Often called The Grand Dame and one of the finest hotels in the world today, The Raffles richly deserves its place as a jewel of the city in Singapore. It’s not the luxe lifestyle of the rich and famous that makes it a jewel, rather, its place in history, at the heart of the physical and political landscape of Singapore that makes it a true gem.
Today, Raffles Hotel Singapore is a national monument and major tourist attraction. At all hours of the day, rain or shine, you will find tourists snapping shots of its majestic facade at the main entrance of 1 Beach Road. A major draw, are also the smartly attired Singh doormen, who look more like men of a Maha Rajah’s regiment than hotel doormen.
Tourists visit this gem because of its architecture and its history as a stopping place for the famous (and infamous) and royalty. Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and Anna Pavlova, Ava Gardner, Anthony Burgess were all guests who had given The Raffles its celebrity veneer today.
Today, for a price, one can partake in the institution of British High Tea amidst a white gloved ambience that for 2 hours, one can believe that one was transported back to a romantic past when travel was truly an adventure and for the privileged.
But The Raffles Hotel had not always been this place of agreeable pleasantness.
In the colonial days, like many “high end” establishments, locals were discreetly kept out – a microcosm of the “them” vs. “us” colonial mentality.
During World War II, in the days leading up to the Battle of Singapore, many European families who escaped from various parts of Malaya holed up in the Raffles. During the Japanese Occupation, The Raffles was incarnated briefly as Syonan Ryokan – an officers’ mess of sorts for Imperial Japanese militia. When the Japanese surrendered, some officers within the hotel committed suicide in true samurai code. After the surrender, it served briefly as a transit point where allied prisoners of war from Malaya, Java and Sumatra were held.
Another point I find interesting about the hotel is that in its early days, it was truly a beach front hotel hence its address on 1 Beach Road. But today, a visitor will be hard pressed to see where the sea is, standing on the front porch of the hotel. It’s not so much as the location of the hotel had changed, but that its surroundings had changed on the hotel. It occupies prime land today, at the heart of Singapore’s busy Civic District in the company of other national monuments.
These aspects of the hotel’s history are not often talked about in travel brochures, or considered by people in Singapore today. For its steadfastness, and as silent witness to key points in Singapore’s history – The Raffles Hotel Singapore gets my vote for "Jewel of the City.