A FEW months ago, when some bright spark in Singapore invented a robot which could do a lion dance, there was a suggestion that it might be employed to welcome tourists at Changi airport. This has not yet come to pass but you can see how it conforms to the popular perception of the Lion City itself - sanitised, smart-alecky, faintly ludicrous and with the heart of a machine. At about the same time, elder statesman and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew announced that falling in love was a Western fantasy. This, too, could be taken as proof of robotic emotions were it not for the fact that florists can barely cope with the romantic flush which seeps across the island on Valentine's Day, and that lovey-doveyness shows no sign, as yet, of being stamped out. As such stories might indicate, there's a bit of an identity crisis going on in Singapore and the Tourist Promotion Board isn't entirely sure how to deal with it. A recent advertising campaign posed the question: 'Can a city of the future still let you sleep in the past?' On the one hand, it's happy to extol the virtues of this gleaming citadel of the next millennium - thrusting new tiger, swaggering cock-of-the-walk, miraculous vision and so forth - which grew out of a disease-laden old jungle. On the other hand, visitors rather like being reminded of old jungles. They don't want cholera, exactly, but they enjoy being tickled by romantic frissons of the past. So the answer to the tourist board's own question, of course, is 'Yes'. History has been dusted down, given a lick of paint and is luring in the punters. Back in 1957, when Singapore was trying to lay its tourist trail, one assemblyman pointed out that visitors came to see precisely three attractions on the island: 'swamplands, some fine buildings and the death houses of Sago Lane'. The death houses, where senior citizens were packed off so that their imminent demise would not bring ill-fortune to the family home, have themselves gone the way of all flesh, but tourism has perked up considerably. And it's enjoyable. If Singapore is in two minds about whether to look forward or back, the rest of us are similarly hesitant about whether or not it's cool to like the Asian Switzerland - that being the only other country on the globe which is chastised for being too pristine, too organised, too regulated. The average traveller tut-tuts over its perceived sterility on a first visit, begins to see the advantages of cleanliness on a second and by the third trip is positively longing for a place which, to use the appropriate Swiss metaphor, runs like clockwork. When you've lived in Asia for a while, it's refreshing not to fight your way through a horde of hissing hagglers at the airport in order to find a taxi. If you're staying at The Duxton hotel, in fact, you don't have to do any wrestling at all: they send a London taxi to pick you up. The Duxton is a perfect example of the new old-look Singapore attraction. It was only opened five years ago but it used to be a row of eight turn-of-the-century shophouses in the middle of Tanjong Pagar, a last breath or two away from infamous Sago Lane. Before that it was a nutmeg plantation owned by an Englishman called Duxton. It reeks of the genteel, unreal past - there is the pleasant sensation of entering a cosy time warp of shuttered windows and half-moon fanlights, attentive staff and hushed conversation, without the inconvenience of dodging opium-dens, raddled gamblers and the gang warfare which used to give Duxton Road a seedy name. Now it's part of a historical conservation area which the Singaporean Government has been sprucing up since the 1980s. Behind the three-storey facade, there are only 49 rooms and suites which means the Duxton is one of those hotels which can officially be described as 'boutique', a term which in the 1960s was used to denote the most desirably fashionable shops and in the 1990s is used to denote the most desirably fashionable inns. In other words, it has all those mod-cons (CNN, in-house videos, 24-hour room service) without which the international traveller becomes cranky, and none of the brash excesses (echoing lift lobbies, 14 food and beverage outlets, the never-ending sound of strange feet in endless corridors) which can drive the international traveller to distraction. It also has that much-valued quality, charm, and, even better - for some - it has an excellent restaurant called L'Aigle d'Or (the Golden Eagle), which serves French cuisine. Perhaps this swayed that strict and prestigious body, the Relais & Chateaux Association which was founded in 1954 and which earlier this year announced that the Duxton has become its first Southeast Asian member. The Relais & Chateaux is so regulated in its dealings, so systematic in its quality control, that it's faintly amazing it has taken 42 years to get round to including a Singaporean hotel in its guide. What it calls the necessary '5C' standard - character, courtesy, calm, charm and cuisine - is exactly the sort of campaign the Singapore Government would cook up. And regularly does. The most recent public awareness programme has been an attempt to stop people concussing one another in a rush for the lifts. While we can all identify the need for this sort of thing in Hong Kong, the curious point is that Singaporeans are, on the whole, an excessively polite bunch, not noticeably given to elevator scrums. But this is what happens when a multi-racial population of Chinese, Malays and Indians has to be held together - everyone's bombarded with official advice and ringing slogans, mainly on the theme of Unity in Diversity. 'We know where we came from,' the BBC World Service-accented voice-over informs those leaving the exhibition, 'Images of Singapore'. 'And we know where we're going.' Images of Singapore is on Sentosa island which is a very Swiss cable-car journey across the world's busiest harbour. Although it sounds like the sort of heavy-duty outing which made school trips such a chore, it's well worth a visit. The Pioneers of Singapore section has lots of waxwork tableaux - here Sir Stamford Raffles, the state's founder, looking hairy-handed and red-eyed (he died of a brain tumour only seven years after he first set foot on the island); there, under a large, squeakily flapping butterfly, the Armenian lady who discovered and gave her name to the orchid Vanda Miss Joaquim which is Singapore's national flower; in the corner, two suspiciously strapping coolies lounging in a pristine coolie quarter with a shrivelled waxen mouse for company. The Surrender Chambers, next door, is of particular fascination, it seems, for Japanese tourists which can add to the surreal quality of the experience, especially when the tour groups select the Japanese voice-over for the jerky black-and-white film footage. 'The elderly Japanese hurry through this bit,' confides one of the guides, but the younger tourists stroll round registering neither horror nor embarrassment at their elders' three-year occupation from 1942 to 1945. The sorry story is all there, from The Straits Times headline 'Men of Eastern Fleet Supremely Confident', to the Intelligence Officer (so-called) lecturing the Australian troops about their foe ('The Japanese are very small and short-sighted and are thus totally unsuited physically to tropical warfare. They have aeroplanes made from old kettles and kitchen utensils ... and rifles of the kind used in films about the Red Indians'), to the advertisement placed in The Straits Times of January 31, 1942 by The British Malaya Trustee and Executor Co Ltd which baldly asked 'Have You Made Your Will?' By February 15, 1942 such questions were redundant and the executioners were in charge. The atrocities are not glossed over. Then there is a single room with the sound of an unusual wind blowing and a picture of devastation: Hiroshima. And more film footage - Mountbatten, that vain old ham, looking like a Hollywood film star as he accepts the Japanese surrender in 1945. If this becomes altogether too gloomy, Sentosa also offers natural history in the form of Underwater World. Visitors are invited to stroll along a travellator under an acrylic tunnel and see millions of minute fish fibrillating in the water or feel the massive shadow of an eagle ray pass overhead like a stealth bomber. The names of the marine life alone are enchanting - who could resist a Humphead Maori Wrasse or a Blotched Porcupine Fish? Or Jamie, the 60-kilogram giant grouper who can change sex at will and could therefore, one day, decide to become a Jemima. Best of all, however, is the amazing Weedy Seadragon from southern Australia. It has a long snout, a pale ochre fringe and a quite astounding resemblance to popular images of the ancient, fabulous monster it's named after. But the most memorable thing about it is that it looks like an underwater creature which has been designed on an LSD trip, being pink and orange and lilac and yellow and purple - all at once. If you wanted an example of unity in diversity or of how the beast from the past has been subdued into the demure present, you could do a lot worse than gaze in admiration upon this beautiful sight. Somebody's probably working on the robot version right now. HOW TO GET THERE The Duxton Hotel is at 83 Duxton Road, Singapore. Tel: 65-227-7678. Fax: 65-227-1232. A double standard room costs Singapore $310 (HK$ plus tax and includes full English breakfast. Singapore Airlines flies Hong Kong to Singapore every day. An economy fare flight costs $4,700. For information call Wallem Travel on 2876-8220.