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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Same same, but different: Singapore

“Same same.” It’s an expression we heard everywhere in Southeast Asia. T. even got a T-shirt that says “Same same” on the front and “But different” on the back. I’m still not sure what people mean by this, but it suits Singapore. It was the first place I ever went in Asia and people said it’s not that Asian, and now I know what they meant. It’s an island, and yet part of the Malay peninsula. It used to be part of Malaysia but its culture is different. It’s in Southeast Asia, but coming back here, I felt as far from the rest of the region as I’d felt since Hong Kong.

It’s embarrassing how I luxuriated in this most modern city-state. An industrial-sized roll of tissue, so generous that we could blow our noses and not have to go down to the reception desk for a refill. Drinking the tap water. To be sure, the water’s perfectly safe to drink in Malaysia as well. To me, this stands out most about the more vs. less developed countries in the world: Most people on earth can’t count on drinking their water. For those who can afford it, that means bottled water, which in turn adds exponentially to the pollution problem. Now that I can refill bottles again, I hope never to buy more plastic waste.

Malaysia’s population is majority Malay; Singapore’s is majority Chinese. That is how people refer to themselves, though they are born Singaporeans. Clearly Chinese (or Indian) is an ethnic term; it doesn’t necessarily mean someone was born in China or India. And the #1 official language of Singapore is English. The man and family who have dominated Singapore for fifty years were determined to build it into a First World center, and they have. You can fly from Singapore airport to every corner of the globe. The airport itself is a glory, knocking every North American airport I can think of into a proverbial cocked hat.

To be sure, there are tradeoffs. Harsh penalties for things like spitting out gum mean you simply don’t see it. Death for drug traffickers. Caning—beating with a stick—for lesser offenses. I’m sure the strongman of the Philippines, not to mention his sidekick across the Atlantic, would love it. But from the traveler’s point of view, it’s a nice place to visit, and you don’t have any problems.

Unless you accidentally run afoul of the law. We arrived at the border on a luxurious bus from Kuala Lumpur, seats reclining almost completely, the nicest transportation we’d had. The immigration official insisted on the number of the bus, which we didn’t have; and just as I, the last passenger, was finally going to get through, her computer went down. Another official yelled at me to come into a different line, the opposite of where the first one was indicating. Given that this was Singapore, what might have happened had I followed the wrong one?

We left our fellow passengers at customs where one of them had been detained. Our guess is that he’d failed to declare two packs of cigarettes. I hadn’t seen any signs requiring all cigarettes to be declared, but then I wasn’t looking for them. Read up before you cross any border—they all have different laws!

Singapore means wide streets, traffic lights, rules that drivers obey. I crossed the street and could hardly believe that a car would wait before turning, not just shoot across in front of me because it could. I hadn’t seen that in all our time in Asia. 

I thought of all the things I’d gotten used to in Asia that now, with the exception of a shower that shot all over the bathroom, we would no longer experience: Squat toilets. The Asian hose version of a bidet. Dodging motorbikes to cross the road. Having to buy a separate token for every trip on public transit, if there was public transit at all. The only thing I’d gotten used to that I might miss was the tuk-tuks, a version of which plies the roads of every other Southeast Asian country. After that, a metered taxi just seems so boringly modern.

Merlion (half fish half lion)--symbol of Singapore
We had a sunny day so we spent it on Sentosa Island. The last time we were in Singapore, we had brunch up on Mt. Faber with views of the South China Sea, and T. said the cable car we could see operating went over to the island, where the Merlion is.

This time we went to the island. It’s basically a big theme park, but there are beaches, and we saw people ziplining over one of them. This gave T. an idea.

I was happy to take pictures, as ziplining has never been on my “bucket list” (if I had such a thing). I just don’t like plummeting sensations, whether roller coasters or severe turbulence. Fortunately, I can usually avoid these.

Then we walked up one of the nature trails to Imbiah Lookout. It wasn’t much, but at least it wasn’t closed, like the trails on Penang Hill.

There is a suspension bridge that joins Sentosa Island to a southern islet. Since Sentosa and Singapore Islands are in turn joined by causeways, this islet is claimed to be part of, indeed the southernmost point of, Southeast Asia.

A wet view from the cable car
On our way there the heavens opened. We managed to stay out of the worst of the rains, but thought we’d better get back before they stopped running the cable car. Not a moment too soon! I’m not sure the cars ever stopped running, but they should have. By the time we reached Faber Peak and the restaurant we’d eaten at four years ago, such a terrific thunderstorm was under way as I’d never seen before in my life. We could hardly see for the rain, and yet lightning didn’t deter these people from anything, even continuing their dinner. T. said it was more exciting than ziplining.

After the rain--sunset from Faber Peak
Another must-do we remembered from visiting Singapore was the Raffles Hotel. It’s closed for renovation, though, so our taxi driver—“a bit cheeky”—suggested we try something more authentic for lunch. The place he took us was in Chinatown and called, in English, simply “Eating House.” They served Hainanese chicken rice with wonton soup. That was it, and it was delicious.

In between the rain that plagued the rest of our time in Singapore, we walked around the Padang, the colonial-era square flanked by St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the Victoria Concert Hall and Theatre.

Norman Foster’s new Supreme Court building looms like a flying saucer over the old Supreme Court and City Hall. Those two buildings have now been turned into the National Gallery of Singapore. It was the right kind of weather to spend some time in a museum.

National Gallery, with Marina Bay Sands in the background
 The government of Singapore exhorts its people constantly through posters, etc. It’s definitely a society with strong government guidance, but a casual observer can't discern whether this bothers Singaporeans or not. Similarly, it was hard to tell whether the average Vietnamese is bothered by lack of political freedom; getting more money is the name of the game in both places. I’m not saying that is right.
One of many subway signs telling Singaporeans to do the right thing
Singapore was our last stop before leaving for Australia, and because of our night flight, we had some time between checking out and spending the evening at the airport. So we spent the afternoon in that rarest of places, for us and for Southeast Asia: shopping malls. Orchard Road, once home to orchards, is full of them. We even bought things, because we could. And, having spent money, we were entitled to a free ride up to the 56th floor, where we finally got in that “rooftop bar” that had been evading us since we arrived in Bangkok. Dress codes, you know.
No one cares about shorts or sandals here.
Singapore was once known as a place for bargain shopping, but that isn’t the case now. It’s an affluent and expensive society compared with its neighbors. The one good deal, though, is the hawker centers—street food. Being Singapore, all the food vendors cluster in official and orderly places, but the food (and beer) are cheap, which is not true of anything else. I couldn’t get enough of char kway teow.


If you have to wait in an airport for some hours, Changi Airport is not a bad choice. It’s directly accessible by subway, and once you’re there, there’s nothing you can’t eat or drink or buy. It will cost you, of course, but you don't go through security till you actually get to the gate; so until then, you’d hardly know you were in an airport. I understand they even have a gym and swimming pool. We made it as far as the garden.

There were three monks hanging out in the garden taking selfies on their mobile phones. Then they pushed their luggage cart into a duty-free shop, where one of them whipped out his credit card. “What kind of monks are these?” T. wondered. Singaporean, of course.

And so, farewell to Continent #3. I know we only scratched the surface of a few countries, as in Africa; but I would happily go back. I enjoyed Asia more than I thought I would—it was a vast unknown quantity to me. Even Vietnam, which I probably wouldn’t visit again, is paying dividends in terms of understanding. Now that I’ve left and am reading more of the history of America’s involvement there, I appreciate more how different a place Southeast Asia is, and how devastating were the consequences of not having knowledge of that place. (It turns out that most of the decisions that led the U.S. into war in Vietnam, from the 1940s onward, were made without any Asia experts in the room.*)

See you in Australia. 



*David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) details the various reasons for this, and for many other fateful occurrences that, together, led the U.S.A. into calamity and folly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thought-provoking comments on Singapore's strict order, wealth, beauty, and efficient functionality--and possible connections between all those cultural features. G & P