by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, February 8, 2018
What's in a number? What’s in a figure of, say, 138.2? Or 98.7? Or 15,000? Or 32?
Random digits, surely? Well yes. And then, also, no. Because each one of these statistics has appeared in a recent survey by that most esteemed of lifestyle publications Time Out, which has conducted a spot of research to discover (or reconfirm; the poll - the Time Out City Life Index - runs every year) the most exciting city on earth.
So, to be more specific, those numbers relate to the 15,000 people who were questioned in 32 global metropolises, and were asked to rank their home conurbation on variables such as food, drink, affordability, friendliness, culture, happiness and liveability. That unexplained 138.2 refers to the score achieved by Chicago, which topped the results chart, while the 98.7 applies to Singapore, which stumbled across the line in 31st place, with a certain amount of grumbling.
A dishonorable mention too for the figure 87.1, pinned to the lapels of Istanbul - which rolled in last amid talk that "people here aren’t happy at all - they think their city is a rip-off, and that it’s unsafe."
Numbers numbers everywhere - one of them, 15,000, being, perhaps, a rather small sample size for a poll designed to assess the zing and ping of cities across the entire planet (that's just 468.75 people per city, if you can be bothered to do the maths).
But let's retreat, just a little, to 98.7, and 31, and Singapore, which dropped towards the bottom of the pile partly because its residents rated it lowly for culture, and partly because it seems to have been dogged by the old suggestion that the city is, well, dull.
"Singapore takes the 31st spot in a ranking of 32 of the world's most exciting cities - some would even say that makes our city boring compared to the rest," said a response from Time Out's Singapore staff. "But it's not all bad news," it added. "Singapore's dining and drinking offerings shine, with 92 per cent of people rating the city positively for eating. Of that percentage, 42 per cent believe food here is amazing."
This is not an unfamilar defence. Singapore has long been saddled with a reputation for being less exhilarating than a tureen of pea soup left outside in the rain for four days. Why? Well, its record for fastidious cleanliness - by no means a bad thing - probably contributes, in much the way that a clever pupil's neat handwriting will earn them an image as class swot. And its notorious ban on (most forms of) chewing gum - and the even more infamous fines of up to $700 for spitting the stuff on the pavement - definitely doesn't help. It makes Singapore seem to be a rigid stick-in-the-mud. Or it would do if there was any mud to stick in, in a city where street-cleaning is almost an artform.
But this is a character assassination which, while understandable, is also undeserved. True, Singapore may have scope for loosening up a little, but it is far from unexciting. As its Time Out staff declare, its culinary scene is diverse and impressive. Telok Ayer Market is a lively hub of grub stands where, if you can't find it, they can probably source it from somewhere if you give them a few minutes. Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, a food stall on Crawford Lane in Kampong Glam, takes things even further - despite its informality, it was awarded a Michelin star in 2016. There are windows-and-doors Michelin-starred restaurants too, some 29 in total, including Candlenut Kitchen, which serves Peranakan-Chinese cuisine (comodempsey.sg/restaurant/candlenut), and Lei Garden, with its Cantonese fare (chijmes.com.sg/lei-garden-restaurant) in City Hall.
There is splendid architecture too, of course - you only need to glance at the artificial super-trees of Gardens by the Bay (gardensbythebay.com.sg) to see the sort of zeal for the new and the inventive which might make you think "hmm, not really boring at all". Singapore Art Museum (singaporeartmuseum.sg), meanwhile, is a shiny treasure trove of contemporary culture.
There is, of course, an element in all these polls of "each to their own". There will be plenty of people, beyond the reach of the survey (only 235 people were quizzed in Singapore, which does seem a distinctly small number), who think Singapore is the epitome of razzle and dazzle; others who will consider the above comments about soup tureens left out in a downpour as being kind.
Further evidence of the subjectiveness of these things is there at the top of the poll. This writer is very fond of Chicago, and has visited it several times - but would not consider it even the most exciting city in the USA, let alone on the planet. Austin, New York and Los Angeles, which all come in lower down the results tree, are all more captivating and energising - in my opinion - than the Windy City. As are Seattle and Portland, which don’t even appear in the poll. And what of Rio, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Rome? Beauty, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder - but excitement and dullness clearly are too.