After four months of travel in mainland Southeast Asia, I’ve grown accustomed and relish the chaotic street life, loose schedules, and language barriers. Even though I chose to stop in Singapore for a few days on my way to Malaysia, I wasn’t excited. “You should go, it’s restrictive but fascinating,” is all I heard.
Full of preconceived notions, when I landed in Singapore, I was in a bit of culture shock: Singapore seems the epitome of civility. Four days isn’t enough to make assumptions about any place, especially not one as interesting as Singapore. Instead, I will describe my first impressions of this fascinating country-city-island.
Everywhere you go–shops, museums, restaurants, metro– people conduct themselves with quiet evenness, both in their manners and tone of their voices. Not even once have I heard anyone shout or seem angry (well maybe once at this breakfast joint–the lady in charge was a bit rough around the edges). I also didn’t see even one stray dog whereas in the rest of my travels, stray, dirty, hungry dogs were everywhere. I imagine there’re many laws regarding dog ownership and any strays would be picked up right away. In a country that seems to be all about rules and regulations, I only saw policemen once, (albeit they were scary looking and carried rifles). Yes, gum is indeed illegal although they do sell it at the 7/11s. Although, I haven’t seen one person chewing and the streets were clean from stained spots. Also, I thought they must have outlawed mosquitoes because there was not even one. But I believe this is because there is no trash anywhere…
English is the official language and taught at all schools, although their national anthem is in (Malay) or Melayu. When speaking, their English is peppered with Malayan slang. The population is mostly made of Peranakans, which means, “son of.” These are descendants of the mixed marriages between Chinese, Indian, and Dutch immigrants with local women (native Malays and Indonesians).
During their schooling they must choose a second language and students usually choose their own heritage’s language: Chinese-Mandarin, South Indians-Tamil, and Malayans-Malay. While chatting with a girl of South Indian heritage, I remarked that her English accent had a distinctive Indian flare. She quickly corrected me saying her accent is Singaporean and maybe I’m hearing through my eyes: Because of her Indian looks and garb. An interesting observation that made me pause for a moment.
During my visit to the city sites, I was constantly aware of the heavy educational bent on everything. As if the government is keen on educating the world, or at least the fellow South East Asian countries as what to aspire to become. From their exemplary state parks, where not a leaf is out of order and trees are perfectly trimmed; to museums housed in reinvented colonial architecture, to a transportation system which is probably cleaner than my home (reminding everyone not to eat or drink while on and nobody does); and to streets without garbage or even dust, and where not a cigarette butt is found. I absolutely found all of these equally amazing and irritating, all wrapped into my experience of this country.
So, all of this is good? Well, at first I was excited to be around clean bathrooms, not to worry about food or water consumption, and walk surrounded by so much shaped beauty. But I have to admit that after a few days, I began to miss the chaos and the lower prices. People were nice and polite but didn’t seem eager to engage, malls looked just like everywhere fancy and everything was really expensive, but mainly, all that incredible cleanliness began to get on my nerves… But as I was told: It’s worth a visit. So here is my list of favorite places (not in any special order):
Singapore Botanical Gardens and especially the Orchid Gardens are superb and worth the entry fee. Also, I had a light appetizer of seared scallops with corn at the restaurant within the Gardens called Halia, which was quite expensive, but yummy.
The Night Safari was a bit too manicured, but was worthwhile to see the mangrove bats and the giant jumping squirrel. I arrived early and went straight for the walking trails, which allowed me time to walk by myself since most people rushed to the tram. Seeing the tiger, leopard, hyenas and wallabies without too much side commentary from Russians or Indians, was great.
Gardens By The Bay has a magnificent cloud rain forest installation.
Sky on 57 at the Marina Bay Sands viewing platform is an awesome way to grasp the magnitude of the Singaporean vision at sunset. With its high rises, floating football field, Durian fruit looking symphony hall, and the magnitude of the Singaporean Strait shipping economy.
Although all the “ethnic” quarters in Singapore feel sterile, the Muslim quarter, Kampong Glam has a hip fashion street, Haji Lane, which is an alternative to the countless same same boutiques at every mall and on Orchard Street.
The Peranakan Museum has an interactive exhibit explaining the background of the Singaporean population as well as being one of the museums currently exhibiting art from the Singapore Biennale. Good timing!
Baba House in Chinatown is a great companion to the Peranakan Museum experience, as it was an actual home owned by a wealthy Chinese family of Peranaka descent. It was restored to its original beauty by the National University of Singapore to showcase the (mostly gone) way of life and this hybrid culture. It’s by reservation only and one of the few tours that is free of charge.
The area where my hotel was located, Bugis, is central, next to the metro, the best museums and the Raffles Hotel. A British politician, Stamford Raffles is coined as the father of Singapore. As they say: No trip to Singapore is complete without visiting the Raffles Hotel… It is really not so, but you may want to have a Singapore Sling while there.
Now I’m off to a place a bit more complex, definitely dirtier, but probably more engaging – Malaysia.
To read more about Singapore standing re: human rights, check out this report: http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2013/country-chapters/singapore?page=1