Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Pagoda Street, Chinatown

I haven't updated my blog in a while, and so I thought I'd write about my recent transit week in Singapore. Singapore is a truly beautiful city, but its beauty can so easily be miscontrued as clinical modernity and organized perfection. The drive to the city from the airport is deliberately designed, unlike many other places, in such a way as to astound the visitor with its overabundance of greenery and sense of endless space. The moment you leave the airport, you're sold. But the city itself is so much more fascinating for its absolutely pragmatic and yet aesthetic conception of space and access. Chinatown, for example, is a thriving historical and artistic amalgam of European and Chinese architectural elements that commingle so effortlessly and yet in such a planned and deliberate manner. The lines of brightly coloured buildings are punctuated by temples and concrete complexes housing hawker centres, against a backdrop of gigantic apartment complexes on one side and the towering clusters of the CBD skyscrapers on the other. In this area, the intimate and uber-chic pubs and restaurants on Club Street open out into the wide, open grids and gigantic structures of the CBD. Arab St. and Haji Lane are quaint, totally bo-bo (bourgeois bohemian) and so fantastic. Little India has a lot of atmosphere, and you can feel the departure from regular Singapore. Geylang, where we stayed, is a sea of Chinese, Korean and Thai restaurants, arrayed in a highly visually arresting manner. Its shops, restaurants and bars are open all day and night, till 6 in the morning. It's also the red light district of Singapore and the centre of the most pulsating noctural gathering of old and young alike. The atmosphere of familiarity, openness and directness is a far cry from any suggestion of hypocrisy. It's vibrant and alive.

People in Singapore are extremely private and inward-looking. From a lay traveler's point of view, traveling on the MRT is a good indication of how people interact with each other (or not). Most passengers on the buses or MRT will obsessively engage with their phones or ipads and maintain an equilibrium of silence. People avoid eye contact like the plague. What becomes really obvious when you use public transport is the tremendously cosmopolitan nature of the city. While people of Chinese origin constitute approximately 85% of the population, Malays, Indonesians, Indians, Europeans, Arabs, Japanese form a large swathe of the people you encounter on the streets. While most of the city speaks English (or Singlish, its local hybrid form), many Chinese vendors in Geylang (for instance) do not speak the language. As for food, not even an entire tome would do justice to the wonderful and endless variety of cuisine available. For me, the best kind of restaurant in Singapore is the Chinese buffet, where rice is for 50-70 cents, each kind of vegetable for 50-70 cents and meat for 1 dollar. So, for a full meal of rice, vegetables and perhaps two kinds of meat, you'd pay approximately 3 dollars.

Most of Singapore's landscape is populated by high-rise apartment buildings, and because the state needs to be economical about its use of space, many of the private condominiums and Housing Development Board (HDB) buildings offer small but perfectly complete and aesthetically designed living quarters. The government offers various family planning incentives to citizens as well, which I learned from my family friends there. While buying a house close to your parents gets you a 50 grand rebate, having a certain number of kids by a certain age (I think 30) will allow you to avail of special tax benefits. In HDB buildings, a set ratio of ethnicities is maintained. A Chinese owner can't sell his apartment to a Malay or Indian buyer, and vice versa. There are strict regulations governing these aspects of life. Morever, discussions of religion, ethnicity and certain other subjects are socially (and perhaps legally) frowned upon.

Singapore, like certain other cities in Asia, has a very special kind of atmosphere. Its modernity, its technological prowess and its ambitious aestheticism combine to produce a unique effect on the traveler. Simply put, I really like Singapore. I think I'd like to go back again. It's a young country but there's a lingering sense of history, and simultaneous renewal. It's hard to describe this. Most people see a modern, developed Singapore but there's a distinct memory of the past that underlies its very fabric. I started reading the memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew on my last day there (first prime minister; discusses the Malay-Chinese problems of the pre-partition days and consequent independence from Malaysia) but couldn't finish it. Could be interesting to locate it again and read about the development of Singapore from his vantage point.


PSG said...

You are right in saying that Singapore's beauty can be taken for clinical modernity. In fact, that is how I see it.
But I guess the planned, chiseled architecture lends a certain character to the city and that, I suppose, is beautiful.
However, the subjectivity of your impression of the city cannot be denied. You've probably made it sound lovelier than it truly is.

Arjun Rajkhowa said...

Yeah, I probably have! There are many different sides to the city, most of which one can only really get to see if one lives there. I can imagine what some of these complicated aspects of life may be - the people, for instance, seem so complex... I'm sure it would be a completely different experience if one were to stay there longer and actually live there for a while!

PSG said...

You're right--in fact I think that that is true for every city. But what I meant to say was not that you haven't captured the complexity of the place but that your impression of it is imprinted with your state of mind at the time. You'd probably have liked it less or maybe more than you did if you'd gone there at some other point of time. Your post is more of an inward glance than an outward one and that makes it so much nicer. It's like how an artist's impression is never exactly the truth. At any rate, I don't think it's possible to exhaust the possibilities of exploring a city. It's like the picture of Dorian Gray: every time you change inwardly, it changes with you!

Arjun Rajkhowa said...

Yes, I very much think it reflects my inner state of mind, but I hadn't thought of it that way. Thanks. Dorian Gray, such a great metaphor!