"My main mission when I became prime minister was to keep Singapore going, and Singapore has been kept going. So, I'm happy with what I've done for Singapore." -- Goh Chok Tong
Service does not usually begin 20 feet in from the departure entrance at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. In fact, the departure formalities before a trip to Asia are usually simply something the traveler must endure.
But not so this day.
As I walk into Terminal 5 and approach the Cathay Pacific space, I notice an agent standing by the business-class ropes. She identifies me by name (likely because ours was the only family traveling business class on the 777-300). She offered to personally check us in right away.
As we were handed our boarding passes for the 14.5-hour flight to Hong Kong, another Cathay Pacific staffer arrived to "walk you through security." In fact, this was a path to a fast-track line. The staffer walked us right to the gate and then to the nearby lounge.
The staffers had no idea what I do for a living, and I was traveling on points. Everyone received this treatment.
Once onboard, we settled in to a 1-2-1 configuration featuring lie-flat beds, a large video screen with dozens of first-run movies including all films nominated for Academy Awards this year. It was the best cocoon I've ever experienced in the air, and my 8-year-old was disappointed when the flight ended.
Service standards were as good and as anticipatory as you might expect from one of the world's seven Skytrax-certified five-star airlines. The weakest area was probably food, but I just don't think we should be expecting anything amazing at 33,000 feet. It might have been wise, given the $23,000 I was saving by using miles, to have put together a healthy picnic hamper. But those who give advice don't always follow it.
I did have a glance at the first-class compartment, with low walls surrounding six "open space" seats. The configuration was 1-1-1. Peeking in, it appeared that everyone in first had formally introduced themselves to one another and they were ascertaining how each of them earned a living before takeoff. One fellow, a high-level headhunter, had already given out his business card and changed into his Cathay-issued pajamas before wheels up.
I am off on my annual "clientcation," a trip I am sharing with two dozen clients to Singapore via Hong Kong, where we'll board the Crystal Symphony for a cruise that will take in Penang and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, Phuket, Thailand, and, stuck in the middle of the itinerary, three full days in the just-emerging-from-isolation nation of Myanmar, formerly known by its British colonial name, Burma.
There is a lot riding on this trip, as we decided to do all our own shore excursions. I was working with several overseas contacts for the first time, and my expectations were clouded by the fact that I knew we would be out of our comfort zone as we sought the new dual luxury currencies of authenticity and private access.
We spent the first night at the quaint, 1,117-room Regal Hotel in Hong Kong before flying on to Singapore the next morning. Well, not exactly Hong Kong; the Regal is right in the terminal, a 1970s minimalist modern design.
We felt lucky to walk up to the registration desk to find our reservation intact. Most of the folks ahead of us in line were turned away. All 1,117 rooms were booked. Rooms, I read, either face the runways or the South China Sea. Ours faced the garage, enabling us to miss the roar of jets or the lapping waves in the distance.
On arriving in Singapore, I was depending on the general efficiency of Changi Airport. We had no transfer arrangements, but I imagined it would not be difficult to get to the pier. To my surprise, there was a huge line for taxis. But then a very Singaporean thing happened. The line started moving so fast we had to rush to keep up.
It is simple, really. There are three lanes in front of the departure exits. The closest is for taxis. As they pull in, they are directed to make a half turn into a parking space in the middle lane. Travelers are quickly loaded, and the cabs pull into the third lane for a quick airport escape. It was, like so much about Singapore, elegant and efficient.
I've reported from Singapore before. The last time, I had public relations handlers who insisted on showing me the spot where American Michael Fay had been caned after serving a prison sentence for acts of vandalism involving several cars.
You might recall the uproar when Fay was convicted and sentenced to a fine, 83 days of imprisonment and six lashes with a rattan cane. President Clinton intervened and asked the Singaporeans for leniency. They responded by reducing the caning portion of the sentence to four lashes. They really don't do leniency in Singapore.
It was 101 degrees when we set out touring the City Gallery, which highlights the city's pattern of planned growth and infrastructure.
I wanted our clients to accomplish two things in Singapore: first, to have them see a side of the city seldom experienced by tourists. They needed to see why Singapore is the international leader in urban planning and public housing. Second, we needed to go to the Seafood Centre to have Singapore chili crab with cold beer. (I confess I might have the order of importance of these two goals reversed.)
Singapore has a population of about 5.5 million, making it the second densest city on Earth. They have responded with a series of innovations including a required "certificate of entitlement," which requires heavy taxes on the ownership of cars. It might, for example, cost you up to $20,000 just to drive a Toyota around, not including the cost of the car. The city uses these fees for public transportation, which is used by three-quarters of the population.
Eighty-two percent of the population, representing all income levels, lives in public housing. We visited several flats and housing centers, each equipped with a commercial center on the first floor, providing residents with all of the requirements such as health care, sports facilities, food stores, restaurants etc.
The Housing Development Board creates mini, viable living communities in high-density high-rises. This has enabled the city to grow upward. The uniqueness of the plan is its dependency on ownership rather than renters. The government makes low-interest loans and handles its own construction. Flats can be resold at market value. Affordability is assured through progressive mortgage payments, government subsidies for those with low incomes, and low interest rates for everyone. Unemployment is near zero.
The world's biggest public housing complex is in Singapore, and it should be the first place every tourist visits. It is called the [email protected] and it has won a slew of international design awards. Among its most discussed features are two "sky gardens" built into the 25th and 50th floors. Outdoor living is provided to high-rise dwellers.
The chili crab did not disappoint, and no one in charge seemed to remember that I had been asked to never return to the city after my two-part series on Singapore ran several years ago. So far, so good.
Contributing Editor Richard Bruce Turen owns Churchill & Turen Ltd., a luxury vacation firm based in Naples, Fla. He is also managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales training and marketing consultancy. Contact him at [email protected].