Is the Raffles Hotel Truly a Singaporean Icon?

12 days into the re-opening of Singapore's iconic Raffles Hotel, Le Chief takes a trip down memory lane to assess the validity of calling the landmark property a Singaporean icon.

The Raffles Singapore officially reopened on 1 Aug 2019 after a 2-year renovation

There are only a handful of hotels that can be unashamedly lauded as iconic in Asia - the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok is a fine example, the Peace Hotel in Shanghai is likewise illustrious and definitely, the Raffles Singapore. A namesake adopted from the city state's colonial founder who landed on its shores 200 years ago, Raffles has been adopted by businesses and academic institutions alike to denote their perceived excellence and 'Singaporean-ess'', a distinction that is interestingly untapped by nearby Bengkulu (erstwhile Bencoolen), where Sir Stamford Raffles was lieutenant-governor from 1817 - 1822.

As with most bankable names, the Raffles brand was parlayed into a global hotel management company FRHI in 2006 which was then sold to French hospitality giant AccorHotels in 2016. There are currently 14 operational Raffles hotels around the world which presents a perplexing conundrum to hospitality watchers - what does the Raffles brand truly stand for today?

As a luxury hotel brand, a portfolio of just 14 properties can be seen as bane or boon. Only a tiny handful of the world's best hotel brands have deliberately kept their numbers tiny in order to maintain the quality that the brand espouses, like the superlatively luxurious Capella Hotels with just 5 (3 more upcoming) and Peninsula Hotels with just 10 (3 more in the making) properties worldwide. Most illustrious players like the Oberoi, Park Hyatt and Four Seasons all maintain brand portfolios of 30 hotels and above that at the very least reflect owners' recognition and trust. For a brand like Raffles that has been operational since 2006, its current crop of just 14 (3 more in the making) is meager, especially since Raffles Singapore has often been perceived as a Singaporean icon, with rack rates that are probably the city's most expensive since it reopened on 1 Aug 2019.

The resplendent Peninsula Hong Kong is another Grande Dame of luxury hospitality with more pronounced brand DNA cross properties. Photo by Chief

Remove that re-opening gaze to other Raffles properties and one may begin to understand its lackluster performance. Like the Raffles Singapore, Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor also lays claim to being a heritage hotel, taking shape within a 1932 relic that was raised for the benefit of visitors who'd ventured to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Thoroughly charming, the hotel is nonetheless old and modest, with very small rooms (start from 32 sqm) and suites (from 48 sqm) where even the towels carry a whiff of age. A visit to the Raffles Jakarta in 2017 presented a new face of Raffles, one that is perhaps quite indistinctively rendered, and cauterized with a Gunawan fetish (owner is a top collector of Indonesian expressionist maestro Hendra Gunawan). The interiors are swathed in safe tones that veer on being boring, but the amenities are perceptibly plush and luxurious. Collectively, the only similarity shared by the 3 hotels is merely the name. The hardware and software components vary so vastly, expectations are bound to crash.

Rooms and suites at Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor are old and minuscule and infused with the whiff of age. Photo by Chief

Perhaps like its mother-ship in Singapore, the Raffles brand was formulated and established at a stage of recent history where there was a lack of parallel competitors. A Sarkies confection is an invaluable inheritance from the region's colonial past and couple that with a colourful history that include an errant circus tiger shot under a billiard table and a 100-year-old cocktail christened the Singapore Sling, the Raffles Singapore has maintained its credibility as a premier address and a tourist hot spot. A 2 year long renovation has only heightened and renewed interests in this 19th century edifice. It would be folly however, to rest on one's laurels and imagine that competitors have likewise remained in the past.

The safe and staid interior of rooms at Raffles Jakarta. Photo by Chief

Personally the Raffles Singapore holds neither special pride nor joy. My earliest memory of this building was cached in during the 90s, where as a teenager one could not even aspire a peek into its interior, as entry into its lobby is closed to the public. As an event planner in the '00s, I have staged weddings and events within its ballroom and lawn, and am often puzzled by its immense popularity. Its ballroom could only hold limited tables, and being a very small heritage hotel there were frustrating limitations to what can be staged within these tired-looking perimeters. The suites were also smallish, and aged, and hold no allure for me since they reek with the redolence of a demised era. And as to the famous service, I was at times brought to grief by the unapologetic colonial hangover the establishment rigorously endorsed, from the suspicious enquiries triggered by me trying to enter the building (as opposed to the nice enquiries that usually greeted foreigners) to the ridiculous dress codes slapped on male patrons of the restaurants (but exempted on ladies and children).

The tagline that says it all - raised for the rich and famous but loved by all? In what age and era is this explicable?

Astonishingly, this smug upper crust delivery of class conscious luxury has not gone away with the hotel's extensive renovations. A tagline from its website reads 'patronised by nobility, loved by all'. How inexplicably daft, as this is evidently no longer the age of deference where the aristocratic sits above the masses. The tone not only reeks of class-snobbery, it is presumptuous and deluded. When not many Singaporeans are even allowed in to view its hallowed halls, how can such a hotel claim to be loved by all?

And I do hate the Singapore Sling. It offends with the aftertaste of a cough mixture and sets the height for inexplicable preferences amongst imbibers.