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Saturday, 13 September 2014

Filling Up On Singapore

As I've noted elsewhere on this blog, I'm a big fan of Asia. I've been three times now, twice to Southeast Asia and once to Hong Kong, and I remain as fascinated as I ever was. My latest visit was to Singapore, because I figured it would be an easy trip (I was traveling solo, and not staying with locally based friends), and English is widely spoken. A number of friends, coworkers and relatives had suggested I'd have trouble filling a full week there, but I'm happy to report that for an initial vacation, a week is the perfect amount of time in which to see Singapore. I could even have hung around an extra day or two.

I'd say I managed to catch a good number of the tourist sights, like the Singapore National Museum or the Botanical Garden. I also spent a lot of time walking, clocking several 12-mile days, visiting the various ethnic neighborhoods that make up the city.

View of Little India from my hotel

Sometimes this made for some nice juxtapositions - for example, the street behind the Sultan Mosque in the Arab Street neighborhood is apparently where Singapore's punks hang out on a Friday night, and is also home to a number of trendy coffee shops and cocktail bars. My hotel in Little India was also right next to a mosque, while the main Hindu temple actually sits in Chinatown. This all reflects Singapore's past as a meeting place for traders from all over the world, whether Chinese, Malay, Indian, Arab or Western.

Arab St and the Sultan Mosque

From the very start I found myself comparing the place to Hong Kong, which is the only other large Asian city I've visited (when I went to Thailand four years ago, it was to the resort island of Phuket, rather than Bangkok). My Lonely Planet city guide had led me to believe that it would be pretty much the same, but I found that wasn't the case - although Singapore is physically smaller than Hong Kong (276 square miles, vs 426 square miles, including 19 square miles of water), it felt a lot more open, with more trees and wider avenues. And while Hong Kong had one large tract of parkland (at least that I saw), Singapore had several, from the Botanical Gardens, which are home to a postage stamp's worth of original rainforest, to the Bukit Timah nature preserve, which I regrettably missed on this trip.

It was also a little more downmarket in certain ways, which is both good and bad. Good, because it was less full of ridiculously expensive European brands crowding every single mall; bad, because it meant that whenever I ventured into one of these malls, more often than not I had to wade through KFC, Burger King and Starbucks to find something local. Although I will cop to having had lunch at UK grilled chicken chain Nando's while I was there, reasoning that it wasn't something I could easily get at home.

Orchard Road and its malls

That said, the food situation was absolutely amazing - pretty much every mall, no matter how posh, had a local-style food court, with each stall serving local dishes like laksa, nasi goreng and Hokkien mee. And just as remarkably, the prices in the posh malls' food courts weren't much higher than those in the older, less posh malls.

It certainly takes away some of the sting of paying for accommodation or booze in the city, both of which are pretty expensive. Beers in certain places set me back more than S$10 (which is probably a little less than US$10, but I assumed parity while I was there, to keep myself from blowing too much cash), and a Singapore sling at Raffles will set you back S$27 (plus tax). I assume being up there with the Scandinavian countries on the Human Development Index means they have to charge similar rates for alcohol, although given that I don't believe the locals are such big drinkers, it seems more like a tax on foreigners.

A courtyard at Raffles

I did see quite a few foreigners while I was there, although I did note with pride whenever I was the only Caucasian in a food court or on a bus. The split between tourists and workers was probably about even, especially in "downtown" spots like Raffles Place, and I can admit that I did imagine myself living the expat life there, at least for a while - it helped that I met up with a locally based sales guy from my company (a Singaporean), and one of our stops that evening was a rooftop bar in the financial district that looked out over the entire city.

As far as the locals, I wouldn't say I got a lot of chances to interact with them (being a rather shy and retiring type), although whenever I had to ask someone for directions, they were super-polite, very helpful and spoke excellent English. I'm given to understand that this particular trifecta isn't all that common in East Asia, for example in Tokyo. And I'm reminded of an incident in a 7-11 in Phuket where the shop clerk tried to charge me twice for the same drink, because I came back to the counter a minute after having paid, and she didn't recognize me. It took one of her colleagues, who clearly understood more English than she did, to explain that I'd already paid.

View of Changi Point from Pulau Ubin

I feel it would be remiss not to mention the political dimension to Singapore here, which is generally justly derided by Westerners (apart from a curiously tone-deaf Lonely Planet reviewer a few years ago who, comparing Singapore with Bangkok, suggested that democracy was a little overrated if it meant the chaos and dirt of Bangkok; my response is that neither country is really that democratic). I'm aware that Singaporeans are pretty apathetic to politics, and that Lee Kuan Yew (or Harry, as Paul Theroux always refers to him) has held a pretty steady grip on the place.

However, if it is that authoritarian, they certainly hide it well. I'm intellectually aware that there were surveillance cameras all over the place - on my first day I got a bit paranoid about what would happen to me if I dropped a plastic cup in the wrong recycling bin - but it felt less intrusive than the surveillance apparatus in London, for example. What I did notice was a certain infantilization of the place, for instance in the ads on the MRT, that suggested enforced puritanism. Contrast the generally insipid bookstores of Singapore with the newsstand I perused on my layover in Tokyo, which featured bondage porn magazines at around eye level, something you wouldn't see even here in the US or in the UK.

Returning to slightly less salacious shores, I thought the dress of the locals, particularly Chinese office workers, was reminiscent of the 1960s - white shirts and slacks for men, floral one-piece dresses and high heels for women. I kept wondering at that, until I decided that maybe it was because the same government had been in power since the 1960s, unconsciously enforcing a resistance to change among the city's adults. The college students and teenagers, by contrast, looked pretty much the same as they do here in the Bay Area, although I was intrigued to see that the more fashion-forward ladies of Singapore were favoring enormous baseball caps.

Hindu temple in Chinatown

To sum up, I really enjoyed the week I spent there, and as I say, I wouldn't have minded a little more time to keep looking around. If there's one thing that appealed to me about the place above all others, it was the diversity of it - the fact that Chinese, Malays and Tamils have come together to create a society on the island, and use English as their lingua franca, makes it feel impressively cosmopolitan, and possibly more welcoming than Hong Kong. The fact that it's rich also meant there weren't so many of those couples composed of enormous, old white men with extremely young and tiny local girls that you seem to see so often in Thailand.

And if Singapore doesn't have the personality it used to, when the river was home to warehouses and sampans plying their trade twenty-four hours a day, its personality has receded to the ethnic neighborhoods. Visitors who go looking for it will be rewarded.