Leaving aside the Shopping Incident (see previous blog entry), I think I like Singapore. Not like as in ‘want to live here’ but I’m certainly impressed by it as a city. My condescending western assumptions had painted the place as something like Lima – high rise privilege cheek by jowl with conscience-jolting poverty, but it’s clean, prosperous, sophisticated, stylish and generally way pleasanter than, say, London.
Of course it’s not perfect. Though there’s high employment and government caps on prices for food and property, there’s no welfare state (leading to polite, disabled beggars), and compulsory military service. And then there’s the iron fist under the silk glove – the draconian laws, from being hung for running drugs to being fined for carrying the wrong sort of fruit on a train (honest, I kid you not). I expected a cavity search at customs and policemen on every street corner, but this is largely a self-policing culture. The customs men gave me a polite smile and I saw a grand total of one police car (parked).
Whatever the hidden costs may be, this society certainly works. It is also truly multicultural. Though everyone speaks English (fortunately for me), they also speak at least one of the languages of the other major ethnic groups – Mandarin Chinese, Tamil or Malay. Most signs are quadrilingual, and among themselves Singaporeans switch languages several times in a conversation. There’s also some amazing juxtapositions of old and new. A couple of days ago I stood in the courtyard of a Hindu temple; inside horns blew and drummed drummed, celebrants prayed and chanted and half naked priests carried bowls of flowers through the throng and anointed the worshippers’ foreheads. I was looking up at the central tower, a gaudy stack of sculpted forms, some human, some not. It would have been hard to stare up into the glare of the tropical sky, but fortunately the sun behind the tower was being blocked by a fifty storey glass and steel skyscraper.
We’ve chose a good time to be here: not only is it at the end of monsoon season, and so slightly less humid (though still very hot with the occasional downpour), we’re also only a week or so off from Chinese new year. Shops, hotels, private homes and the whole of Chinatown are decked out in red and gold. Red lanterns hang from gutters and many entrances are flanked by ed drapery. One shopping mall (and there are a lot of shopping malls here) had the chinese horoscope animals as pink flower sculpture.
Lack of time and knowledge (plus the lure of air-conditioned coaches) led us to do most of our sightseeing on organised tours. Very organised tours: conducted with military precision, in fact. As part of the tourist herd we’ve drunk (very expensive but very good) Singapore Slings at Raffles hotel, eaten a (not so good) Chinese meal on the quayside, cruised up the river on a converted junk, walked through the orchid gardens (which has a coolhouse, nto a hothouse) and done a night safari at the zoo.
Singapore even has its own resort, Sentosa Island, and when the crowds and heat got too much we headed over the bridge to get some space there. It was a bit like a tropical Butlins, with artificial beaches (including inbuilt underlighting), defunct mono-rail, mini-golf, aquarium and dodgy marine mammals show. The skyline is dominated by a huge statue of the Merlion, symbol of Singapore. There’s a ‘fun for all the family’ atmosphere which normally puts me off, but my irony was up for it, even for the amazingly twee but impressive ‘magic fountain show’ which combines water, lasers and holograms. My enjoyment might not have been so great at a weekend when hard working Singaporeans flock over to the Island to chill out.
Everyone seems to work hard here: commercialism is king, and money a god actively worshipped. I can’t help thinking that the Merlion has, not a tail, but feet of clay. As an island City State Singapore must import nearly all its food and export all its rubbish. If the money stops flowing, collapse will be swift and inevitable. But until that happens, let the Lion roar.