Singapore’s Esplanade building is oft-photographed due to its weirdo roof that recalls the skin of the durian. Durian is part of the national identity, a symbol of cultural cohesion in a place that has such a recent modern history and diverse ethnic population. Although the love of durian is apparent, the actual appearance of the fruit was nothing compared to Kuala Lumpur or parts of Thailand. It’s not allowed on the MRT or in most hotels, and some apartment buildings have banned the fruit. I smelled it only once. In front of a brothel.
Yes, a brothel. It wasn’t even discrete! I think the sign said something like “Come here for sex. 23 and up, only.” Though pornography is illegal on the island, prostitution is not. According to one guy who also was stealing wireless internet from a Starbucks who wouldn’t stop talking at me, Singapore is the best place in the world to pay for sex, since it’s apparently very safe and regulated.
Nearly every piece of public signage in Singapore is a virtual Rosetta Stone, starting with English and providing translations in Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. While nearly everyone speaks and understands English officially, I overheard many languages spoken among families and groups of friends. At least to the outside observer, there is great harmony among these groups.
I wish the United States, particularly the southern states, could exercise cultural tolerance like Singaporeans. Growing up in Texas, it seemed like so many people were actually offended by public entities providing Spanish translations for the huge Mexican-American population within the state. Having to “press 1 for English” offends many Americans.
In Singapore, public schools are taught in English, but Mandarin is compulsory. The Singapore branch of my good friend’s family spoke very good Mandarin, despite not having any Chinese roots. Though I took Spanish for 7 years in the Texas public school system, I wish it had been mandatory learning from Kindergarden, not only as a tool to lessen xenophobia, but as a practical life skill.
Even the participants in counter culture seem well-groomed, don’t they? This rollerblader had excellent technique as he spun around the cones, showing off for the camera.
A brief walk around Chinatown was all I needed. I liked the color and vibrancy, but overall it felt a little bit like Disneyland. No Chinatown should be that clean!
I loved how safe I felt walking around in Singapore by myself, even at night. With Andy sick in bed, I spent a lot of time wandering round the city solo. One night I ended up at the harbor and practiced my night photography until I was majorly bored with anything related to a camera.
A friend remarked that Singapore is a pirate port turned mall, and he isn’t wrong. Louis Vuitton and Rolex stores dot the streets with the frequency of gas stations or Starbucks in the US or 7-11s in Thailand. Luxury brands must make a killing. I never felt out of place in my jeans, chucks, tank tops and backpack, though. In fact, I wouldn’t have even broken the dress code for the casino at Marina Bay Sands.
Everything was immaculate in this city. Everything shines so brightly. In three days I only encountered one beggar-type, and that was in an old open air church. Though there is little social support for Singapore citizens aside from education and brilliant, fabulous libraries with offerings in so many languages, I didn’t see anything that looked like a poor area of town. Aside from older folks selling packets of tissues at some of the train stations (the result of having no public pension plan and a fairly recent transition from struggling British colony into a first world city) everyone looked at least middle class.
The Singaporean girls did tell me that there are few options for citizens who do not excel in school. There is a lot of pressure for teens to achieve high grades, because those who do not cannot attend the better late secondary schools. They call this “the end,” because it means you have essentially been rejected from Singapore society. The girls told me that people who work very necessary and oftentimes skilled blue collar jobs receive little respect. They told me that no one chooses to do manual labor or wait tables. Even some engineering jobs are considered rote jobs.
Maybe it’s just a result of the recession and spending time in Thailand, but if someone in the states has a job as, say, an electrician, I would consider that good, honest work. Sure, I’ve always been a bit wary of “not living up to my potential,” but I would never consider failing to achieve academically as an end.
I don’t mean to criticize what I don’t fully understand, but I wanted to share with you some of the observations about the city and life as a citizen of Singapore that I observed in my very short time there. Overall I found the city fascinating in its order and multicultural harmony. It left me with an itching for a time machine; I wanted to see how New York City’s ethnic neighborhoods of yore stacked up with Singapore’s today.
However, I can see how folks who hate shopping and prefer sticking to basic food might get bored. All of those backpackers who told me Singapore isn’t worth the effort or money probably didn’t eat a chili crab or splurge on a $15 beer. I found the most interesting aspects of the city best explored with one’s stomach and the company of interesting locals.
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