I wasn’t quite sure what it was, but lingering after my first visit was a taste of Singapore that was almost intoxicating. Maybe it had something to do with places that begin with “S” — I’ve returned time and time again to Seattle and Switzerland. This year, I added Singapore to that list. But wait: there are no mountains here, and it’s just as (er, probably even more) humid than in Charleston! What was I thinking?
On my visit there last year, I was fascinated by the ability of various cultures to work together and still play nice. I couldn’t tell if it was fake, or if it was forced, or if it just plain worked. How is it possible to instill such an efficiency on a diverse population yet seemingly retain agreement in the country’s direction and a sense of national pride?
Visiting Singapore this year was on a whim, so while planning the trip I stopped short of expecting to unravel the nuances of how such a diverse community could come together to transform an island fishing village into a Tiger economy. Instead, I spent my first afternoon at the local beach. Although man-made, it’s a fairly impressive stretch of sand totaling nearly 3 km.
Perhaps conforming to Singapore’s stereotype of excessive rules and laws, the lifeguards’ whistles sounded rather often to remind swimmers to stay well away from the buoys separating swim lane from shipping lane. And holycowthenumberofships! How did cargo make it to port on time?!
That night, which happened to be the only of my nights with a “meh” sunset, I went to the Marina Bay area to walk around the Gardens by the Bay. There’s a food court out that way. I had originally ordered shrimp, but because they ran out I decided on tilapia as a replacement. It was probably the most fishy food I’ve ever had. Not bad, but certainly there are less obtrusive delights in that food-loving nation. I finished the whole fish and a large plate of vegetables (some of you know how much I eat), but I probably should have stuck with the satay roasting aromatically around the food court… the food court is called Satay by the Bay, after all! D’oh. Nevertheless, the fish was worth the sensory bombardment: there’s few places in Charleston where I can get a order of pungent fish. Usually the raw taste is dialed back quite a bit!
As I wandered around the Tiong Bahru area (a recommendation from a friend — thanks, Maggie!), there were a few aspects of Singapore that struck me and began to remind me of why the place is so interesting. First, this district seems to be experiencing a rejuvenation that lends itself to an almost-hipster culture. It’s no Portlandia, but unlike my last meal of fish, this time it was prepared wonderfully. To blend in with the crowd, and to show the point, I took a picture of my plate:
Second, there’s an appreciation for nature. It’s an appreciation for the bounty of the environment and not — as far as I could tell — an excuse for green subsidies. Unless, of course, the government actually does hand out subsidies for small gardens in back alleys.
Third, Singaporeans love their food. There’s food courts almost literally everywhere. It’s good food, too, and inexpensive. If you want your Michelin-starred restaurants, you can find them, but there’s a certain joy derived from stumbling across that little stand that serves your favorite chicken or shrimp or vegetable. It’s a rare sight to see an empty table, much less empty tables, but I learned that 4:00 PM on a Sunday is not a common eating time in Singapore — un pays asiatique gastronomique or not.
A stark contrast to the emptiness of the food court greeted me when I wandered over to Bugis Village: Singapore is damned crowded. It’s extremely population dense, and in the confined spaces of Bugis, it’s hard not to notice.
Along this thought, what is also intriguing about Singapore is the number of difference religions practiced within its borders. Other areas with half the recognized religions would battle in civil war, but somehow that hasn’t happened here. This man let me take his picture, but what made him sit in this particular spot? What was going through his mind? He always faced left: was that for a reason?
Across the street from the shrine (forgive my lack of familiarity with the correct term) were off-white buildings with color-matched staircases and doors; I forgot I wasn’t in Tiong Bahru for a moment. This isn’t Rainbow Row but its simplicity makes for an elegant simplicity that fits right in Singapore somehow. And next to Bugis Village! Oh, the juxtapositions.
Bugis Village is not the only colorful area in Singapore. Barely a stone’s throw from the bustle is Arab Street, and although quiet on a Sunday evening, the shops and owners were not afraid to show their wares. And what colorful displays they were! I’m sure it would have been possible to buy fabric in any color or pattern desired.
Arab Street is extremely close to the Masjid Sultan, itself an important landmark in Singapore. As night fell, the area began to bustle with hungry tourists and natives alike.
My final dinner was Singapore food at a Thai restaurant, but afterwards I ventured out to Orchard Road to look for a book for a friend. Most malls in the US close around 5 PM on Sundays, but in Singapore the malls close at 10:00 PM. I ended up at Takashimaya, or seven well-lit floors of unadulterated commerce. I wonder if escalator manufacturers have set up headquarters in Singapore… this is one of probably a dozen malls of similar height.
The display of color didn’t end in Bugis or on Arab Street. Inside a bookstore at Takashimaya was a display of pens that, like the fabrics earlier, also seemed to cover all 256 Crayola colors. Given the width of the aisle, this is all I could fit into one picture.
Singapore is eminently a city tourable in about four full (i.e. probably rushed) days. One day for the zoo and Botanic Gardens, another for Pulau Ubin, one for shopping or museums, one for wandering in and between the districts. Between my two trips, I’ve been able to get to know the place a little more. I set out on this trip with no defined agenda to see where my curiosity took me. As I played tourist, I got to brush up on my Mandarin and ask questions I didn’t quite fully anticipate. There was something a little uneasy about how effortlessly every system seemed to work; it was almost too… perfect. While I didn’t mean to answer many questions in the three days I had on the ground, before I left I had already begun asking myself (again) deeper questions that only reaffirmed themselves as the days went by: is planned diversity okay? How does a leader implement and then execute a plan for integration when there is no clear direction provided? How does a leader feel out the balance between social unease and ambition for collective integration?
As I walked away from my fish bones and left the Gardens by the Bay, the full moon wasn’t necessary to reveal the long line of taxis queuing up at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. Those little green lights indicated a certain freedom and beauty in the capitalistic transportation system — taxis competing with public transport as the most effective way to travel to a destination — but the number of empty taxis that night was also slightly unnerving.
One thing became clear within these first eight hours: I was not going to sort out my feelings for this place in one trip. I’ll be back here again, not to explore the mountains (hills) that I so miss but to take in a culture unlike that of any other place I’ve visited. As I said, it’s slightly intoxicating to consider all the possibilities. Indeed, what even are all the possibilities?