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Raffles City Hotel Scales the Heights in Singapore

May 10, 1987|MICHAEL CARLTON | Carlton is a Denver Post travel columnist

SINGAPORE — Rocketing upward, encased in steel, you take 36 seconds to reach the top of the world's tallest hotel. The elevator's rapid rise pops your ears about halfway into the journey.

When you reach the top of Raffles City, 73 stories above the simmering sidewalks of Singapore, you can see three countries: Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. You can look over much of the island of Singapore, where high-rises sprout like weeds, poking into air as humid as a lily pond.

Far below, huddled in the shadow of Raffles City like a rabbit hiding from a hawk, you may spot the original Raffles Hotel, where buses still pull up every afternoon and discharge a cargo of tourists who dutifully walk in to have a Singapore Sling, invented in the hotel's bar.

While the old Raffles Hotel came to represent the Far East to romantics like Somerset Maugham, who said it stood "for all the fables of the exotic East," Raffles City, a massive, $700-million hotel, office and shopping complex, represents the new Singapore.

Grandson Mixes Drinks

If having a Singapore Sling in the slightly moth-eaten Raffles Hotel makes you feel a little nostalgic for the old Singapore--the wide-open, everything-is-available-for-a-price city of sin--fine. Have a Singapore Sling. In fact, have two, mixed by the grandson of the man who invented the killer drink in the first place.

After you've sat in the bar, along with about 100 other tourists, and have had your drink, and after you've strolled about the musty interior, cross Bras Basah Road, dodge the rushing traffic and take that elevator ride to the top of Raffles City. Walk into the Compass Rose lounge and have another drink. Walk to the window, and look around, and you'll see today's Singapore, a city so squeaky clean you can be arrested on the spot for dropping a gum wrapper, or for jaywalking!

From the Compass Rose you can see the lovely old Victorian Parliament and Supreme Court buildings and the Padang, where tiny figures in white are playing cricket, as they have for a hundred years.

But that's about all the old Singapore you'll see from Compass Rose, because that's about all that is left. The rest is glass and stainless steel. Singapore, like it or not, is as modern as downtown Chicago.

Raffles City, which took seven years to build, is symbolic of the new Singapore, a city of energy, high technology and discipline.

Somerset Maugham probably would have hated this new Singapore and Raffles City (and you may, too), but even Maugham would grudgingly admire the energy of this small (2.5 million population, 225 square miles) country that has leapfrogged from a British backwater to become an Asian economic giant.

Raffles City sits on an eight-acre site once home to the 1823 Raffles Institution. The complex is not far from the location where, in 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles first arrived and bought the entire island from a Malay sultan as a buffer against growing Dutch holdings in the area.

The I. M. Pei-designed complex is stunning, even for those of us used to the immense, sprawling commercial centers of America.

It includes two hotels, the 73-story Westin Stamford and the twin, 28-story towers of the Westin Plaza; a 42-story office building, and an eight-story atrium shopping complex with 75 stores, including the huge Japanese Sogo department store.

There are 72 elevators and 24 escalators to whisk you about the complex, a helipad on the roof, a train and metro station in the basement and two of the largest display boards in the world, each winking with 106,000 light bulbs.

The hotels have 2,049 rooms, meeting space for 5,000 people, two ballrooms and 25 meeting rooms. There are 17 restaurants--ranging from Italian at Prego, Chinese at the Szechuan Court and French at the Palm Grill to Japanese at Inagiku.

The two Westin hotels are among the most advanced "smart" buildings in the world. Computerized locks notify security when each room is entered, and who did the entering--a guest, the cleaning staff or an intruder. Sensors in the rooms know when you leave, and then cut the air conditioning. A button by your bed will automatically open the drapes.

Because of its central location, Raffles City is a good base for tours of Singapore. Most of the major tourist attractions--Parliament House, Supreme Court, Victoria Theater, Raffles Landing Site, Satay Club and Food Center, Merlion Park, Arab Street, Bugis Street (minus the infamous transvestites, who have been run off by the government)--are within a short walk.

Not Only Development

Although Raffles City is the most spectacular hotel development in Singapore, it is not the only one. At nearby Marina Square there are three new hotels: Mandarin, Oriental and Pan Pacific. In the past three years, 10,000 new hotel rooms have opened. By 1990, another 6,000 will be welcoming guests, bringing Singapore's total to nearly 30,000.

Because of the massive increase in hotel rooms, and the slackening of tourism to Singapore, the nation has become one of Asia's real bargains. Just five years ago Singapore was the most expensive nation in the Far East, with tourism growing by 10% each year and occupancy rates more than 90%. Today, it's the least expensive, after Malaysia.

Hotel occupancies are now running about 55% and some rooms, even in Raffles City, can be had for $38 a night. During the good times, the same rooms would have cost $110.

For information on the Westin Stamford and Westin Plaza, contact your travel agent or Westin Hotels by calling (800) 228-3000. For more information on Singapore, write the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board, 8484 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 510, Beverly Hills, Calif. 90211, or phone (213) 852-1901.

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