You can tell a lot about a country by its airports. Often it may be a glimpse into what the country is like, far more often it’s very much a projected image of how officialdom would like the country to be viewed. Take the contrast between the interrogating tactics of American passport control versus the ruthless efficiency of German airports where you find yourself from plane door to train door in a little under fifteen minutes. Singapore airport is a dream. Its modern, shiny, has lots of plants in it, its well-run, has good transport links and has free internet. Best of all its quiet, which is such a revelation. Normally airports are wall to wall noise, full of tannoys blaring out gates that are now open, gates that are now closed, warning messages to tell you to be careful when you get to the end of a travellator, announcements to get through security in plenty of time, constant nagging about the possibility that you might have packed a knife or fluids in your hand-luggage. In a nanny state, you are left on your own in Singapore airport. It’s bizarre, but it works, with no constant background noise, people talk quieter and an air of calm descends over the airport. What they do is tell you your gate number and time at the check-in desk and you go to that gate at that time and the gate opens promptly. How amazing is that! No messages, no announcements, nothing. I’m a big fan of this, I’ve always thought that if you are stupid enough not to be able to find your gate on time then you deserve not to fly.
This sleek image is the one Singapore attempts to project to both the travelling masses and also to the ordinary citizens. Its rail network is flawless, its streets clean and tidy, no crime, no litter. The place is full of sleek and shiny shopping malls stocked with every product you could ever want. It’s a city that’s a delight on the taste buds. It’s the garden city, with tree-lined roads, lots of parks and greenery. Its safe, well-behaved children are given a long leash because it’s not dangerous.
But can Singapore be this utopian? Well of course not. Jaywalking and litter is heavily punished and also publicised. Stories in the media have headlines such as “Jaywalker kills motorcyclist”. It’s a nanny state peddling their vision of an ultra-perfect society of educated Chinese-Singaporeans having lots of educated babies. Force feeding everybody strange ideals of love and life. They want everybody to conform. There’s no freedom of the press.
Garden city? No-one has a garden! People are stacked several thousand to the square hundred metres in high-rise apartment blocks. Huge mega-malls poke the citizens into a never ending circle of being consumers, constantly encouraged to purchase more and more, with special rewards for members of the mall(!), certain phone companies etc etc. In each of these malls is a food court serving exactly the same thing. From stall to stall, from mall to mall, this is not the world-wide food at your fingertips I’d been promised. And every one of these is packed. Do these people do nothing but shop and eat at malls. Do these people ever eat at home? And how does this perpetual middle-class live like this? The answer I suspect is an unnoticed, swept under the carpet lower-class of second citizens (or not citizens).
For recreation there are Astroturf pitches and courts crammed in-between the high-rises. The island of Sentosa is a no-longer a recreation island where the locals flocked for a bit of R&R. It’s an overpriced resort. Transport there and back is expensive, food and drink are expensive, any activities (3D-cinemas, zip-wires, tree-top walkways, observation towers) you may wish to do is expensive. To top it off, currently under construction is a new development containing “luxury hotels, themed attractions and shopping!” (groan) and there was a Universal Studios under construction with the roller-coasters being tested. We visited the aquarium which was overpriced. It was extraordinarily busy and noisy. All of the animals there were cowering in the back of their tanks. Actually cowering, doing their best to keep out of the way. I never thought I’d see distress of the “face” of a crustacean but I did. I never thought I’d see such an intelligent animal as an octopus given such a tiny, empty barren tank in which it had hidden its head in the furthest corner and covered it with its body. Or a manatee given such a small-barren empty tank. Or so, so many fish per tank. I thought modern zoos and aquariums were meant to be animal friendly. This was cruel and shaming.
I also have to take to task anyone who said that Singapore was a home of electronics, available widely and cheaply. Erm, no. I’ve been in the market for a new MP3 player and have found the choice in Singapore limited, and the prices comparable to the UK market rate, much more expensive that Amazon.co.uk. Myth-debunked people. Singapore is a disturbing vision for our future, of how the homogenisation and modernisation of our culture could well lead.
I could easily attack more bits and pieces of the city. I doubt their transport system would be better than London’s if it ran anywhere near as frequently as London’s. But all cities have their faults and quirks, so I’ll let the rest of them lie.
Underneath this thick plastic skin there lies a beating heart to Singapore, a soul that could be its salvation. It is to be found in the suburbs of China Town and Little India, places where the streets narrow slightly, jaywalking is common, restaurants in mini Hawker centres sell real (often very real!), varied food which is filling, cheap and oh so delicious. The scissor cut curry rice was amazing. It involves a fast-moving queue and fast-moving staff. You get a scoop of rice and your choice of toppings (pork, chicken, egg, beef, beans, unidentifiable meat etc) all cut rapidly with scissors, plus curry sauce. Very quick, very cheap, and very tasty. Portions weren’t huge, so we just went round again! We also had a couple of fantastic curries in these street-side cafes which were top notch, heavy on the spice and fragrance and flavour, but not too heavy on the spicy.
There are real markets to be found here, not just malls, which sell far more interesting things than the malls. Things of cultural significance, things that are Singaporean, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Malay, representing the cultural mix that Singapore is privileged to have. The Mustafa Centre was Little India’s version of a mall, a giant department store that sold anything and everything under one roof, at actually discounted prices on cramped shelves, in cramped aisles on cramped floors. So much stuff in so little space, yet it was real and alive and so much fun to wander through.
We stayed in a fantastic hostel in Singapore towards the outskirts of Little India. The first one I have found which has managed to retain small-hostel friendliness, warmth and sociability in a medium to big sized hostel. A top find there then. We walked around the city-centre which was quite cool in a sky-scraper kind of-way mixed in with a few stone cultural centrepieces. I always enjoy wandering around parts of street Formula 1 tracks noticing which traffic islands are removable etc!
I have so many mixed feelings about Singapore, I don’t know whether to hate it and everything it stands for or whether I should cling to the hope that is given by its good parts. It is what it is, and its interesting to see.
To finish off I return to my airport theme, and how British airports give a little glimpse into my own country. Outdated, out of purpose buildings that are slowly being replaced by shiny new terminals that don’t really work. Long queues at inadequately staffed passport controls and of course, complete and utter shutdown at the first sight of snow. Gatwick airport was shut due to ice when we arrived back in the UK, so they landed us at Heathrow, sat us there for an hour, decided we couldn’t be let off, as the roads were too icy around Gatwick and some fuss over border control. So they de-iced the plane and flew us back to the freshly de-iced Gatwick, before some trains home in the night in what was a major reminder of being back home in December, very cold, slightly damp. Gotta love good ol’ blighty.
That's all, thanks everyone for reading.