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Taste With Vir: Two Cities

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These are two cities that Indians often visit. And some of us, if asked, would consider moving there because none of the towns seem too far from home. Singapore and Dubai have a lot in common. These are two cities that only reached maturity in the last decades of the 20th century. Neither city has many natural resources. Singapore is a city-state that imports almost everything it needs. Dubai seems prosperous, but it’s not because of oil wealth. Compared to its neighbors in the region, Dubai has virtually no oil.

Both cities were built by individual leaders with a vision. In the case of Singapore, there were times in the 1960s when its very existence seemed to be in danger. But thanks to the visionary (if somewhat ruthless and ruthless) leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore has become one of the great cities of the world. Dubai owes its success almost entirely to the leadership of Sheikh Mohammed, its hereditary ruler whose vision of a modern city rising from the sand came to fruition.

Both cities have used foreign talent to fuel their success. Dubai has always welcomed helpful foreigners and Singapore has long been a home for Asians from across the region as well as skilled Europeans and Australians.

And there are other similarities. Both have gleaming skyscrapers and wide modern roads. Both have malls that are small towns unto themselves. Both are full of international hotels. Both are proud of their culinary scene. Both have liberalized their original rigid regulations. It’s now easier than ever to have a drink in Dubai. And Singapore transformed its award-winning image in the early years of this century by allowing casinos to open.

So how do they compare? During the pandemic I have been to Dubai twice but until recently it was difficult to get into Singapore. But now that Singapore has liberalized entry requirements, it is quite easy for vaccinated Indians to visit. I was there last week and wondered if maybe I should reconsider my views on the differences between the two cities.

The fundamental differences: For all its internationalism, Singapore is an old city with a traditional culture all its own. Yes, there are Indians and Malays, but it is above all a Chinese city. (The Chinese make up something like 75% of the population.) The Chinese dominate the city, speak Singapore Mandarin among themselves (although you will still find people who speak Hokkien and other dialects) and will be the ethnic group that any visitor most often sees: Reception staff when you check into a hotel, taxi drivers and vendors.

This gives Singapore cultural roots that Dubai does not have. Dubai is a city full of foreigners with locals constituting only less than 20% of the population. If you see an Arab in Dubai, chances are they are from another part of the Middle East. Therefore, the influence of Emirati culture is very weak in Dubai compared to Chinese culture in Singapore.

Singapore is therefore a Chinese city that welcomes foreigners. Dubai is an international city of the United Arab Emirates.

The Indian Factor: Singapore has always had an ethnic Indian population. More and more Indians have traveled and settled there over the years. I am always surprised by the number of Indians I meet who consider themselves Singaporeans, either by birth or by adoption.

But Dubai is dominated by Indians and Pakistanis. You can probably talk to your taxi driver in Hindi or Urdu. Every room service menu in the hotel will feature Indian food. A large portion of the people you will see working in your hotel will be South Asians. It will be the same at the airport.

There are times when Dubai feels like an extension of India; one of the reasons Indians love the city so much.

Convenience for travelers: There was a time when I was convinced that Changi was the best airport in the world and that Singapore Airlines was the best international airline. These are still valid positions but I am less sure today than before.

Dubai has improved so quickly that I think it may have overtaken Singapore. Traveling through Changi this time was not the breeze it was. (I couldn’t believe it took me less time to clear immigration, collect my luggage and clear customs at Delhi airport on my return than it did when I arrived in Changi.)

Dubai Airport has weathered the pandemic much better. All passengers from India were tested at the airport both times I landed, but testing was so smooth and quick that it didn’t delay us much.

In Singapore, on the other hand, after exiting customs, we had to queue for over 20 minutes to get tested. And the test in Dubai was free. Singapore changed the equivalent of around 7,000 per head. (Singapore was due to abolish the airport test shortly after I left, so this may have already happened.)

Singapore Airlines had few check-in counters in the premium sections, passengers had to wait longer than necessary, and the lounge was filled with dirty tables that were only cleared haphazardly. Inflight food ranged from mediocre to inedible and business class wines were not distinguished.

By contrast, Emirates now appears to be the far superior airline with fast check-in, efficiently managed lounges and memorable food and wine.

Who would have thought?

Hotels: Singapore and Dubai have excellent hotels, so comparisons are likely to depend on which hotel you stayed in and what time you stayed. For example, I thought the Marriott Marquis in Dubai was awful when I stayed there five years ago, but a lot of people have had good experiences at the same hotel. I stayed at the Four Seasons in Singapore three years ago and loved it, but this time the hotel services seemed to have fallen apart. With the exception of reception (which was fine), nothing worked. Room service seemed to be run by two and a half overworked people who couldn’t cope. Housekeeping was sloppy. The only meal I had at the hotel was pretty bad.

It is therefore difficult to generalise. This varies from person to person and from stay to stay.

Transport: It is much easier to get around in Dubai. Taxis are plentiful. The drivers are friendly. And you are unlikely to get lost. Taxis are harder to come by in Singapore and unless you have an account with Grab or some such service you might find it difficult to get around. (I didn’t use public transport so can’t comment on the quality in either city, but I guess most tourists won’t have time to master the bus routes ).

To eat: It’s the only chink in Dubai’s armor. There are very few good restaurants in town. Almost anything popular is a branch of a restaurant somewhere else. The recently announced Middle East edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranks Zuma as the second best restaurant in Dubai and includes Le Petit Maison and Coya among the best restaurants in Dubai. They are probably very good but they are all branches of London restaurants and one of them is actually run by the owners of the London branch of a restaurant in Nice. (None of London’s original and best restaurants are good enough to even make it onto the World’s 50 Best which tells its own story.)

It’s not really a foodie scene to rival New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong or any major city. But no one seems to care. They sincerely believe that Zuma is the greatest restaurant in the world and everyone is trying to rip it off.

By contrast, Singapore is now the foodie capital of the East with its own world-class restaurants. Odette, three stars in the Michelin guide, could challenge any restaurant in Paris. Burnt Ends has revolutionized the way people look at barbecue places. It helps that Singapore’s dining scene is frequented by the global financial community (which moved there in the 21st century after Hong Kong returned to the Chinese), whose members might eat in Paris one night and in Singapore the next. The reference is therefore international, the best wines in the world are served and customers know the difference between real Japanese cuisine and the disco-Japanese cuisine of Dubai.

So where should you go? It depends. I like the convenience and friendliness of Dubai. As an Indian, I feel at home. India never seems too far away.

But as a foodie, it would have to be the much more sophisticated city of Singapore where you can have a great lunch at a three-star Michelin restaurant and a terrific dinner at a hawker center.

And both meals will be equally enjoyable.


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