I’ve seen Singapore lifted to a golden pedestal, settled atop a gilded column glowing in fanciful sunset light, ever since I arrived in Jakarta. That’s right: Jakarta fawns over Singapore.
You’ll never see trash on the ground, I was told. The subway’s clean enough to eat off the floor. They’ve tamed the heat and roaches and floods and made the island livable, even comfortable; they’ve curbed the crowded masses of all the globe, crammed them onto a island once no more than a swampy fishing village, and they’ve made it a haunt for blue-chips business and top-tier tourism and a skyline rising faster than bamboo on Miracle Grow and steroids.
Jakartans drool and shuttle off to Singapore with unbelievable frequency—they rave about smog-free air and revel in streets un-plagued by traffic and stuff themselves with flavors and foods gathered from the whole globe.
Jakarta puts the city of the Merlion on a mile-high pedestal. I don’t exaggerate.
So naturally we were anxious to get there and see exactly what all the fuss was about—and what the heck a Merlion is. But by the time I stepped off the plane, I was so tired of hearing all about how heavenly Singapore is, that I made it my mission to hunt out its flaws, to magnify its faults, to de-bunk the hype to all who would listen: it’s too over-glossed and super-polished and shamefully servile, all this talk of Singapore’s greatness.
And when a snotty young immigration clerk denied my entrance onto sovereign Singapore ground simply because I filled out my arrival car in a color of ink he didn’t particularly like, I was on it. “Fascists,” I grumbled. “Snooty, pretentious, and fascist ink-mongers,” while filling out a replacement card in conformity-friendly blue ink.
I muttered and stewed at the miniscule set-back, unable to appreciate the airport overflowing with tropical flora, with pristine carpets and computerized sculptures of flying teardrops floating in fanciful images, with butterfly gardens and somber, straight-faced staff staring at me with eyes scanning for what sort of pen I’d use next time.
Singapore, you see, is a city of rules. Some claim it has to be to keep all its diverse populations friendly and conforming. They say without a strict hand to coerce everyone into a proper line, chaos would erupt between the Malays and Chinese, the Anglos and the Tamil, the East and the South and the hundred minorities mixed in their midst. Surely so many peoples could never coexist without a strict system of social legislation, right? I mean, it might end up like—shudder—Chicago.
But even as we rolled into the city, the Merlion’s acumen was impossible to deny. Highrise apartments sprung up alongside forests draped in orchids and vines. Streets glistened between stately rows of bromeliads and palms. Gardens glowed alongside construction zones, and everywhere my eyes would wander they found skies blue under CO-free air and the scent, not of open sewer and undrained floodwaters and refuse rotting in a thousands hidden niches, but of vibrant buds and tiny blooms, in the soft green growth of stems and shoots of the endless garden woven into the fabric of the city.
Tourism officials weighs Singapore in at over fifty percent green, and I doubt they need to stretch the figures much—they’d probably be fined, and possibly caned, if they did. An ultra-modern skyline rises from a base draped in palms and flowers and elephant-eared plants in profusion, and everywhere the clean, fresh breath of new growth is in the air.
I gulped and gripped my pen and reminded myself of my mission—I’d yet expose this place as a fraud.
And so, I glowering and Andy ecstatic, we arrived in Chinatown. This little barrio is replete with a thousand reminders of the ancient land—the signs are spelled out in spilled-noodle letters, the populous trips their tongues and throats to the rollercoaster tones and drags of the mother tongue, and the smell of everything cooking at once—pork feet and duck skin, fish heads and chicken feet, beef innards and jellyfish… umm… parts?—permeates everything. Drench it all in a thick soy sauce and splash a few simmering incense sticks around, and you’re there. The only thing missing is a cliché soundtrack of clinking xylophones and flutes and a long-bearded Kung-fu master.
Singapore’s Chinatown is a trip in itself, a slice of the (once-called) Orient transported to a tiny island and boiled down to a neighborhood full of all the best Old Cathay has to offer. All this comes absent of the pollution and corruption, abject poverty and overcrowded everything, that the mainland brings. It’s everything exotic without the lead in the milk and unsafe baby toys and iron-handed direction of the Party. I strolled past the delicate flesh of roasting pork ribs, observed the dance of hand-made noodles spun between practiced fingers, changed my dollars for Sing Dollars at a decent rate, and began to worry: could I possibly find aught to complain about? Could I succeed in tearing the Merlion from his Jakarta-placed pedestal.
I clinched my fist, narrowed my eyes, and bought a three-day tourist card for public transportation. It was only twenty bucks. I almost smiled.
Our next stop was Little India; here we would find our lodging and maybe our lunch.
A ten-minute trip on a crowded-but-colorful and, yes I have to admit, spotless subway whisked us from the Mandarin Orient with its sour-sweet stir-fry to the mustaches and masala, the saris and rotis, the pulsing bhangra and lotus-armed gods of the subcontinent. We could hardly believe it—go underground in China, travel ten minutes, come up a world away in India.
Little India—can I ever forget the wafting waves of frying parathas and simmering biryanis? Can I ever neglect the streets spilling over in flip-flopped feet scurrying from one jewelry shop to the next, from one arcade overflowing a million hues of fabric into the sun-abundant sidewalks? Your teas and your sweets call me back. Your Bollywood tunes and the henna-traced hands and the hookas and the cardamom and the dozens of tailors plying away at iron machines just inches from sidewalks can’t leave me in peace.
All that was in the ten-minute walk to the hotel.
We checked in and jumped to check out the neighborhood. But wait. I had to stop. I still had a grudge. I still had my mission. This city can’t be as grand as all they say. What about those signs on the subway—all the fines? Isn’t this the city infamous for fees, for over-legislating the simplest social customs? No spitting. No littering. No gum. No skateboards. No urinating—as if before that law the population ran wild through the city unzipping whenev—you know what, I’m going to stop right there. But you can’t even bring a durian on the subway. Not that I would want to, mind you—the pungent odor of the hell-spiked fruit keeps me well away from it pretty much always.
But it’s the principle of the thing. I was reared in the land of the free, after all—the land of the right to choose and to do and to live like you like. I’m not used to any parliament anywhere telling me when and where I can carry my durians. If I want to tote a crate of smelly old sneakers around, of molded potato peels and rancid chicken fat, isn’t that my right? Well, durians smell only slightly worse than that, but they’re illegal to traffic on public transport.
Actually, though, maybe that’s a good rule. I mean, its smell is bad enough, but given its size and its weight and its spikes forged in some fiend’s hellish dungeon of despair, a ripe durian could easily be used as a weapon. It’d be bad enough to be mugged, but imagine be beaten by a durian and left to suffocate in its stench while the thieves who filched your wallet abscond into the pristine tunnels and urine-free escalators of the MRT. Not a pretty picture.
But still, why fine someone a half-thousand for chewing gum but let traffickers of odiferous potential murder weapons off with a mere warning? It’s the City of Rules, the City of Fines, infamous for over-legislating the most minute of social behaviors: no spitting, no smoking, no durians, death to drug traffickers, shackles on freedom of speech for the greater good—and all monitored by CCTV everywhere. Yep, the camera surveillance is crazy: you definitely get the impression that this is precisely where Big Brother is really going to start his reign. Don’t take me too sarcastically on that one—plainclothes police patrol the streets to nab jaywalkers and parking violaters, to write up citations for licentious gum-chewers and lascivious expectorators, to tackle and interrogate lawless durian-munchers. Big Brother all the way.
By now I was feeling pretty smug—I finally had the goods on Singapore. I could finally dethrone the old Merlion and avenge my immigration card inconvenience.
But then we arrived at the marina, and I found myself dwarfed by three dozen sky-cropping edifices glimmering in the afternoon heat, thwarted by a man-made bay scooping a chunk of river away from the sea to reflect the self-made splendor of the City of Progress back at itself. The night was falling, and the tourists buzzing and clicking all down the waterfront, and the queen over it all? The Sands at Marina Bay—a triple tower topped with a space-age schooner, alone along the far end of the tourists’ bay, the eye-magnet arresting the gaze of every passerby and chaining it to its curves and opulence.
Walking along the waterfront and gaping at all, we soon came face to face with the Merlion itself. Yes, there it stood before our eyes: a carefully crafted hybrid whose curves were wrought in stone, an immense fountain spewing the sea back into itself, a landmark and Singapore’s own mythology gazing proudly over the bay. Surprisingly enough, it’s actually, as the name suggests, a hybrid of a mermaid and lion—wild mane above and sensual fins below. Seriously, I know. It represents, they say, the power of the lion for which Singapore was named, as well as the maritime roots of the city. Personally, I’d rather go with a shark, or maybe a stingray, or even a flounder for the bottom half, but hey, it wasn’t my choice. Merlion it is.
We snapped a few pictures and hung around for nightfall and the laser-light show at the Sands. And there we almost died of thirst.
The Merlion is a high roller, if you know what I mean. I thought Manhattan was bad, but I wasn’t ready for Singapore—especially not the waterfront. A can of Coke was going for $6, and a small bottle of water for $3.50. Now isn’t that just Singapore’s style, I said to myself. They know it’s hot. They dehydrate you on purpose just to wring the last dollars from your sweaty pockets. They sit back in their smug, cosmopolitan diners and watch us writhe in agony between thirst and gouging prices. They’ll just laze around and watch sightseers shrivele and collapse on the ample sidewalks and palm-bordered paths—and then fine us each a thousand for not cleaning up our corpses from a public walkway.
Eventually I forked over the cash and stoked the fires of my Singapore grudge.
I sipped and was forced to admit that the laser show was pretty cool. We spent the rest of the evening in rambles around the waterfront and tripod-steadied photography of the night’s sights: fountains and bridges and opulence of the Marina.
We found the Fullerton hotel there, and within it a mini-museum to open the public. The tiny exhibit highlights the change from the iconic wharf of yesteryear to the conglomeration of hip cafés and nightclubs of now—you know, the price-gouging ones I mentioned earlier. It walked visitors through such changes and included poetic remembrances from longtime residents on the bygone age when the Marina was for actual shipping and not merely tourism. I was impressed. It sunk home to me the fact that Singapore in not merely about business execs bulldozing the past and wrenching traditions away from the masses in order to foster more growth and more income—no, in this tiny display I came face to face with intellectual Singapore—the city bent not merely on growing but on blossoming.
You see this in the architecture, in the culinary craftsmanship its so proud of, in the music festivals and the literary exhibitions and the temples and holy sites that have been protected and celebrated: a metropolis not merely emerging from autocratic leanings of its governance but one also dedicated to self-examination and reflection. It was a shining little moment of inspiration for me, exhausted and exasperated and foot-weary as I was. It’s true, it seems, that Singapore is also about its art.
But such a tiny epiphany was all I could handle for that evening—we were off to a midnight hawker meal and well-earned rest.
Ah yes, the hawkers. I’d heard of these—former street vendors who’ve been herded into giant malls. It’s something between an open-air market and a restaurant, a people-packed cross between street food and café dining—with three hundred hungry bystanders mixed in. A hawker center is a restless buzz of a thousand eaters picking through flavors ranging the world over, and of a thousand flies plying for their scraps. It makes the street food seem not so seedy, and much less in the way of motor and pedestrian traffic. It makes the roadside chefs seem suddenly more respectable, and gives the rest of us confidence in the sanitation of our meals.
Go in the day, and you’re amazed. Come back around midnight, and, well, you’re also amazed, but for different reasons. Try it and see.
We spent the next day with friends, eating through a late Eid luncheon. The next evening found us back near the Marina, but this time on the far side, the oceanfront side, strolling through the Gardens by the Bay—a world-class plantation of green initiatives and tourism merged together as seamlessly as a mermaid and lion supposedly can be. I shook my head: Singapore is cocky now. As if it’s not enough to fuse the city with enough gardens to make a landscaper a prince; it’s not sufficient to pack parks and green space onto hillsides and streetsides; it won’t do to merely have half the landmass of the metropolis devoted to green and not gray stuff, they had to go and forge their own rainforest.
That’s what the “supertrees” are about—manmade mammoths towering over the parks’ organic inhabitants, wiry steel mimicking braches lofting high into the humid evening, sporting a horde of LEDs and supporting weight not merely of itself but also of elevators and restaurants and a skyview walkway suspended twenty two meters (the average height of a rainforest canopy, they say) over the park. There’s a light show here, too, and the power comes from solar panels atop the supertrees and a complex system of composting biomass from trimmings throughout the park system that somehow creates loads of green electricity.
We picnicked on a pristine lawn amid another laser-light show that drowned out the stars—are these replacing fireworks or something?—, strolled through a mall and museum on par with any in the world, and skipped out on another late evening with the hawkers in favor of tucking ourselves back in bed for one last night in the Merlion’s den.
The final morning in the city found us strolling and sweating through the more traditional gardens—these of the botanical variety. For a tiny city-state, Singapore boasts one heck of a botanical garden, stretching acre on acre up the steep slopes of one of its few hills, bursting in orchids and ancient trees, dripping vines and burgeoning shrubs over and around tranquil lakes. People gaze and people laze and mostly people sweat and look for shade. Or sometimes they scrape through what’s left of their wallets to scrounge up some change for a drink. No, not a margarita—a bottle of water to keep from dehydrating.
We would have enjoyed the botanical more if we hadn’t had to sprint back the hotel for our bags, through a hawker center for one last sumptuous and supposedly safe take on street food, and to the airport to catch the flight back home to good old Jakarta. We cut it close—no time for the in-airport massage, for the free movie theater, for the gaming center or butterfly garden or even (yet another) nearby hawker center. No, we were forced to the airport to actually catch a flight.
I know I was trying to be angry with Singapore, but it’s hard not to be a fan when you see how the city has dragged itself out of a muddy, fetid jungle, how it’s risen from a perpetually flooded fishing village to an ultra-modern business megalopolis, how it’s willed itself from a dingy, sultry trading post to an art and cultural capitol of a region of billions of inhabitants. When you stroll under gentle LEDs lighting pristine pathways under swaying palms, the dozen-tongued chatter of well-dressed youths parading themselves and laughing along the waves lapping at their feet, it’s hard not to be impressed.
And I guess that’s why it’s so arrogant and so admired, so smug and so darn magnetic, so hip and hiding so many struggling lives beneath its façade of forever contentment. Have I forgiven Singapore for being so darn likeable? Well, let’s just say that when Jakarta asked for blue ink on my arrival, I didn’t freak out. After all, it shamelessly seeks to emulate the Merlion. And is it really such an unreasonable request?