through the jungle. Allan hears a noise, then realises it’s a proboscis monkey. He laughs at its nose, remarks it reminds him of someone… then looks around to see Rastapopoulos (who has a big nose) fuming. Here’s a scan of this (via this page).

It was a great zoo, but what the kids (and probably the rest of us) will remember about it is getting into a minor prang on the way back.

We were waiting at a traffic light with two right turn lanes… and another car decided to try and make a third lane, wedging itself between us and another vehicle. Cue sound of crunching metal.

Singapore traffic prang

Perhaps our driver was trained not to swear in front of children; perhaps all Singaporeans are very polite. He let out a wordless exclamation of frustration and hopped out. We watched as the three drivers involved calmly inspected their vehicles and took photos of one another’s’ driver licences and licence plates.

On the bright side, nobody was hurt and it didn’t appear that the damage was serious.

We asked our driver if he needed witnesses. He said no… because he was in the right. He certainly was, though the confidence that he would get no problems with insurance claims was perhaps an interesting insight into Singapore culture.

That excitement over, M and I headed down Orchard Road for lunch. We were following a tip in the Lonely Planet book which turned out to be a dud – despite being a new edition, we found a couple of times during the trip that the listed attraction had shut up shop. Lesson: Google it before setting out.

We found lunch elsewhere then wandered around the area to look at the House Of Tan Yeok Nee, one of the last remaining Chinese mansions in Singapore, dating back to 1885.
We also wandered up Emerald Hill Road, where there’s some other historic architecture. It’s interesting to see what while Singapore in general is awash with new development and bold modern architecture, they are also preserving selected historic properties.

Parking rates, Singapore

Emerald Hill Road, Singapore

From there we got back on the MRT and headed to Tiong Bahru, a suburb known for its somewhat eclectic shops — at least according to the Lonely Planet book. It seemed like something interesting to see that was off the tourist path.

There we found art deco architecture of a less imposing type than the Parkview building the day before. The so-called “horseshoe block” was built in the 1930s, as some of the first public housing in Singapore.

It was also interesting to get a look at non-downtown Singapore. High density still abounds, but for all the efforts to help get more people walking, cycling and using public transport, the footpaths can be pretty poor outside the downtown area. They were often narrow, with sharp drops either side, close to fast traffic, and not accessible to wheelchairs.

Some quirky, Brunswick (Melbourne)-style shops, an ice cream (we’d earned it) and a bakery later, we caught a bus back to downtown and the hotel.

Tiong Bahru, Singapore

Tiong Bahru, Singapore

Singapore ice cream

Don't go in here. Singapore

By this point I was running out of clean clothes – I prefer to travel light, but I may have miscalculated this time – so I made enquiries about the hotel laundrette. It would cost S$16 to do a load of laundry, and presumably take some time, so I decided to just go and buy some new clothes instead.

Robinsons Department Store (established 1858) in the nearby Raffles Centre shopping mall is a bit like the Singapore version of Myer. Except that it is far better staffed; I wandered around looking for a few things and kept encountering helpful staff members. I was told about three times that I could get a discount if I bought another 3-pack of socks, and kept explaining that I didn’t need them.

Overall in Singapore I found there weren’t too many big chain stores you wouldn’t find in Melbourne. Some exceptions: locals like Robinsons is an obvious one, but Marks & Spencers is another.

I got back suitably equipped for the rest of the stay, and we decided to follow the Lonely Planet book again and head to nearby Purvis Street, for the apparently traditional Chicken Rice dinner.

From the helpful way the staff interacted with us, I’m going to bet they don’t get a lot of westerners in there (perhaps only those following this specific Lonely Planet book), and it was the only shop I recall where they didn’t seem to speak English. But the food was good and cheap.

Another walk around in the heat, and back to the hotel via an ice cream shop, ready for the big Saturday ahead: a day of tunnels, a resort island and a wedding.

Singapore day 3: Little India, art deco overload

Our destination today was Little India, which we reached via MRT of course — the hotel is closest to City Hall station, but only slightly further to Clarke Quay, which is just a few stops from Little India.

The Lonely Planet book we had recommended a specific walk, so we set out, admiring the historic colourful buildings, taking in the sights, sounds and smells, and getting very sweaty in the hot weather.

Little India, Singapore

Little India, Singapore

Peacock feathers for sale, Little India, Singapore

High rise residential building, Singapore

Found by chance (and of interest to myself more than M) was an MRT station under construction along the walk. As we kept going, the Indian shops gave way to mosques – apparently we’d found ourselves in the Muslim section of town, perhaps given away by the thoroughfare name of Arab Street.

The weather seemed to be getting hotter, and we started looking for somewhere to have lunch.

We ended up eating at an apparently well-known restaurant called Zam Zam… on offer were various delights, including fish head curry. We opted instead for murtabak, a kind of bready meaty dish of deliciousness. The food was good, perhaps more important by that point, the air conditioning was excellent.

Opposite the restaurant was the very impressive Sultan Mosque, dating back to 1824, and rebuilt extensively in 1932.

Sultan Mosque, Singapore

Refreshed by lunch, we decided to walk along North Bridge Road back towards our hotel. Along the way we stumbled across the Parkview Square building, a massive art deco skyscraper opened in 2002.

It’s quite stunning – I love art deco, and the building exterior and the ground floor lobby and bar area was absolutely overflowing with it.

Apparently locally it’s referred to as the Gotham Building, which doesn’t surprise me in the least.

(Click on the photos to see them larger… it’s worth looking at some of the detail.)

Parkview Square building, Singapore

Parkview Square building, Singapore

Parkview Square building, Singapore

Parkview Square building, Singapore

From there we headed back to the hotel, passing the National Library, and a mall of bookshops which proved to be not quite as impressive as described in Lonely Planet – but there was a good bookshop near the top specialising in design and architecture.

Next to our hotel was the Funan DigitaLife mall, which I decided to take a look at. It’s basically six levels of electronics shops, which for a geek like me was great to explore. I had half a mind to see if I could buy a cheap camera lens. Sadly it appears to be closing down soon; many shops were vacant, and the signs suggested the rest only had a few weeks to go – this turned out to be right; it closes at the end of June.

Funan Digital Life mall, Singapore

After a rest at the hotel, we headed on the MRT to Orchard Road – well, a bit off Orchard Road – for a dinner with relatives, in a very expensive-looking apartment block. I’d assumed it’d just be a handful of people but it was actually a sizeable group of various relatives – those both resident and visiting Singapore for my cousin’s wedding.

I eventually gave up trying to wrap my head around where all the various people sat on the family tree. I’m told that in Chinese culture, everyone of the appropriate age just ends up being called Aunty or Uncle or Cousin, no matter what the actual relationship, and I can certainly see the benefits of that. It ties in with the sense of hospitality – if you’re family, even remotely, you’re welcomed with open arms.

After a thoroughly delicious buffet dinner and a great catch-up with the relatives, we headed back for the hotel.