The flight from Penang pulled up to the gate at Singapore’s Changi International Airport at 6:30pm, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Pointing to my watch, I predicted “I bet we’re out of the airport by seven!”
“Really?” Frank Lee replied, brow furrowed.
Sure enough, by 6:57 pm, we had passed through immigration control, collected our checked baggage, cleared customs, withdrawn Singaporean dollars from an ATM, stood in a taxi queue for less than sixty seconds, and now watched the taxi driver load our bags into the sizeable boot of his built-to-Singaporean-specifications cab. They fit; a first on this trip. After a quick $30 cab ride, we had checked into our central Singapore hotel room by 7:30 pm.
“Which part?” I asked.
“All of it!”
I shrugged. “Singapore is amazing.”
Earlier, waiting for our plane to leave Penang, we decided to spend some Malaysian ringgit lingering in our wallets. Frank Lee asked the staff at the duty-free shop “How much alcohol can we bring in to Singapore?”
The two, one man, one woman, answered in unison: “None.”
We were shocked. “Really? None?” I knew Singapore could be restrictive about many things, but an absolute prohibition on travellers carrying alcohol? Amazing. Yet, these people were hired to SELL us alcohol – why would they lie about it?
“Really. None.” They assured us.
“Well, that’s that, then.” We shrugged and walked out the door. Minutes later in flight, the JetStar Asia duty-free offerings clearly spelt out that Singapore allows the usual two litres (or so). “What the…?!?”
Amazingness goes far to explain why so much of Asia seems to hate Singapore. Singapore sets a very high bar indeed.
This city-state is inhabited by over five million people, each of whom know everything will work because everybody will follow the rules. These are a people comfortable with government executing people who don’t follow the rules, as the airport signs warn drug traffickers. Even Americans, much preferring to kill each other, largely reject that role for government.
Yet, or perhaps as a result, Singapore doesn’t even have all that many rules. Cyclists don’t have to wear helmets, smoking is generally permitted, jaywalking is tolerated – yet most cyclists wear helmets, most smokers don’t smoke in public, and most pedestrians don’t jaywalk. The rule – it ain’t a law – is “be gracious”, currently supported by an advertising campaign “suggesting” graciousness on public transport.
Much as I appreciate the enviable results, I have to admit this causes me some uncomfortableness, as I am not being much of a rule-follower, and graciousness is not my primary disposition.
One the foremost amazingnesses is that Singapore’s water is drinkable. Mind you, Singapore water tastes of chlorine, but even in that respect it tastes better than, say, the water of Washington, DC or Montreal or Adelaide. Regardless, I can drink Singapore water without adverse consequence, which is more than I can say about anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
With any destination, it can be difficult to get a consistent or satisfactory answer to the question “Can I drink the water?” Government web sites tend to advise sticking to bottled water pretty much everywhere — more likely due to risk aversion than anything scientific. The fact is, any water other than that one is used to can cause all sorts of digestive fireworks. A perfectly healthy mineral might send you off to the races if you aren’t used to it.
To be sure, there are many places where the water includes little critters that nobody should drink, yet the locals seem do so without ill-effect. The best example of this is St Petersburg, Russia, where giardia is endemic. Everybody is exposed to it daily, but has built up some level of resistance (or perhaps died). But if I was to so much as brush my teeth with that tap water, in all likelihood my visit would become more eventful in an unfortunate way.
Not uncommonly, some of the advice one gets on the internet regarding drinking water would be downright hilarious if it wasn’t so dangerous. “The sanitation is very poor …with some cholera … no treatment of the tap water… so it is OK for brushing your teeth, but boil it before drinking.” Right. The bacteria and viruses fear toothpaste? Or did that blogger not mind getting cholera now and then? Idiot.
The question one needs answered is not “Do you drink the water?” or “Is the water drinkable?” The question is “Can I – me, this person, myself — drink the water?” Sometimes, you don’t know for sure until you try, really. The joys of travel!
For me, being able to drink the tap water makes a tremendous difference to my enjoyment. I can go out for a jog without lugging a bottle of water ‘cause any tap is an oasis. Uncooked foods, like salad, become edible. (Few realise that a most common source of food poisoning in restaurants is salad. And that’s in the USA!) Best of all, drinkable water means I get ICE! Ice is a really nice thing to have in sweltering Southeast Asia.
We were staying at Hotel Wangz, highly rated by TripAdvisor, in Singapore’s Tiong Bahru district, not far from the Singapore River. Tiong Bahru boasts some of Singapore’s earliest public housing, handsome four-story art deco buildings from the twenties onward. While staying amongst “public housing” raises alarm bells for some, a remarkable 85% of Singaporeans live in housing built by the government, so public housing is the norm. Like everything else here, it works. A good thing, too, since our cursory inspection revealed that a small apartment in the district goes for well over a million dollars.
The Wangz is a compact cylindrical six story building, probably from the seventies or eighties. Our room, clean and comfortable, had a bathroom that featured a toilet facing a floor-to-ceiling exterior wall of glass, offering stunning views to anyone on either side. Over our few days there, that wall of glass would collide repeatedly with my forehead when I was in the throes of re-trousering. Ouch.
Asian expectations of the bathroom experience are quite different to those of westerners. To many Asians, the idea of locking themselves in a “water closet” causes claustrophobia and has no appeal. I read somewhere that in India the issue of sanitation was not just an infrastructure problem of too few toilets – but also a cultural problem of getting rural Indians to use a toilet when they much prefer to be outside, enjoying the day. There is something to be said for vast open bathrooms, although personally I have some work to do to get past my feelings of impropriety and violation borne of a lack of privacy and a lifetime of habit.
Our first full day in Singapore was spent on Sentosa, a largely manmade island full of theme parks and resorts. We chose to get there via the cable car that dangles one high above Keppel Bay on the way, offering some great views reminding one that Singapore is the second busiest container port on the planet (Shanghai wins). Sentosa itself was a third-rate Disneyworld, although we were pleased to enjoy a dunk on the clean and pleasantly manufactured beaches of the ship-infested Singapore Straits.
Singapore is constantly growing its real estate with landfill and new manmade islands. Indonesia, a huge nation, went so far as to ban exports of sand and granite when they realised Singapore geographic expansion was directly proportional to their shrinkage. As a result Singapore has resorted to importing sizable tracts of Cambodia, a modest country in every respect that requires the cash flow more than the real estate.
That evening we had Peranakan cuisine. The Peranakan are the descendants of the 15th through 17th-century Chinese immigrants to Singapore and beyond. The food was good and surprisingly familiar – asam this, redang that, something-or-other laksa. I had my first opportunity to try durian, a controversial fruit subject to disturbingly heartfelt opinions, good and bad, arising from its very strong odour. It is banned on Singapore’s public transport, apparently considered ungracious. My desert was “Durian Soup”, which was kind of like onion ice cream, if you can imagine. I could see how some would find it pleasant, although it wasn’t my cup of tea. Unfortunately, as with onions, the aftertaste and breath lingered for hours.
Some friends joined us for this dinner; we hadn’t seen them in over ten years after having lived next door some 25 years ago. We were never what I would call “close friends”, but some friendships re-flower more easily than others, and this one was in bloom almost immediately upon reunion, to the relief of all involved. Naturally, the conversation turned to things we shared: demented aging parents, travel, ex-pat horror with American politics. At one point they described themselves as “not particularly adventurous”. On one level, they were being overly modest – anybody who leaves their native land for 24 years to practice architecture has experienced a notable degree of adventure – but on another level, they were spot on.
They could have been talking about Singapore at large. Singapore and its people are modern and dynamic, with anything quaint, charming, or cute there, but a bit hard to find. Other than “amazing”, the word that keeps coming back to me to describe Singapore is “stifling”. Certainly, the heat and humidity is stifling. But then, so is the creative environment, unless you like modern, dynamic, quaint, charming, or cute. But daring? Provocative? Adventurous? Forget it.
It is no surprise, then, that the People’s Action Party has been returned to power in every general election since 1959. For the first thirty years of that (to 1990) Singapore was run by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who thereafter took on paternal roles invented for him; technically ceremonial yet no doubt influential (“Senior Minister”, then “Minister Mentor”). Lee lingers on, over 90 now, and theoretically retired. [Ed note: Lee Kuan Yew died 23 March 2015]