Southeast Asia

Musings on Singapore

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“Singapore” means “Lion Town” in Sanskrit, although recent studies say that lions have never lived there. (Taken in Little India)

Visiting Singapore means that I’ve now completed my pilgrimage to all Four Asian Tigers—South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. (I hate the term, “Asian Tigers,” and all its orientalist baggage, but I must admit it does sound more dramatic. haha) Anyways, Singapore was the second and final leg of my mind-blowing week-long trip. In my 2.5 days here, these were the things that caught my attention (comparisons with other cities included as well):

It was Cosmopolitan

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Four languages on a danger sign. #casual

I didn’t even know exactly what “cosmopolitan” exactly means, but I got that feeling. Later, I would find on Google that “cosmopolitan” means “familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures.” Exactly how I would describe Singapore. With its history as a city of trade, it has long attracted people from many different countries, and even today, 38% of the total population is foreign-born, a proportion slightly higher than that of New York. It definitely felt way more diverse than any other East Asian city I have visited. The fact that English, the international language, is spoken in Singapore also make it much easier for the city to attract top talent from around the world, much easier than say Tokyo. Everyone I asked for directions (I cannot find anything for my life) was from a different country: Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, China, of course Singapore, etc. The city’s diversity is also reflected in the colorful names of the metro stations, which range from “Tanjong Pagar” and “Joo Koon” to “Buona Vista” and “Mountbatten.”

Sri Mariamman temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, located in… Chinatown! because #Singapore.

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Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, located in… Chinatown! because #Singapore.
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Al-Abrar Mosque, also in Chinatown
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Masjid Sultan in Kampong Glam, the area where the former Malay aristocracy resided.

Of course, Singapore has its share of inter-ethnic problems. Apparently there is a stereotype here that Indian people and South Asian migrant workers are rowdy and drink a lot, and the government was quick to attribute the 2013 Little India Riot–the first riot in Singapore since 1969–to too much booze. Others writers (a lawyer, a public policy expert, a NYT Op-Ed) have since argued that the riot was a manifestation of anger about the inhumane conditions migrant workers suffer.

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Sign in Little India telling people not to drink, presumably to prevent incidents like the 2013 Little India Riot.

The government also promotes multiculturalism, for instance, by preventing ethnic segregation with its Ethnic Integration Policy. This system makes sure that public housing units, which more than 80% of Singaporeans live in, “are sold to families from ethnicities roughly comparable to the national average.”

Best Looking Big City I’ve Been to

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The building that I most associated with Singapore. Was surprised when a friend told me that it was only opened 5 years ago!

A range of factors make Singapore a very visually-appealing city. From a layman’s standpoint, the urban planners have done an awesome job with the 2nd most dense sovereign state in the world, and if I were to design a city, why would I design it any differently? I may also be biased, because I was only at Yale-NUS and the central district of Singapore, but it was the most beautiful city center I’ve ever seen. Singapore also seemed even cleaner than Tokyo. (And Japan has an international reputation for being clean.)

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Singapore is roughly the same size as New York (Taken at Singapore City Gallery)

In addition, they have also preserved many historic buildings in excellent condition. I was told that there used to be even more, but from what I could tell, Singapore probably did a better job than, say, Taipei, in this aspect. While walking around the historic district around Telok Ayer Street, I noticed a lot of old architecture, now converted into restaurants and bars. On top of that, their facades were all perfectly spotless. I wonder if this must be a huge feat to maintain, considering Singapore is a tropical rainforest climate. (Compare this to subtropical Taipei, where a lot of the buildings look moldy.) Interspersed between them were temples and mosques, and small parks with statues paying tribute to the various ethnic groups that make up the city-state.

The availability of green space also made it a very beautiful city. Similar to when I visited Hong Kong, I wasn’t expecting much green space at all. These are supposed to be financial centers, after all! But three-fourths of all of Hong Kong is green (I’m told that so much land was left green by accident: HK’s terrain is hilly, so it would be too much of a hassle to develop it all.) In the case of Singapore, I noticed so much greenery on my MRT ride and also just walking around. This long list of parks and its rank among the top ten green cities of the world also seems to confirm the fact that greenery was important to the urban planners.

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One thing I liked about parks in SG (and also Tokyo) is that they feel a lot more natural and integrated into the city than Central Park, NYC (“Let’s just carve out a huge chunk of the city for a park!”)

It was not difficult to detect the visible hand of a strong government in putting together such a… put-together city, though. I spent an entire morning in the Urban Redevelopment Agency’s (URA) Singapore City Gallery, where I acquainted myself with the city through 3-D models and interactive exhibits. It is an absolute boon for people like me who lack a sense of direction, plus it’s free! and just cool!

But at the same time, I also got the feeling that everything in Singapore is super-planned. None of the exhibition mentioned what initiatives citizens took themselves. (Lest anyone accuse me of seeing the world through my “Western lens” which does not account for “Confucian values,” I would like to assure you that citizens do push for change in their city all around East Asia 🙂 )

Hawker Centers (I mean “Centres”)

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Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre

Originally, there were many food vendors on the streets, similar to the Halal food carts of New York or the pojangmacha of Seoul, the daipaidong of HK, etc. Now they’ve all been pushed into “Hawker Centres.” This is great for a variety of reasons:

  1. You’re in a covered area with fans, so you can enjoy your food with some breeze.
  2. You can just leave your trash on a table and a worker will come pick it up. This seems like a great way to keep trash off the streets.
  3. You can trust that the food will be hygienic, since it’s regulated. (Of course, so are the wonderful Halal carts of New York!)
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A kind elderly couple I met on the bus took me to Tiong Bahru to eat this!
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and this! The downside of traveling by yourself is that you can’t order everything. Thanks to this elderly couple, I was able to try more food:)
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Because it’s totally normal to drink coffee after noodles.

I stopped by hawker centres at Maxwell, Tiong Bahru, and one in between Little India and Arab Street. Even though Singapore was rated the “most expensive city in the world,” you can easily get lunch for S$5-6. At first, the hawker centres were a weird concept for me… Shouldn’t street vendors be in the… streets? It reminded me of parts of Taiwan’s night markets which are now housed in similar facilities. But it seems like hawker centres now have grown into a culture of their own, and apparently it is totally normal for Singaporeans to stop by one the moment they come back from abroad 😉

The SMRT (metro)

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I’m glad they ban durians on the metro. Also I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many red-circle signs put together before. #singapore

While a recent ranking claimed that Singapore’s transportation is three times more expensive as New York’s, I’m not sure how this is possible. Its adult fares start as low as S$0.77 or USD$0.50 and are based on a distance fare scheme that will get you from one end of the island to the other for less than the cost of a ride in NYC (USD$2.50). Plus, if you travel before 7:45am it’s free.

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$2.02 Singaporean dollars (~$1.47 USD) to get from one end of SG to the other.

By comparison fares in Tokyo start at 130 yen and in Seoul at 1050 won, both roughly ~1USD. And the quality of their metro systems are far higher than that of New York City. I cannot even begin to explain the shock that my friends from these countries experience when they see the metro in what is supposed to be the “best city in world.”

Reminds me of the metro systems in Taipei, Seoul, and Hong Kong. Tokyo’s metro, though awesome in its own right (it is the densest metro system in the world and it has express trains), definitely has an older feel to it, which I discovered when I visited again after living in Seoul for four months. For instance, the Ginza line in Tokyo, the oldest subway line in Asia- 3008615_orig

Note the lack of platform screen doors to keep people and trash from falling into the tracks. A surprising number of stations in Tokyo do not have And it’s still quite common to hear that a 人身事故 jinshin jiko or an “accident causing physical injury” happened, causing a delay in a line. (These “accidents” happen, because someone drunk, suicidal, or on their cellphone, etc “fell” into the tracks or got hit by a train, someone tried to rush into the train at the last minute and got stuck in the door, etc.) Nearly all stations in Seoul have screen doors, and I’m assuming the same is true in Singapore.

Singapore marked the end of my first trip to and glimpse at Southeast Asia. The thing I appreciated the most about this trip was seeing the coexistence of so many different kinds of cultures in both countries I visited to. While I dislike using the term “homogeneous” to describe countries, such as Japan and South Korea, I could certainly see why they pale in comparison to their southern neighbors who are visibly more diverse.

Further, in Singapore and the Philippines, people seemed more interested in learning about the countries around them. In Singapore, the most famous museum is the “Asian Civilizations Museum,” feature collections from everywhere between China and India, and in the Philippines, students study Philippines history, ASIAN HISTORY, and World History. It made me wonder why as Americans we know so little about Canada and Mexico; we study US history, European history, and World History which largely omits the countries right next to us.

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