Via Singapore

This post documents the beginning of my journey to Switzerland to present at the EdMedia conference in 2004.

Grey Morning
Strangely, I wasn’t feeling particularly excited while waiting to board, perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it was 8:17am and I hadn’t had much sleep that night. It was a windy, overcast day, what a fitting way for Auckland to see me off! At about 8:30 I found myself in my seat (32H) the seat next to me (I) was unoccupied but some skank sat down in J.

I had the smallest breakfast sausages I have ever seen. The guy in J ordered 5 whiskeys on the rocks in quick succession then had a red wine with his meal (he may not have been counting, but I certainly was). So, after checking that the grog was free, I got myself a vodka and lemonade. It turns out that Singapore Airlines often get confused between their vodka and their engine fuel so I only drank aboout a quarter of it an exchanged it for a sprite. It was approximately 3000km to Singapore.

Looking at the in-flight map it is interesting to note the names of the cities in this area: Male, Bangkok, Phucket.

I arrived at Singapore without much further ado. As we landed I couldn’t help feeling I was landing in a prison compound what with all the high walls and razor wire. Singapore airport is massive and I was immediately impressed by how big it was but also how well it was run. It’s a little disconcerting to see armed security personell walking around, especially after living in little old New Zealand for so long. To my delight, I discovered I could walk straight into Singapore wihout any special visa. I then got this crazy idea that I would go into the city on my own. I ended up going for the ride of my life.

I happened upon a “tour guide” named David at 5pm Singapore time. He haggled a bit and promised to show me all the sites for a real cheap price (at the time I thought he said $30 for the whole day). I thought why not and off we went. Singapore is a big city. Take the Auckland CBD and repeat it until it fills the whole horizon, then maybe you have an idea of what I mean. For all its size and grandeur, when you look at it on a micro level, it’s just people, the same as everywhere else.

The first place David took me was downtown Chinatown. He used up his only parking voucher for the day to get us a parking place. The ambiance was incredible. Take a sock, 1Kg of meat, a cabbage, a pineapple and 4 litres of water. Bring to the boil, add an incense candle and let it steam for 3 hours. Finally, immerse yourself in the fumes. That’s what it’s like, only with more heat and noise. Someone tried to covince me that I needed him to tailor me a suit China Town while soneone else tried to sell me a T-shirt. I think it is probably a good time to point out that it was very very hot and humid. Remember that pot of boiling water. Well, you’re in the pot. That’s how hot and humid it is in Singapore. You can’t walk for very long without being drenched in sweat. Thank goodness the Singapore government had the presence of mind to plant heaps of trees which help counteract the climate.

Hindu Temple
Ironically, the first Hindu temple I saw was in ChinaTown. It seems that the city has been restructured many times and the old Hindu temple still stands in testament to that. Being a South African, I couldn’t help remarking on how all the areas in Singapore are nicely segmented off. There are ChinaTown, IndiaTown, EnglishTown (Orchard Road) and even a little space left over for Thai and Phillipino people. All these different races in such a concentrated area is not a bad thing in itself. What concerned me though is that the separation between the cultures was as effective and complete as the Townships in South Africa, the Projects in America or the Ghettos in Germany.

Hindu Temple 2

Our next stop was in Little India where I saw yet another Hindu temple. I felt like an intruder coming in and taking my photos but David insisted it was ok. The bell you see here is one of many attached to each of the great doors leading into the temple. They are rung to announce that you are coming in to pray.

Two cities
Singapore is a city of contradictions. As David & I made our way through the sights and smells of the city, David started by telling me all the good things about the city, its history and politics. About how littering demands a high penalty and how because of that it’s such a clean city. I did notice however that he littered himself and dispite claiming that Singaporeans were very health concious, he was a smoker himself. As time went on though, he spoke of more and more negative things, as though confiding in me.

Two cities
David blames the “foreigners” for most of the ills in his society. “Foreigners” are migrant workers from elsewhere in Asia who are lured in by the strong Singapore currency. The government charges a $350 levy for hiring these workers but companies still find it cheaper to hire them because their wage expectations are low. This, combined with an apparently high cost of living means that even people David’s age are working long hours well into what should have been their retirement years. David tells me the average working week is 6 days a week, no overtime and under British rule it was 5.5 days plus overtime. I get the feeling David wouldn’t mind going back to colonial times. I get the impression that beneath the highly polished veneer there exist all the ills of any other society, nicely concentrated and well within reach. David kept on suggesting that I might want to get myself “refreshed” and that in order to “get my circulation going” I needn’t go to a night club but go to government approved “office girls”. I opted out of it. I still can’t imagine what exactly he was trying to sell, but I wasn’t buying.

Fried Rice
Finally, at 8:30pm. I had about 3 hours to get the airport, plenty of time. David took me to Fatty Wong’s (which, so he says, is world famous). He ordered me up some fried rice and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t like rice. As I sat there at Fatty Wongs, next to the alley way leading to the carpark, with the neighbourhood cats eyeing the fish tank full of tomorrow’s breakfast, I felt privelaged to be able to share so intimate a taste of Singapore with a man I hardy know. All around me everyone is winding down the day, it’s very low key and reminds me of South Auckland. There is obviously poverty here. A live fish was absconded from the fish tank for someone’e meal. Thankfully not my own.

Dinner in Singapore

True to his word, David didn’t steal my belongings (nor my kidneys) but he did manage to get me to pay him $150 for the tour. It was well worth it though and I would do it again.