A short stint in Singapore

There’s this beautiful quote I saw on ‘Humans of Singapore:

 

I didn’t get to spend that long in Singapore – it was only meant to be a short stint on my way to Malaysia anyway, but it became even shorter because of the delays getting out of Kathmandu. But Singapore is still one of those cities that I just love for so many reasons, and a place that I could totally see myself living in for a year or two at some point in my life.

My uncle Marlon was an absolute darling and came to pick me up in a taxi. There aren’t many cars in Singapore – they try to encourage everyone to use public transport instead, and the way they do this is that if you want to drive your own vehicle, you have to bid for a 10 year Certificate of Entitlement, which gives you the right to drive on Singapore’s roads. It puts a limit on the growth of road users – and then those with COE’s also have to pay vehicle taxes, registration fees, electronic road pricing and road taxes on top of all of that.

I know a lot of people would think that this is unfair because only the really wealthy can then afford to drive, but I love those policies. The air is clean, there isn’t lots of pollution or traffic jams, taxis are reasonable priced for when you need to use them, there’s an amazing public transport system, and for short distances, everyone just walks everywhere – which is great for health reasons but also for community reasons – you’re stopping people from isolating themselves that much and forcing them to come into contact with each other.

The drive to Marlon’s apartment felt so relaxed, on smooth streets with no traffic jams or smog, no sounds of car horns beeping angrily, or engines whirring idly away. It felt positively futuristic. On the way we passed a Merlion statue, which sparked a pang of familiarity; Dad’s had a little polished wooden Merlion figurine for as long as I can remember, sitting in our lounge room. It’s such a beautiful mascot – as an interesting side note, however, all the so-called ‘legends’ associated with it have been completely fabricated by the Singapore Tourism Board – and it’s a lot of fun reading various versions of it’s apparent origins.

Legend has it that the Merlion would visit Sentosa Island every year to guard Singapore’s well-being. One dark night, the island was threatened by a violent storm and the Merlion fought the thundering skies with its magical powers and preserved the land. This mighty legend remained permanently on the Island through the years to protect Singapore by watching over the ever changing skyline of the Central Business District area and harbour, as well as the country’s economic growth through numerous financial crises.
– Sentosa Merlion, Sentosa.com.sg

If you want to read more about this, check out The Merlion of the Lion City: How Singapore’s Icon and Nickname Came About.

I didn’t have much planned for Singapore. I’d visited the country a few times when I was younger, and I’d been very excited to see how different I’d find it as an adult, but I was so exhausted after Nepal that I ended up just spending the morning at Marlon’s apartment. My Aunt Melissa had been an absolute darling and bought these fancy soaps for me to use and all these foods for me to eat that my Mom had told her I liked – it felt a little bit like heaven getting to have a long, hot shower and eat a comforting breakfast of mangosteens, bananas and yoghurt.

You’d usually think that spending an afternoon at an apartment would get boring, but this was not one of the ugly, sterile block of flats you so often see in Sydney – this was a huge complex with separate blocks of sleek, modern and very cosy apartments, built around a courtyard featuring a huge pool with water slide, a spa, sauna, gym, tennis and basketball courts, and function room. I followed my cousin Megan into the gym for all of five minutes while she did tabata (the kid’s got abs), then gave up in favour of doing some more reading about Singapore. I still felt too hot and tired to wander out, but I was very intrigued by the living situation – was this normal, I wondered?

Google told me that it was. Singapore is full of these huge complexes, all replete with various recreational facilities. What a way to live! I felt like that was a really efficient way to organise housing and was pretty interested to find out that a lot of complexes will even feature restaurants and bars. I think that really fosters a sense of community. It’s high density housing but it doesn’t feel crowded or claustrophobic at all. The really cool thing is that Singapore’s public housing is also now being done in this way – a world away from the Suicide Towers in Redfern. They’re also being created with good design principles in mind – aesthetically pleasing, made to keep naturally cool, and cut energy needs.

Public Housing - Oasis Terraces
Public Housing – Oasis Terraces

http://edition.cnn.com/video/api/embed.html#/video/world/2015/10/22/otr-singapore-public-housing.cnn

It was lovely to be in a country that embraced progressive thinking and you could just see this everywhere in Singapore. When we went out that evening, the public transport was perfectly punctual, easy to navigate, air conditioned – and of course, incredibly clean.

When we stepped out into the city, we were surrounded by a collection of perfectly maintained 19th century Victorian era buildings, traditional Malay shopfronts, and sleek, edgy, ultra modern constructions that look like they were pulled out of a science fiction movie.

We visited some hawker markets for dinner, and despite the name, they were exceptionally well organised and clean. Apparently for a lot of people, the hawker markets are cheaper than eating at home, so they don’t have their own kitchens but just come and eat there. The people who work at the markets also have incredible memories and recognise their regular (and not-so-regular) clients.

Marlon, Melissa and Megan treated me to an absolute feast at the markets; we had a sumptuous dinner of satay chicken, prawns, beef – and rice cakes, sticky rice cooked in pandan leaves, fish, Cockles with chilli sauce, Fried rice and Pepper crab.

Hawker Markets

I have a delicate stomach, but unlike street food in most other countries of the world, Singapore food stalls are rated for hygiene – plus Singaporean cuisine is ridiculously good, and they’re very serious about knowing what ingredients are in what dishes since the country’s made up of so many ethnic groups that have religiously/culturally dictated dietary restrictions.

On that note, Singaporean public toilets are also rated for hygiene. It’s actually illegal not to flush a toilet after use, and to litter – again, something a lot of people might consider draconian, but which made everything so clean and comfortable and pleasant. You won’t find chewing gum on the bottom of any tables in Singapore, or dried out on the side walk.

Supertree Grove

Dinner over, we meandered over to the walkway of the Marina Bay Sands, from which we had a perfect view of the Supertree Grove and were just in time for a spectacular sound and light show. I’d read about this on my flight over but they were far more majestic to behold in real life.

The Supertrees are these giant solar powered man-made tree like sculptures that have vertical gardens growing along their lengths and which light up at night. They’re not just pretty – the power they generate is used to power the park, the water they collect during the rains is used for the irrigation and water fountains in the park, and a few of them are used as exhausts for underground biomass boilers. Can I reiterate again how much I love Singapore?

Supertrees - by William Cho https://www.flickr.com/photos/adforce1/8100691354
Photo by William Cho – Supertrees – by William Cho https://www.flickr.com/photos/adforce1/8100691354

That sentiment was further reinforced by the stories Melissa told me on our way back to the apartment about Singapore’s history, which I hadn’t known much about. Singapore and Malaysia had united briefly in 1963, but Singapore ending up splitting, mainly over the fact that Malaysia wanted to retain special privileges for Malaysians – which they still have by the way, so that if you’ve lived in Malaysia for generations but are of a different ethnicity, you don’t have the same rights – while Singapore wanted equality for everyone regardless of race.

It’s a big part of Singapore’s identity, that they consider themselves a meritocracy, and strive to embody those ideals. I realise that this isn’t perfect, and that it stacks the odds towards the smart so that those who are less intellectually capable are disadvantaged by this – but you can’t ever achieve true, perfect equality, and if you’re going to discriminate in some way, it might as well be based on intellect rather than wealth.

Streets of Singapore

It’s also incredibly impressive that Singapore went from a third world country to a first world country within a generation. Some of their policies are really well thought out – for example, multiracialism is one of their key principles, but because English is so important for commerce, and having a common language is important when you have so many people of different ethnicities living together, it’s mandatory for students to learn both English, and whatever their Ethnic Mother Tongue is.

Singapore also spends a lot of money on education – about 20% of the annual national budget. Compare this to Australia, where it makes up about 5% of our national budget. However, Melissa works as a teaching assistant for students with special needs, and it’s sad to hear that this is an area in which Singapore hasn’t been as good at dealing with – people with disabilities are usually cared for by their families and hidden away shamefully. The laws are changing, but public perceptions and the dominant discourse on disability in Singapore are still pretty backwards.

It’s sad to think of, but at least it’s something Singapore has acknowledged needs to change. We drink some red wine, commiserate, and then I pack for my 4am wakeup to make my 6am flight. Marlon and Melissa are absolute sweethearts and wake up at 4am with me and drop me off to the airport in a taxi – even though they have to go to work that day and this will have completely ruined their sleep.

Singapore Airport

Singapore Airport is lovely though – easily my favourite airport in the world, and everything seems geared to making your transit as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. There are no lines, I get through everything really quickly, the staff are all incredibly lovely and genial, and once I’m through security, there’s an entertainment centre and restaurants that are open 24hrs to keep me occupied until I have to board my flight.

I genuinely love that quote from Humans of Singapore and it strongly resonates with me – so many people think of Singapore as sterile or less culturally rich because it’s such a young country and so modern, but I think it’s a nation that’s full of hope and that strives to high ideals – it’s a country that was built on dreams, and I think it’s utterly inspirational.

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