Last week, RACER's Jeff Olson embarked on a junket to the Singapore Grand Prix as a guest of the Singapore Tourism Board, which did its best to fill his brain with happy thoughts about the world's most wonderful city. Fancy hotels, fine dining, art galleries, fashion shows, concerts, etc. Join the hick from Iowa who moved to Indiana and then to Florida as he learns to use cloth napkins and order something from the menu that requires silverware. Here's what he filed:
Let's get the complaining out of the way first. Nobody told me about gum. I'd heard about caning and legalized – or “regulated” – prostitution, but I nobody told me I couldn't buy gum in Singapore. I'll admit it: I have a severe Wrigley's addiction. I was out of sticks shortly after I arrived, so I stopped by a convenience store and found only mints. Mints. I asked the clerk, who told me quite politely that gum was not allowed in Singapore. Immediately the shaking began. I'm on my fourth tin of Clorets.
And that's the most awful thing I can say about Singapore, which should give you some indication of how utterly delightful it is.
Not sure what I expected, really. I'd done some research, so I knew Singapore was a tiny island city-state off the Malaysian peninsula, population roughly 4.8 million, one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, a former British colony that had grown into a banking, shipping and electronics superpower, the bulk of the growth coming after 1960.
Like most Americans, I associated Singapore with the infamous caning case of American Michael Fay in 1994. For the uninitiated, Fay (allegedly) vandalized cars and received a sentence of four whacks with a rattan cane. Frankly, that's a much lighter sentence than he would have received had he been caught in the act in my neighborhood. (I speak from experience. One of my neighbors nearly beheaded a local juvenile miscreant for lighting off fireworks a few nights before I left the States. I feel comfortable that my property is in good hands.)
But the truth about Singapore is that it's a remarkable – nay, stunning – modern city. Spotless, prosperous, multi-cultural, scenic and peaceful with absolutely no gum on the sidewalks. Think San Diego after a year of bodybuilding. Immense high-rises, breathtaking sights, beautiful people, ocean access and rich neighborhoods. I expected some of this; just didn't expect it in this magnitude.
That's the reason, of course, that the Singapore Tourism Board invited me and other journalists on this trip: to fill you with the idea that YOU MUST COME HERE AND SPEND YOUR MONEY. I'm not sure if it's working on me. I'm resistant to such propaganda, so PLEASE COME HERE AND SPEND YOUR MONEY.
Just don't try to spend it on gum.
Wednesday, Sept. 23, 19:03.
I arrive in Singapore from Tokyo after covering the IndyCar race in Motegi. I manage to find my way from Utsunomiya to Tokyo without issue, and, as always, marvel at the Japanese hospitality. The first thing I notice about Singapore, aside from the sign in the Kuala Lumpur airport telling me I'll be sentenced to death if I bring drugs on the plane (gulp), is the Western influence. Four languages are considered official, but English is spoken readily. Having been astounded by the custom (or uncustom) of tipping in Japan, I asked my cabbie about tipping in Singapore. His answer? If you want to tip, tip. Good answer. I tipped him. Hadn't tipped anyone since I left Orlando. I was starting to feel cheap. OK, cheaper than usual.
I arrived at the Quincy hotel, the first of three hotels during the stay, and promptly met Natalie Soh, the Quincy's director of marketing, and her husband, Eugene Goh, for a cocktail. They ushered me to Klee on Portsdown Road, where bartender Wijayacustom-made a Makers Mark cocktail for me, a drink so exquisite that I had to have another. Wijaya is a genius, by the way, and Klee is a must-see. Not that I can be plied with alcohol in exchange for free publicity.
Eugene, who is among the medical staff in the chase vehicles this week at the Singapore GP, spent some time at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., so immediately we had Midwestern farmin' stories to tell. Eugene and Natalie had attended the county fair in Rochester, and I'm a regular at the Iowa State Fair, so we compared stories about weird things you eat at a fair in the Midwest. I trumped them with fried Pepsi, with fried Snickers a close second. I was shocked to learn that they'd never heard of the butter cow, Iowa's disturbing yet fat-friendly tradition of sculpting a full-sized cow out of butter each year for the state fair. Not just a cow, either. Sometimes we throw in a butter Elvis or a butter Michael Jackson. We're like that. We play with butter. Deal with it.
The point of the meeting was supposed to have been publicity. Here's how this works: You give me a free hotel room and drinks, and I give your property some props on a website that, on a good day, 200 people might visit, one of which might – might – take a trip to Singapore within the next 20 years. So, I was supposed to listen to the pitch, then offer printed kudos to the Quincy, a delightfully funky boutique hotel that everyone who ever visits Singapore really should visit. But Natalie didn't give the hard sell, so she's never going to get any free pub out of me about her fantastic hotel and its unusual services, like free food and minibar, a stunning rooftop pool, and the ever-so-cool secret compartment in the wall that hides the ironing board. I'm just not going to sell out like that. Never never never. Quincy Quincy Quincy.
Thursday, Sept. 24, 0900.
I meet Winnie Ubbink, our guide from the Singapore Tourism Board, which arranged this little F1 junket for several journalists from around the world. Four of us are from the States, and Winnie is assigned to us. Poor Winnie. She has no idea she has a man diva in her midst. Our first trip is to the Singapore Flyer, the world's tallest observation wheel, and I decide not to pull a diva moment by telling the world that I am deathly afraid of heights. It was time to man up and get on a Ferris wheel that goes 50 bazillion feet in the air. Without any audible whimpering, I survived, and it was sensational. When I wasn't shaking, I actually took photos.
Later in the day, we checked in at the Fullerton Hotel. Once the main post office for Singapore, it was renovated into a five-star hotel of spectacular style. My room has a direct view of the hairpin turn that's going to give everyone grief this weekend. I'm not used to this level of luxury. You're dealing with a guy who'll be staying at the Super 8 in Florida City for the IndyCar finale at Homestead. I don't mind fleas, really. The bed at the Fullerton is so wonderful, I decide not to leave it. I've gotten soft. I step on the glass scale in the bathroom, which is larger than my living room. Yep, I've gained five pounds. Time for more Cadbury from the minibar.
We have dinner with Louis Sailer, CEO of Fullerton Hotels and Resorts, Carolyn Goh, director of marketing communications, and Elsie Chew, director of sales and marketing. Louis is a car guy, so immediately he's engaged in car talk with me and Motor Trend's Michael Floyd, who's also in our tour group. The food is remarkable, the hotel impeccable. And I'm not saying that just because they want me to. I'm saying it because the fine folks at the Fullerton let me stay there for free for three nights, which would have cost me more than I spend on housing in two months. So everyone at the Fullerton is invited to Florida for two months at my place, complimentary of Olson Hotels and Resorts. Free Hot Pockets for everyone.
Everywhere we went during our stay at the Fullerton, Carolyn and her staff were there. We were allowed to watch qualifying and the race from three different locations on hotel property, all of which were breathtaking, and not just because of the free drinks and food. My idea of watching a race involves a recliner and a drink (and those are the races I actually cover) so the Fullerton crew had me at champagne, sir? I'm in love with this place.
Yep, this is shaping up to be the perfect junket. Wait, have I mentioned the Fullerton? Fullerton Fullerton Fullerton. Hey, you, that one Racer.com reader who might visit Singapore in the next 20 years. If you don't stay at the Fullerton when you're here, I'm going to personally blog you every day for the remainder of your years. The place is that nice. And the alternative is that scary. Make your reservation now. Or else.
Friday, Sept. 25, 19:40.
A friend updated his status on Facebook from Dover: “I'm in the presence of Dale Earnhardt Jesus.” Being a smartass, I'm incapable of silence. “I'm in the presence of Lewis Hamilton Messiah,” I reply. Truth is, I haven't been anywhere near LH Messiah all week. Due to a snafu with credentials, I didn't get any and therefore won't be covering the race. Technically, there's no need for me to cover the race, since Autosport has everything it needs. The only assignment I have is an interview with Peter Windsor, and I got that yesterday at his hotel, which unfortunately wasn't the Fullerton. The rest of the week is work-free. I'm spending most of it in a van driven by Ravi with Winnie and the other three members of Team America: Mike, Annie Scott (tonic.com, luxist.com, gadling.com, stylelist.com) and Kristin Finan of the Houston Chronicle.
Our mission apparently is to visit every hotel, resort, amusement park and other tourist destination on the island. At each one, we get a press kit that we can't possibly take home. We've already amassed enough business cards to start a small fire. The van is small, but we're having fun and getting along. We pass a sign the baffles us. Low crime doesn't mean no crime. We ask about it later in the day. Essentially it means, “Dear citizen: Just because we have a low crime rate doesn't mean you won't get your pocket picked. Pay attention.” But what it really means is we aren't in Miami.
Tonight's cocktail hour is on the helipad at the top of the Swissotel. Seventy-three floors up. Tallest hotel in the city. Surely a gust of wind will blow me off. I can't fly. I'm queasy and we haven't even arrived. Once there, I resist the urge to curl into the fetal position. I finally get brave enough to walk close to the edge, but I want to crawl. The view is breathtaking. My photos are blurry from the shaking.
After dinner, we go to the zoo for a night safari. Everything is going great until we find ourselves in a cage with bats the size of small children. These things were like dogs with wings and fangs. The sign at the door to the cage actually said this: Dear Fool: Inside this cage are itsy bitsy little fruit bats that are so cute you want to cuddle with them. They are totally harmless, and they would never crap or pee on you. Have a nice day.
Yeah. Uh-huh. So their leader, who was about the size of a VW Beetle, flapped by and dropped a load on the back of my neck. I swear he was laughing as he did it. This, of course, led to any number of jokes about me being batsh-t crazy. I had to summon the wonderful housekeeping staff at the Fullerton the following morning to pick up some laundry. I would have told them the bat story, but they never would have believed it.
Saturday, Sept. 26, 12:20.
I Googled “wrist rash” last night and suspect I might have HIV. Let me explain. Since the day of the IndyCar race in Motegi the previous Saturday, I've had a weird-looking rash on the inside of my left wrist. At first I thought it had something to do with my watch, like maybe an allergic reaction to cheap pretend silver. Then I thought I tangled with some poison ivy. It itched like mad, but it didn't seem to be growing, so I figured it would just fade away, and Googling “wrist rash” will get you anything from HIV to minor skin irritation.
But last night after the safari, I noticed the same discoloration on my right wrist and ankles and decided I'd better do something about it before it reached my face or other important parts. So I told Winnie that I needed to see a doctor, and she politely agreed to let me out of yet another dinner/tour/press kit to go to Raffles Memorial Hospital to see a doctor. (By the way, Raffles is everywhere in Singapore. Sir Stamford Raffles, the Brit who “discovered” Singapore, certainly left his legacy. Raffles Hospital is on Raffles Blvd., which intersects with Raffles Ave. at the Raffles Hotel, which isn't far from Raffles Mall in Rafflestown, where you can visit Raffles Mini-Mart and buy some Raffles potato chips. I kid. But the guy's name is on everything.)
So here's what happened. I walked in to the emergency room, talked to a pleasant orderly at the desk who took my info and looked at my red wrist. I gave him my insurance card, knowing it would do no good, and was correct in that assumption. He checked and said he'd never heard of my insurance company. For those who are curious, my utterly useless health insurance carrier, which shall remain anonymous but involves two blues, a cross and a shield, charges me $300 a month and then uses that $3,600 a year to fight every single dime I attempt to claim (after I spend $2,000 of my own money in deductible, of course). Fortunately, it will no longer be receiving my money at the end of this month, since the last pre-existing condition episode cost me an additional $2,000 and sent me over the great blue edge.
So the orderly tells me I'll have to pay cash, which is fine, because now my ears are beginning to itch and I'm thinking they'll never let me off this island if I show up for my flight with a face the color and texture of a strawberry. He gives me a number and tells me it will be about 45 minutes, so I go next door to Raffles Mall and have a grande cappuccino at Rafflesbucks. I return 30 minutes later and no more than sit down when my number appears and I'm directed to Door No. 4. I'm thinking, “Here's where the wait really begins.”
Wrong, strawberry face. Behind Door No. 4 sits Dr. Jimmy Yeoh, the most proficient and polite doctor I'll ever meet. He looks at my wrist, asks me three questions, tells me I'm having an allergic reaction to food, and tells me not to eat shellfish. He writes a quick script, bids me farewell, and tells me to take the paperwork to the window straight ahead. I deliver it, wait a few minutes, get two medications – a cortisone cream and an antibiotic – and pay $78 Singapore dollars, which amounts to something around $60 U.S. The whole episode lasted about an hour.
Now, had this been the two blues, I would have first had to visit a GP of their choosing, who would direct me to a dermatologist of their choosing who probably would have Googled “wrist rash” and told me I had HIV, and then they would have denied my claim because I probably already had HIV before I took out the insurance policy. It would have cost at least $200 – at the very least – and probably much worse. On top of the $3,600 annually. On top of the $2,000 deductible. Instead, I was treated for $60 and the rash disappeared in 48 hours. Had I been a Singaporean, my bill would have been zero. Zero.
Not to go all Michael Moore on you, but America's health-care system is Raffled beyond belief. We need less crosses and shields and more Dr. Jimmys. Stat.
Sunday, Sept. 27, 19:30.
Of all the people who have guided us, been nice to us, and tried to PR us during the trip, Carolyn is at the top of the list. I strongly suspect she never leaves the Fullerton. She's there waiting for us when we stumble to the van every morning, and she's there when we stumble out of the van every night. She knows what we need before we need it. She's telepathic. Last night as we were watching qualifying from the roof of the hotel, I was thinking, not out loud, not even moving my lips as usual: “What is the population Singapore?” I turned to my left and she magically appeared, saying, “The population of Singapore is 4.8 million.” I was moderately frightened.
Seriously, she is that good at what she does. On Saturday, she ushered Mike and me to Fullerton One across the street from the hotel for an even better vantage point of the race. She got our drinks, answered our stupid questions, and didn't laugh at the way we were dressed. She was delightful.
On the night of the race, she's even better. As I'm drinking free champagne, I'm thinking, silently again, “Damn, a beer would taste good right now.” Mind you, there's no beer on the roof. Just champagne and wine. Not 30 seconds after this thought crosses my brain, Carolyn hands me a beer. She had to go downstairs, get beer, and bring it to me, without being asked, and without knowing that I really wanted a beer. I've never been so astonished in my life. Mike got one, too. She continued to fetch beer for us the rest of the night. We decided then and there that we were going to live the rest of our lives at the Fullerton Hotel, even if we could only afford a broom closet in the basement.
I plan to use the Fullerton's hospitality to my advantage next weekend at Homestead. When I check into the Super 8, I'll demand my robe and slippers and a flute of champagne. “Where's my minibar? You call this a motel? Where's the remote for the drapes? When's the turn-down service? Do you have anyone on staff who can read my mind? What am I thinking right now? If it involves beer, there better be one in my hand within 30 seconds. Fullerton Fullerton Fullerton.”
After the race, Carolyn continues our party in the hotel's Post Bar, where she actually joins our little drinking group. At this point, we're all buzzing along nicely. Annie and I have been petting fish in the lobby's pool. You read that right. I said petting fish. They'll swim right up to you and let you pet them like cats. Not making that up. Fish that purr. Meanwhile, Mike has everyone in stitches. I haven't this much fun at a race since, well, ever.
Did I mention the Messiah won the race? Yeah, there's my coverage. Enjoy.
Monday, Sept. 28, 03:45.
Of all the fascinating places we visited – Marina Bay Sands, Resorts World, Swissotel, St. Regis, Quincy, the Singapore Flyer, the Singapore Zoo, the National Museum – Capella was the most opulent. Located on Sentosa, a small island not far from Singapore's financial district, it's a resort of unimaginable extreme. We toured a townhome that went for $50K a month. I wept quietly, then wondered why we didn't get to stay there for free for the week.
The depth of wealth in Singapore is almost painful to fathom. There are other cities in the world that boast this kind of affluence – Dubai, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Geneva, New York – but all come with their own set of issues. Singapore is as good as it gets. Immense wealth, cleanliness, order, manners. A fascinating mix of political philosophies, races, cultures and religions. But what's most striking is the apparent lack of poverty. In every city in the U.S., people stand on street corners begging for money. The first thing you notice about this city of raging capitalism is a lack of the other side of capitalism – the losing side.
Of course, I had to ask stupid questions. Why no homeless? Why no poverty? Why low crime (but not no crime)? Why no gum? The answers are myriad, but the essential element is political. While open to capitalism, Singapore also contains elements of socialism that actually work. Anyone who makes less than $7,000 a month lives in public housing. Not the tenements you see on the south side of Chicago, but clean, immaculate high-rises with condos that the residents don't rent, but own. In short, there are two political philosophies in play here, and both work together seamlessly. Tough on crime, soft on people, big on corporations. And no, Singaporeans aren't being taxed to death for it. A worker who owns his home is a responsible citizen. No gum means clean streets. No drugs plus no guns equal no crime. Or low crime, anyway. Interesting concept. Beautiful place.
Tuesday, Sept. 29, 04:30
Ravi picks me up for the ride to the airport and the start of a journey that will take 31 hours and 19 minutes. Not that I timed it or anything. I'm dreading it, but I can't wait to get home. I haven't seen a football game – real football, the kind with helmets and broken limbs – in two weeks. I haven't chewed gum in what seems like a month. Seven hours later, I'm in the Tokyo airport just long enough to buy a pack of gum called Coolmint. It is neither. It tastes like tar spiced with dog turds, but it's gum, so I chew it. As I attempt to drift off to sleep, which I never do on a plane, I keep repeating pleasant thoughts. Low crime doesn't mean no crime. In Singapore, you can pet the fish. A bat just took a dump on your head. Quincy Quincy Quincy. Fullerton Fullerton Fullerton.
Eight bad movies later, the boots are on the ground in Washington Dulles. First contact I have with my fellow Americans is actual contact. She bumps into me three times in line before I lose all my Asian manners and turn to glare at her. She's huge. I haven't seen a woman that big since, ummm, I left here. She looks at me as if it was my fault that I was standing in her gut space. Welcome home, bat boy.
I upgrade to biz class and finally sleep for about 45 minutes on the final leg of the trip, from Dulles to Orlando. Then it's another two hours in the car, but at least I can sing. Out loud. I'm thrilled to be home. I hit a Wendy's and wolf down a double. It's the last thing I remember. I wake up three days later, delighted to be watching a football game and chewing real gum and thinking about beer but actually having to get it myself.
So there you have it. If you're that one person who might – might – visit Singapore in the next 20 years, DO IT NOW. STAY AT THE FULLERTON. AND THE QUINCY. SPEND LOTS OF MONEY. VISIT THE ZOO. PET THE FISH.
But please avoid the bats.