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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6 Responses to Postcards from Singapore

  1. Jacky says:

    Interesting post. I wanted to add just a small comment about the idea of a mandatory foreign language class in the States. Although a large number of immigrants are from Spanish backgrounds, Asian languages (over 1million speakers of Tagalog (Philippines) and 1 million speakers of Vietnamese) and other Indo-European languages make up a large percentage of the US population. Also, while Texas does have a lot of Spanish-speakers, there are lot of states where there are next to no Spanish speakers. I don’t think mandatory Spanish classes are the way go. If you’re curious, there are a few new bi-lingual schools/programs but only Spanish-English. Anyway, just some food for thought. I lived in Texas; I chose French as my second language. Now, I’m studying Korean.

  2. Jacky says:

    I also wanted to add my own observation about mandatory second-language classes. Working in Korea, I’ve seen how the “mandatory” English classes can really backfire. I teach high school level; due to student resistance and whatnot, a large percentage of my students cannot hold a conversation or understand very basic English commands/ask basic questions. The same with the college students (or older) that I’ve met. These people have been ‘studying’ English for over 10 years.

    • Susan says:

      Hi Jacky! Thanks for your input. I’ve heard lots of English teachers abroad (including several readers of this site) complain about students refusing to learn or otherwise sabotaging their classes! And I’m sure compulsory Spanish classes in Texas would get tons of resistance not only from students, but from their parents, as well. My point is more about the contrast between the attitudes towards diversity shown by Singaporeans and Texans. Even though people of Hispanic descent (largely Mexican-American) make up nearly 40% of Texas’ population, and even though the percentage of whites has fallen to about 45%, and even though Texas used to be Mexico, the Spanish language is politically unpopular. I really don’t know a lot about education, curriculum, etc., but as someone who went through the Texas system, it sure would have been nice to start Spanish before age 12!

      It’s also sobering to travel and meet folks who have several languages under their belt when all I can speak is “Kitchen Spanish” from working in service, and a teeny bit of Thai!

  3. Jacky says:

    It is unfortunate that people get offended by the press 1 for English thing…and the whole Spanish being politically unpopular.

    I just wanted to add that in Texas, even though there is a large Hispanic population, most do not speak Spanish. After the second generation (and definitely by the third generation), the children cannot speak Spanish. (This is largely due to the education system but also the parents encourage their children to learn English but to maybe or maybe not practice Spanish at home.)

  4. Erica says:

    The Chinatown in Yokohama is also way too clean. and overpriced.
    BUT you can buy almost any dish in bun form. win.

    I have lots of thoughts on education, especially in regards to language learning, but I think I rant about it enough on my own blog. heh.

    • Susan says:

      I have a confession. I just discovered the joy of steamed buns. I never want to go back to that dark, bun-free world of weeks past…

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