On having a fine time in Singapore

Anyone who travels a lot will inevitably, from time to time, fall foul of those quaint local customs sometimes referred to as laws. I clearly remember, for example, being severely reprimanded by a policeman on Orkney for birdwatching without due care and attention. Apparently, in that beautiful northern outpost of Great Britain, it’s illegal to stop your car on a blind bend in order to gain a better view of a Short-eared Owl on a fencepost, even if it’s a very good looking owl. Have these people no souls?

Then there was the time when I was searched by a plain-clothes policeman in Prague who accused me – falsely I hasten to add – of smuggling Albanians into the Czech Republic. For god’s sake, where did he think I’d hidden them? And what about that time in Virginia when a cop pulled me over for contravening one of those incomprehensible American laws on how to proceed at a road junction?

If hell is other people, then hell with knobs on is other people’s laws. Jaywalking for instance. How can it be illegal to cross the road? In Hawaii, we discovered, if you cross in the wrong place they call it jaywalking and try to fine you $130 each. In defence of the Hawaiian cops they did let us off when we said we were English, though whether this was out of respect or pity we couldn’t quite decide.

Jaywalking is pertinent to the main thrust of this post, as it’s one of the things you can also be fined for in Singapore. But if you drive everywhere don’t worry, there’s plenty of other things they’ll fine you for if given half a chance. Other offences include:

  • Feeding pigeons
  • Selling gum
  • Annoying people with a musical instrument
  • Singing rude songs
  • Walking around naked at home with the curtains open
  • Not flushing the toilet
  • Urinating in a public elevator
  • Eating durian fruit in the gardens of the Malay Heritage Centre

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Don’t get me wrong, I rather like Singapore and its people, and could forgive most of these laws which suggest to me a country that’s more idiosyncratic than repressive.

But also, shockingly, gay sex between men is technically illegal there, although apparently the law is ambiguous and not enforced. Sorry guys, it’s the 21st century, this is not acceptable and you are hereby off my Christmas card list.

I was so horrified by this discovery that I felt I had to make a public protest, so I sang a rude song in the hotel lift, but very, very quietly in case they had it bugged.

You just can’t be too careful in Singapore, a country where annoying people with a musical instrument can cost you a $1,000 fine. Visitors beware!

The neon gods they made

When I was a kid my mum and dad taught me that it’s rude to talk about money, so they would have found the Singaporeans a little vulgar. As a society they seem to have an unhealthy obsession with lucre: who’s got the most and how they got it, who’s got less and how they can get more, where to spend what you’ve got and how the government keeps inventing new laws to take it off you before you can get around to spending it.

When Singapore got its independence from Malaysia in 1965 it was an impoverished micro-state in which 14% of the population was unemployed and around half illiterate.   Today it has a vibrant, prosperous economy based in particular on financial services, electronics and chemicals; it is also a massively important regional trading hub, with its port being the second busiest in the world.   It is wealthy beyond the dreams of Singaporeans who celebrated independence in 1965. In a land of proven miracles it’s no surprise everyone wants a slice of the action.

The massive, mind-numbing shopping malls are a testament to a society hooked on conspicuous consumption. We wandered into the Marina Bay Sands mall and literally couldn’t find our way back out again; all the brands and designer labels we could have wanted or desired were on offer in upmarket retail units that were a match for anything we’ve encountered in the UK or USA. I’m proud to say we didn’t spend a penny.

It’s great that the locals enjoy a lifestyle their forefathers could never have imagined, and the wealth that the country generates has certainly resulted in some great architecture and design, including the futuristic ‘supertrees’ at Gardens by the Bay, where we enjoyed a spectacular sound and light show:

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Locals will tell you that they respect tradition as well as celebrating modernity. It’s true that an older way lives on in some enclaves, in Little India which was gearing up for Diwali (interestingly rendered as Deepavali in Singapore), in China Town and in Kampong Glam where the Sultan Mosque is particularly special:

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Peranakan Place and Emerald Hill (below) is another area where the past is being preserved. It’s very attractive, evocative of another age, but maybe it’s too little too late? And is the motivation sincere, is the past valued for its own sake or is this simply about making visitors happy in order to keep the tourism revenues flowing? I really don’t know, but you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit cynical.

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And if you’re thinking I’m overegging it, that the capitalist spirit isn’t quite as rampant as I’m making out, I should add that staff at our hotel were more than happy to call a cab to take us back to the airport, but rather spoiled their attempt at great customer service by telling us that for making the call $8.00 would be added to the fare.

Don’t get me wrong, most of the locals we met were decent, friendly people, but I sense they are not quite at ease with themselves. The cab driver on the way back to the airport was proud and bemused in equal measure by the progress Singapore has made, pleased to be part of it and yet contemptuous of the super rich who are both its instruments and its products. He seemed to sense that there’s more to life than this, but couldn’t put his finger on just what it might be.

As we waited at the airport for the flight to Sydney I found myself reflecting on some words from Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’:

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

And the sign said “The words of the prophets

Are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls

And whispered in the sounds of silence”

I can’t help thinking that in Singapore there’ll be no prophets writing on the walls. Partly that’s because this is a society that frowns on law-breaking of any sort, including graffiti, but mainly it’s for the reason that Singaporeans will simply be too busy, out on the town making money.

The road to Raffles

Singapore is famous for its order and efficiency. Unsurprisingly therefore our arrival this afternoon went like a dream. Within an hour of our touching down at Changi Airport we’d cleared immigration and customs, picked up our baggage and travelled by cab downtown to check into our hotel. Having spent many a miserable hour queuing to get into America at various airports across the USA the Singapore experience was a breath of fresh air. Donald and Hillary please note, the American way isn’t the only way nor is it necessarily the best.

Our hotel is on the edge of the colonial quarter where historic buildings jostle cheek by jowl with post-modern skyscrapers and four lane highways.  After unpacking and cleaning up we strolled a few hundred metres along a bustling arterial road past office blocks and fast food joints to the Raffles Hotel, the city’s most famous landmark.

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Built late in the nineteenth century Raffles belongs to another age, and has the elegant architecture to match.

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The rich and the famous have spent time there, particularly from the literary world. Maugham, Coward, Kipling and Hemingway have all hung out at Raffles, adding to its mystique and, inevitably, the prices it can charge the unwary tourist. We decided to eat elsewhere.

Singapore is typically tropical, for which you can read “hot and humid”, though this means flowers that seem exotic to us in the UK are commonplace here. The food court where we ate had trees in the outdoor courtyard on which orchids were growing; Julie was pleased to see one variety that she has at home, pampered in the warmth and safety of the utility room. Meanwhile the road from airport was lined with bougainvillea bushes, all dripping with blossoms of pink, carmine and red. Wonderful! I have to admit that it’s so sultry that Julie and I have turned a similar colour, and are also dripping liberally. I think it’s time for beers.

Here we go, here we go, here we go

This trip has been a long time in the making.  We first started talking about visiting Tassie about five years ago, and it’s almost 12 months since we contacted Susie at Tasmanian Odyssey to start planning in earnest.  And now, finally, we are on our way.  Tomorrow we head off to Heathrow and board a plane to Singapore to start our adventure.

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by Singapore.  Seems like it’s a place that nobody visits for its own sake but which everybody passes through on their way to somewhere more interesting, like an Asian equivalent of Watford Gap Services only with better noodles.

Having said that, from the research we’ve done Singapore sounds to be rather appealing, a cosmopolitan city state with a lot going for it.  If our hotel’s got Wi-Fi I’ll report back on what we find there.