As we approached Singapore, passengers on board the SilkAir craned their heads to have a peek at the Lion City’s chic, scintillating skyline.
Having been in the air for nearly five hours negotiating our way through a sea of fluffy clouds, the orange of the setting sun, and then droning over lush green forests and vast flat terrain, the island’s bright lights and glitzy huddle of futuristic skyscrapers seemed like a mirage in the distant horizon. Like a gemstone sharp and finely cut out, the city shimmered in a rainbow of hues.
It was a slightly windy night as the plane encountered some turbulence while gliding over the city just before descent. And as it taxied in on the Changi International’s rain-soaked runway, I felt that, for the first time ever, I had landed in a truly global metropolis. A few minutes ago I had seen large ships and mercantile vessels trudge down the sea from my window-seat. The port is one of the world’s busiest, a Mr Know-all seated beside me had said.
Major airlines from all over the world were either parked in the hangar or taxing down the runway for takeoff. The ultra-modern terminal with its squeaky clean arrival hall was lined with bright duty-free shops, luxury stores, and an array of conveniences such as a free movie theater, an internet lounge, a gym, a swimming pool, foliage gardens and massage tables – all befitting a luxury hotel.
After passing through security, I met my friend who had come to receive me. I was happy to see her after a long time. We hugged and smiled at each other and talked about how we had changed since we last met. But since it was already late, we quickly got on the metro.
It was winter in Kathmandu when I boarded the flight to Singapore. We were already half-way through our metro ride when I realised that it was not winter in the island nation. I took off my jacket as my friend informed me that the temperature in Singapore always hovered around 25 to 33 degrees and there were no spring, summer nor winter. It is more like ‘wetter’ monsoon right now, she said. I kind of liked the sudden change in the weather and my straddling between two seasons in a span of few hours.
The journey was smooth and I didn’t experience fatigue. But since it was already around 11 pm when I finally reached my friend’s apartment, I crashed onto the bed after making some small talk with my friend’s husband. Their son was already fast asleep.
It was slightly hot and humid, so I slept in snatches through my first night in Singapore, and when I finally did wake up at about 7 am, I was amazed to see that it was still dark outside. But soon it give way to the morning light, which saw me, my friend, and her son go for breakfast at a Chinese food court near her apartment. There they served an assortment of food items and delicacies.
During my childhood days I had heard that Singapore was the cleanest city in the world. Every mention of Singapore instantly conjured up images of oriental elegance, of mystery shrouded in her blurry past as an obscure fishing village prior to the arrival of the British colonisers.
My childhood fantasy was further emboldened reading sea stories of generations of Portugese, Dutch and English sailors who came to her shores seeking riches and glory. And the mystical Malayan tale of king Sang Nila Utama, who after reportedly sighting a lion (a tiger, according to historians) when he first stepped on the shores of Temasek (“Sea town”, as the settlement was known centuries ago), renamed this island on the tip of Malay Peninsula Singapura, the “lion city”.
To experience the real Singapore, I wandered down the narrow lanes lined with fashion boutiques and Middle Eastern cafes in Haji Lane, the city’s Muslim quarter, then passing through Goddess of Mercy and Sri Krishna Temple along the tiled Waterloo Street with people offering their morning prayers before reaching the cluster of mighty skyscrapers in the impeccably clean Bugis and Victoria street.
I saw why those who visited the city before me said Singapore’s streets are so spotless that you can literally eat off it.
Despite the obvious masculine connotation to the name, Singapore always retained a feminine charm for me, as if the city was a tempting oriental lady to possess whom, I learnt reading the nation’s short history, the European powers had intrigued very bitterly.
Today the locals call their land “the fine city”. The title which, apart from referring to its status as a fine and orderly metropolis to live in (with efficient public transportation, clean streets, low crime rate and diversity of culture and religions) also points towards its notoriously harsh fines that help keep this tiny nation in order.
For instance, to maintain a squeaky-clean image, anyone –be it a local or foreigner-- caught littering is fined 1,000 Singapore Dollars (around Rs 69,000) while fines for other offenses such as chewing gum, spitting, jaywalking, urinating in public, eating or drinking in the subway or not flushing the toilet could be anywhere from $500 to $5000. And there is that possibility of additional punishments such as caning (and the death penalty for possession or trafficking of more than 20 grams of drugs). However, the hefty fines announced by ubiquitous posters and signs in public places, public transport, shopping malls and elevators make you feel like you have to be constantly on the watch; that you don’t accidentally spill your coffee and slapped a fine for littering.
Sometimes this rule-bound culture can be a bit suffocating (Still, the fact that I didn’t have to bother polishing my shoes during my three-day stay in Singapore made me happy).
The almost militaristic measures adopted by Singaporean government to fight even minor offences such as littering in public or spitting also reflects its “zero tolerance” towards crime. The South-east Asian economic power house is the fifth least corrupt country in the world and the least corrupt in Asia, says Transparency International.
No wonder that Singapore, soon after declaring independence from Malaysia in 1965, managed to transform itself from a developing colonial backwater with no natural resources and limited land space to one of the most developed nations in Asia.
Nepali leaders were just naïve to have ever promised that they could transform fly-infested ‘jhingapore’ like Kathmandu into Singapore.
Just before lunch, we went to the National Library at Victoria Street. In its airy, well-lighted hall, an exhibition titled Raffles’ Letter: Intrigues behind the Founding of Singapore had been on display for the past many months. On display were maps and letters of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, the ambitious British officer who established the first British trading station in the island in 1819 and effectively laid the foundation of a modern, bustling port city.
The letters provide an exciting account on “founding” of Singapore by Raffles to counter the Dutch influence in South-east Asia and dominate trade in the region. Increase in port activity and trading volume in Singapore over a span of almost two centuries not only transformed the city-state into one of the important centers of world finance today, but revolutionised trade in the whole of South-east Asia.
To get a sense of Singapore as a “great commercial emporium” as Raffles had intended it to be, one should take a quick drive through Raffles’ Avenue to the Esplanade and then go further on to the city’s main financial district called the Raffles Place. It lies on the south bank of the Singapore River and features several tall skyscrapers with flagship banks and financial enterprises. The city’s landmarks such as the Fullerton Hotel, ultra modern Art Centre Esplanade Theaters, the Merlion, (the 8.6 metre tall famous Singaporean icon of a mythical creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish), Singapore flyer (the tallest Ferris wheel in the world) and the futuristic looking Marina Bay Sands are located nearby from Raffles’ Place while tourists can be seen snapping each other’s photos in Merlion Park or taking the river boat to explore the sights and attractions of the city along the river.
It was afternoon already, and time for me to head for the conference for which I was in the city. I took the subway to the venue at the other end of the city. Of course, my friend had explained me about the metro’s routes (called MRT by Singaporeans) before she left me for the afternoon. After some initial confusion, I started pretty much using the MRT by tallying up its routes to the map of the city. This clean and efficient way of public transportation is one of the main reasons why it is so easy for travelers to explore Singapore.
I told my Singaporean friend, who had briefly worked as an intern in Kathmandu, that the Nepali government is planning to build a similar underground mass transport system in Kathmandu to reduce traffic on the streets. She had a small word of advice.
She said before mulling on a metro for the city, Nepal should ask itself whether the common people in the city can afford to use it to commute on a daily basis.
“I think Nepal should concentrate on growing its economy first before thinking about such ambitious projects. Plus with so much corruption, you don’t want another government scandal or, god forbid, a tragedy of hundreds of passengers trapped inside a shoddily built tunnel.”
I thought she was right. When Kathmandu doesn’t even have an efficient and regulated public transport system above ground, to even think about a metro in Kathmandu would be a far-fetched idea. And since it takes lot of money to build a subway system anyway, the government would have to channel scarce resources to build something that can just turn out to be, as what Nepali people say, “white elephant”.
The three days (and nights) I was in Singapore, I wandered about the city, sometimes with company and other times alone. I had often lost my way in the urban sprawl. Exploring the colourful markets and eating fabulous foods in Chinatown (and visiting the flashy shophouses where even a man becomes a wide-eyed shopper!). A walking tour of Little India to savour the diversity of food, culture and religions was also a delight as was catching the river boat to head out to the happening night spots in Clarke Quay to sip a cool drink while enjoying the fantastic views of the city.
As for the people, most were silent and somewhat reserved (deeply engrossed in their own ’smart phone world’, be it on the streets or on the MRT). No wonder the Singapore was ranked one of the ‘least emotional countries’ in the world by Gallup.
Still, I found Singaporeans to be quite polite, friendly and helpful, at least when I asked them for directions.
As they say, a city mirrors the personality of its inhabitants. Singapore was no exception. The people were as neat and dressed-up as the city (you got to see how most Singaporean women carry themselves). But the exquisite façade maintained by Singapore, though fascinating to travelers, can also appear to be somewhat overwhelming. I could not see anything in the city’s modernistic architecture, in its monuments or memorials that truly reflected the stories and struggle of the generations of Chinese, Malay and Indian immigrants who shed sweat and blood to ensure Singapore’s exponential rise. Nor could I see reminders of the country’s history under the Japanese occupation and the communist insurgency.
The city didn’t have any sense of tradition or history. It was so forward-looking that it seemed to have lost contact with its humble origins. This could be the reason Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore and most revered national figure, called it a “society in transition”.
Every part of the city-state is so spruced up and sparkling that you feel Singapore is an extremely organised and livable city. But you don’t see any hint of old-world charm some places in Kathmandu, all its problems aside, have managed to preserve. I believe that little imperfections add spice to life and afford a character to a city to save it from becoming dull and artificial.
Singapore has achieved the marvelous feat of transforming itself from a British colonial outpost to one of the most developed, technologically advanced and affluent countries in the world. Maybe all that Singapore needs to do now is sit back and relax a little bit.