Friday, October 3, 2008

When Time Stood Still

In a recent report, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STB) revealed that the visitor arrivals to Singapore showed a month-on-month decline of 7.7% in August 2008.

The initial blame is placed on the poor economic outlook, which may continue into 2009. STB projected that the tourism sector is unlikely to hit this year's target of 10.8 mil visitors. However, all is not lost as STB now shifts its focus to induce more spending so as to meet the tourism receipt target of $15.5 bil.

The STB works very hard to promote Singapore but doesn't seem to make any significant headway. In 1997, the average length of stay was 3.3 days. The number inched marginally over the years and reached 3.6 days in 2007.

The usual choices for visitors are the Zoo, Sentosa or Orchard Road and I can understand why. These places are aggressively sold to the tourists as the 'must see' destinations. Besides, whether you agree or not, they might just have something to offer.

The general sentiment amongst the Singaporeans is that, there is hardly any place worth visiting in Singapore. I am not in total agreement.

As a local resident, it requires a little effort to imagine and appreciate the attractiveness of Singapore. Sometimes, we are guilty of being oblivious to things around us. We dismiss what this 'little red dot' can offer far too quickly and conclusively give a higher regard to overseas attractions.

We might be wrong.

Let's say... if I were to pick just one place to visit in Singapore, where would it be? Let's me ponder over it for a moment...

That reminds me of a visit I made to the Haw Par Villa in the 1990s when I was hosting a friend visiting Singapore.

The park was built in 1937 and it was previously known as the Tiger Balm Garden. At that time, the attraction was newly revamped and and renamed Haw Par Villa. After an extensive makeover, the park was converted into an amusement park. The entrance fee was priced at $16/pax and mind you, it was supposed to be ridiculous. Just remember that movie tickets then were probably in the region of $4-$5.

On our way there, the taxi driver was clearly showing his disapproval. He rumbled ceaselessly about how the attraction offered no value for money. I must say that I was rather embarrassed by his frankness in front of my guest.

He was right. The reincarnation of the park did not manage to sustain the interest of the visitors. The park was making losses and the the number of visitors dropped. Today, the entry to the park is free and is has been so since 1996. Sadly, it is in a very sorry state.

OK, back to my earlier question: Where is that one place that I will visit?

My take: The Bras Basah Complex. It may sound queer to some but I have my reasons.
The building was built in 1980. Other than the routine maintenance, the 3-decade old building managed to retain its original flavor.

Known as the "Book City", the place offers a special allure to the world of literacy. I am not a bookworm but just being there makes me feel like I am one. It is a pleasant feeling.

The "Book City" has a large collection of Chinese Book Stores. Each time I visit the place, I am reminded of my skin-deep Chinese literacy ability. Actually, "My Chinese literacy" is a case of oxymoron for I know next to nothing about it. Somehow, being there induces a positive influence on me and I am encouraged to top up my empty tank.

Walking around in the building makes me feel as if I have been brought back in time in a time machine. The feel is authentic as I know it is genuinely old and charming and not some make believe antics.

In the midst of en-bloc sale fever last year, there was some contemplation to redevelop the building. Fortunately, the idea was not agreed by those in the 'fan club' and it was spared from the bulldozers. For now, the building is going to stay.

The government has recently set aside $8 mil to help businesses and entrepreneurs develop Singapore's heritage sector in the next 5 years. Increasingly, more attention will be placed on Singapore's heritage. However, in this aspect, Bras Basah Complex may be 'too young' to generate much interest.

Having survived 3 decades, I have a feeling that it will not be standing there much longer. Most commercial buildings in Singapore cannot withstand the push of the economic waves. I will make it a point to visit the place more often before it becomes just a picture in the history book.

So, that is the 'one place that I will visit' . What's yours?


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