How do you solve a problem like Singapore?



David Whitley steps back from his computer games to find out how Singapore deals with its lack of space.

For those of us who spent abnormal amounts of time playing SimCity and other such playing god-esque computer games, Singapore is a fascinating test scenario.

The Asian city state is unique in planning terms. It’s a proper country (sorry, we’re not counting Monaco and the Vatican here), that’s also a city, crammed into an extremely limited piece of land. There’s probably nowhere else in the world where use of space is such a delicate balancing act, and every planning decision truly counts.

And it is this tightrope walk that makes the Singapore City Gallery far, far more interesting than it should be. It is basically a museum about how the city is planned, and anywhere else that could be dustbowl dry and nerdy. Here, though, you’re invited to play the game.

It kicks off with big sweeping stats about urbanisation – by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities; every week a new city the size of Kyoto or Barcelona springs up etc etc. But then it goes into Singapore’s specific challenges.

Despite extensive land reclamation, Singapore only has 710 square kilometres to play with. And the initial bank of touch screens strike home just how much has to fit in that space. Other cities have the luxury of placing some needs outside the city. Singapore can’t do that – defence installations, cemeteries, reservoirs, green areas, ports, airports, sewage works, expressways, commerce, housing and industry all have to be found a spot within the borders.

For comparison, Melbourne has a slightly smaller population than Singapore, but is 10.8 times bigger. London has just under three times the population and is 11.8 times bigger. Then you’ve got to consider that Singapore is also the broadcasting hub of Asia, has the world’s busiest port, and there are massive electronics, petrochemical and aerospace repair industries. Wrangling all that while keeping people happy and the environment liveable is an enormous task.



It’s also a task you get to try your hand at time and time again. Where the Singapore City Gallery excels is in making you have a go yourself, with a series of games aimed at balancing the competing demands. What would you put where? How would you break the zones down? What building designs would you put in a prime redevelopment slot? And do you preserve heritage or knock down to create more space?

Getting such things laughably wrong several times succeeds in its aim of giving you serious respect for the planners who draw up the ideas for Singapore’s future. But you can look at the plans too. The masterplan for the next ten to 15 years has been computerised, and you can scroll through maps of Singapore, painstakingly colour-coded into zones on a block by block basis. It’s enormously detailed and complex, and it’s difficult not to leave awestruck.

Especially when, on SimCity, you can ignore people complaining about traffic or lack of parks. In SingCity, they’re real human beings and need to be kept onboard in arguably the trickiest town planning puzzle on earth.



You can get Singapore included as a stopover on your round the world here




Five Quirky Places to Visit in Tokyo



Hachiko statue (Shibuya)

It’s not often that you see teens taking selfies next to a canine statue, but Hachiko has a special place in the hearts of the Japanese. So much so that they become angry when you ask whether it really existed.

We’ve all heard it before: a dog that waited outside a station to accompany its master home, until he died and never came back. The dog then went on waiting for its master until it, too, died.

A tall story, but is it true? Well, yes. Hachiko was a golden brown Akita purebred and its master, Professor Ueno from Tokyo University, acquired it in 1924.

Yes, Hachiko waited for Professor Ueno outside Shibuya station; yes, he died in 1925 from a cerebral haemorrhage and never returned home; and yes, Hachiko went on waiting for its master for a further nine years.

Inevitably people noticed the dog and an article about it appeared in the Asahi Shimbun in 1932.

Hachiko died on March 8 1935 and is buried next to its owner at Tokyo’s Minato cemetery.

So join the queue for a selfie by its statue at Shibuya station and shed a tear, unless you’re a cat lover, ‘cos you’ll never understand.

Yodobashi Akiba (Akihabara)

Yodobashi is pure geek heaven: six floors of the latest electronic gadgets, games and toys to satisfy the most ardent fan of nerdy pop culture.

You want a cam to record your life from your own point of view that’s flexible enough to wrap around your head like a headband? We have the Boud, just $200 for you.

Do you want a robot canine to turn Dr Who green with envy? We have a Dalmatian or a Beagle model, and also a tiny pet T-Rex, because we can.

Do you want to dress like Deadpool, as in the latest film of the Marvel Comics anti-hero? We have the full body suit for you.

A store to lose yourself for hours in.

Kite museum (Nihombashi)

This small, private museum above the Taimeiken restaurant – reached from exit B10 at Nihombashi metro station – is a labour of love by an eccentric Japanese kite owner.

The 200¥/£1.50 entry doesn’t do justice to the collection, for the kites displayed inside are works of art.

There are Chinese, Thai, even French kites of all colours, designs and shapes to make you wonder how they can go airbound at all.

There are paper and string contraptions that look more like flying ships with masts, and a paper bicycle straight out of E.T.

There are flat and curved kites on bamboo frames or glued to strings painted like elaborate oriental woodcuts, Kabuki masks or nightmarish visions from Japanese horror films.

Your camera will love them all.

Intermediatheque (Tokyo Central)

This free museum on the second and third floors of the Japan Post Office Tower encapsulates what is weird and wonderful about Japan.

On paper, this is an exhibition of the “scientific and cultural heritage accumulated by the University of Tokyo’. In practice it’s an entertaining mishmash of disparate items with absolutely no connection at all.

When Japan joined the rest of the world with the Meiji restoration in 1867, it sent explorers around the world in the manner of Stanley and Livingstone who started collecting ‘stuff’ not really knowing what and why. So, however the University dons want to dress it, it’s still “what we found in our travels”.

As a result, you get to see strange 19C inventions like the Öpik anemometer, so rare even Google has just a few entries on it.

There is old camera equipment, stuffed animals, Papua New Guinea ceremonial sculptures, a large globe made in Belgium, models of the largest diamonds ever found, an X-ray skiagraph of a hand, a Japanese spider crab with a legspan of 3.5 metres claw-to-claw, ancient Buddhist statues, figurines from the Ada people in Togo, several fossils, a false killer whale skeleton and the obligatory Egyptian mummy.

Your jaw is guaranteed to drop.



Beer museum (Ebisu)

Hardly a museum, more of a showcase for the Yebisu beer, the first beer brewed in Japan.

Established in 1887 with the help of German know-how and following its “pure law”, it was launched in 1890 with great success. In 1906 it merged with Sapporo Breweries but kept its name and character.

The museum is housed in the original Yebisu brewery, which was such a prominent building that in 1927 gave its name to the surrounding neighbourhood.

There is some interesting history, posters and bottles on display but the main reason for going there is that it’s the cheapest place to get pissed in Tokyo, what with five different showcase beers costing only 400¥(£3) per half-litre.

In posh surroundings, too.

You can get Japan included as a stopover in the Discoverer round the world