THERE ARE ghosts at Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and not just the ghosts of Somerset Maugham, Sir Noel Coward or Rudyard Kipling who visited the hotel in their day. Once a guest even reported hearing an invisible little girl singing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in the part of the hotel that had been used as a girls' school in the 1880s.
There are probably sadder ghosts as well -- planters in the bar escaping jungle isolation and boredom from the 1890s, colonial debutantes from the 1920s wandering down Cad's Alley or Japanese officers haunting the verandas in the equatorial heat wearing nothing but a towel as they did during their occupation of Singapore. They all linger in the atmosphere that envelopes any guest at this 95-year-old hotel.
As one of the few remaining reminders of Singapore's colorful history, Raffles is undoubtedly proud of its tradition of elegance, privacy and personal service. However, it is sadly evident to even the most sentimental and forgiving pilgrim that Raffles is now trading more on its nostalgic value than on its ability to compete with the glossy monoliths that have sprouted up all over Singapore in the last decade. Most people coming from other countres to sip Singapore slings in the famous Palm Court would have it no other way, but the Singaporean economy is such that a struggle over the valuable downtown land on which Raffles sits has made the hotel's future in its present form uncertain.
After much public debate in 1980, it now looks as if part of Raffles will be rescued from threatened demolition. Local architects and British consultants on restoration are trying to figure out what can be salvaged, but after more than a year of silence they have yet to produce a final set of plans; so the fate of the hotel hinges precariously on an assurance made in 1980 by the Minister for National Development, Teh Cheang Wan, that "the government has no proposal to pull down Raffles Hotel." Less reassuring is the fact that, after nearly 10 years of consideration, the preservation of monuments board still has not bestowed protection over the hotel as a historic site.
Singaporeans have admitted in print and private conversation that their record for conservation has been poor until recent affluence and pressure from interested foreigners alerted them to their shortsightedness. An added problem for the hotel is that many Singaporeans justifiably associate its romantic white-washed arcades with colonial racism and discrimination. Even today, many Singaporeans will politely decline an invitation to rendezvous at Raffles, suggesting an alternative venue without explanation. Now they are realizing that Singapore would lose tourist dollars as well as historical monuments if such neglect continued.
For with Raffles would go tales of the founders, the Armenian Sarkies brothers who built the Eastern and Oriental hotels in Penang before arriving in Singapore to buy the Raffles girls' boarding school, named after Singapore's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, in 1887. The hotel was to contain 48 bedrooms with verandas, punkawallahs to pull the fans, and that most necessary of 19th-century attractions -- a billiard table.
Also forgotten would be tales of the tiger shot under that billiard table in 1902; the misguided lady traveler who climbed into the java jar in her bathroom intended for ladling water over the bather, and had to be pried out by hotel staff; the middle-aged Chinese roomboy who survived Japanese water torture in a back room off the Elizabethan grill; and the dance bands, the movie stars and heads of state who sat at the long bar in the '50s and '60s drinking in the fading atmosphere of a doomed era.
Much of the folklore, from Kipling to King Faisal, is documented in a book by Singaporean journalist Ilsa Sharpe, "There Is Only One Raffles." Many souvenirs and stories would have been lost if it were not for the efforts of the present manager, Roberto Pregarz. He will eagerly pull from cabinets in his overstuffed office examples of colonial dinnerware, ancient silver toast racks and photos of the long-gone for any curious visitor, tossing in comments like, "I was not overimpressed with Coward -- didn't like his fancy way."
Pregarz arrived in Asia in 1967, a homesick sailor from Trieste, and assumed the manager's job when hotel occupancy was at an all-time low with 115 suits out of 127 sitting empty. The hotel continued to suffer through the oil recession of the early '70s and from the boom of new hotels. Pregarz launched his offensive through friends with the Singapore tourist board in cities around the world, and with journalists, explaining that Raffles would not compete with the Hiltons and Hyatts but would remain for those tourists who genuinely wanted to try something different.
"I was Italian and at first knew very little about the history of the British here, but I started to collect mementoes, to promote the Singapore sling in the hotel, and to organize our trishaw tours to Chinatown for tourists from all the hotels. That is one of our main attractions now."
Trying to drive down Beach Road while avoiding a column of a dozen trishaws carrying Raffles guests back to the hotel for the traditional cocktail can make one sympathize with critics who accuse Pregarz of introducing "tourist pollution" to the once sleepy hotel. But without Pregarz' boyish devotion to the Raffles legend, the hotel would probably be a parking lot or office complex by now.
With his encouragement, an Australian film team, Film West, is finishing a documentary, "No Room at the Raffles" in a back room of the hotel. No doubt something of the hotel will remain for some time, but tourists wishing to stay at the "real" Raffles should book soon. According to Pregarz, after restoration is completed in 1986, the hotel's main function will be to provide food and drink for guests of a modern 500-room annex planned by Owners Development Bank of Singapore and the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp., and a second DBS project, a 70-story, 2,000-room hotel, shopping and convention center called "Raffles City" now under way across the road.
In 1981, Raffles earned 60 percent of approximately 3.2 million Singdollars in pre-tax earnings from food and drink. Restaurants may replace two-thirds of the suites in the present hotel if rumored plans are correct.
Pregarz hopes that any restoration of the hotel will mean removing the barn-like ballroom from the pre-World War II entrance and restoring the central staircase, while retaining the palm court, the writer's bar and the Elizabethan grill room. This is not yet confirmed, and a source at DBS said ominously last week, "Maybe we have not kept Mr. Pregarz sufficiently informed of late," but would not comment on the drafted blueprints.
No matter how much or little of the hotel is saved, one thing will surely go. There will be no more "Raffles" where honeymooners can smile at the slow service that keeps them lingering for hours over drinks, where journalists can work for weeks on end filling a four-room suite with books, typewriter and a well-stocked refrigerator, where students can spend a few days closer to history than to commerce.