SINGAPORE – Chosen as the host city for the first-ever meeting of a sitting US president and the leader of North Korea, Singapore is the Switzerland of Southeast Asia, wealthy and exclusive, a politically neutral small state surrounded by larger powers.
It enjoys strong ties with the US and is one of the relatively few countries with a North Korean embassy. Safe, orderly and no-nonsense, Singapore is frequently derided as a nanny state for its bans on chewing gum and magazines such as Playboy.
Criminal punishments are harsh and include caning for robbery and vandalism and the death penalty for drug traffickers.
Public demonstrations seldom happen, and never spontaneously. Even to vent at Speakers’ Corner – the former British colony’s answer to London’s Hyde Park Corner – requires prior registration on a government website.
“It is precisely because Singapore is uber-orderly and secure that she is attractive and acceptable to both the US and North Korea as host for talks of such a sensitive and delicate nature,” Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, told Al Jazeera.
“The strict public order laws also means that Trump and Kim are unlikely to encounter any major security threats and be embarrassed by street protests, enabling them to focus on the substance of their talks.”
The possibility of those talks – unprecedented, uncertain until last Saturday, and once unthinkable – has been front-page news on a daily basis since they were first suggested.
Singapore is in the grips of a euphoria and frenzy over the pending arrival US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un to this “little red dot” on the map, as it is called.
With some 3,000 journalists expected to descend on Singapore, hotel rooms are at or near capacity, and taxi drivers are bracing for excessive demand and traffic gridlock. Local businesses are reminding employees to leave early for work and to expect road closures, security checks, and mass transit overloads.
Heavily armed Gurkha soldiers – a special Singapore police guard force of Nepalese troops dating back to the British colonial period – are a common sight surrounding the five-star Shangri-La Hotel – Trump’s rumoured hotel.
They are a likely presence at other summit-related sites including the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, a luxury hotel set amid a tropical forest with beaches and sprawling harbour views.
Every aspect of the summit planning and execution has riveted a public not normally consumed by geopolitics.
Sightings of US and North Korea advance teams on the ground in Singapore have had reporters and the local paparazzi working overtime. Guessing games over the summit location and itinerary are the talk of the town. Readers of the local newspaper Straits Times have been writing in to suggest the best places where Trump and Kim can bond.
The reliability of Kim’s Soviet-era private jet – dubbed Air Force Un- was a source of public concern over the ageing aircraft’s ability to make the flight without needing to stop for refuelling. Instead, he arrived safely arrived on Sunday afternoon on an Air China 747; the flight escorted by Chinese fighter jets over China’s airspace.
Also frequently debated is who will pay for the king of the hermit kingdom’s luxury hotel accommodations- last rumoured to be the five-star St Regis Hotel, where the presidential suite costs in the range of $8,000 a night.
Advance teams have been hashing out sensitive details, with Pyongyang reportedly ruling out American- and European-owned venues, as well as diplomatic niceties such as separate meeting room entrances for Trump and Kim, a backdrop for a photo op, and protocol for toast-making (Trump does not drink alcohol; Kim does).
Meanwhile, the country has been working around the clock to accommodate a logistical nightmare. Police and security-related personnel have been warned against taking time off around the time of the summit, and the nation’s armed forces are on standby along with fighter warplanes and attack helicopters. Airspace will be restricted.
From June 10-14, the Tanglin neighbourhood surrounding the Shangri-La Hotel and the entire resort island of Sentosa will be locked down as “special event” areas with security measures such as road closures and spot checks.
A media station for the throngs of expected journalists has been set up at a Formula One race venue.
Meanwhile, the summit is a tourism boon for local businesses.
One local eatery is advertising a Trump Kim-Chi beef-and-kimchi dish complete with its own hashtag (#MakeHarmonyGreatAgain).
Others offer dishes such as El Trumpo (cheeseburger) and Rocket Man (Korean Fried Chicken) tacos. A popular bar is serving up a blue, bourbon-based cocktail named the “Trump” and a red “Kim” drink containing the Korean spirit soju.
By Tom Benner
Follow Tom Benner on Twitter: @tgbenner