I was heading to Singapore, capital city of the most modern and prosperous nation in Southeast Asia. The country had been transformed from being a slum-ridden former British colony into a modern mini- superstate of financial centres and modern factories, sky-scrapers and high-rise public housing. Its 2.4 million population (76% of Chinese extraction) enjoy the highest living standard in the East, although the government has often been criticized for its monopoly on political power and harsh treatment of dissidents. I wanted to see at first hand what this city was like, then look up Foo, an old family friend with whom we had lost contact, and finally visit my pen-friend in Surabaya, Indonesia.

My flight was Dublin-London-Singapore. Most of the 2-hour stay at Heathrow was spent walking to Terminal 3 and queing for security.

Cheongsam The flight from Heathrow to Singapore lasted about 12 hours on a 747. Fortunately I was on my own in a row of 3 seats so I made abundant use of the free space, stretching out to sleep, fitfully, until a passenger fell over me from the aisle and woke me up. That was all the sleep I would get, so sprawled over the 3 seats I read up my Rough Guide to Malaysia and Singapore.

Breakfast was served at 6:30 GMT, a hot omelette, roll, fruit, muffin and tea, by a Singapore Airlines stewardess looking elegant but underage (she looked about 14) in a traditional Chinese cheongsam. Although I normally would never eat that early (read: would never be awake!) I wolfed it down as I didn't know where my next meal would be coming from. Top marks to the airline staff for their courtesy and service (do I receive a free gift for that?).

On the small screen attached to the seat in front of me 22 channels were available, with a variety of offerings ranging from local promotional material to films, sitcoms and music. The promotion on Singapore was overpowering, highlighting the high-quality hotels, tourist resorts and entertainment of all kinds--I reckoned I would need several weeks to take the city in properly. Yet hadn't I just read that Singapore was renowned for its conservatism? A government politician during a debate had said: "We have to take this subject of 'fun' very seriously if we are to remain competitive in the new millenium!"

Next day