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Singapore

Everyone has heard of Singapore but how many know where it is? Itís somewhere down there in Southeast Asia near China, past India, near Thailand or Viet Nam maybe, somewhere down there. If you look at a globe thatís, say, a foot in diameter, Singapore is about the size of a pinhead. A small pinhead. Itís at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula that extends down from Thailand, just north of Indonesia, and northwest of Australia. We have an American friend who lived in Singapore for three years who told us that this is a good stop for a first visit to Asia. He described it as "Asia for beginners." That hit the nail on the head. See this and this.

The first thing we noticed upon arrival at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning was that everything was in English. This included not just signs in the airport but street signs, newspapers, everything. Most volumes in the National Library are in English. Singapore has a strong British influence as it was a colony for a long time. They have afternoon tea, drive on the left side, and even use British style plugs (which was a mild problem because I had come prepared with Asian and Australian converters).

The second thing we noticed several hours later as it approached noon was that it was hot. Really hot. Really, really hot. At a little more than one degree, about 85 miles, north of the equator, Singapore is in the tropics. The humidity is almost over-powering. Think about Philadelphia in July when itís 97 degrees and 97% relative humidity. Now youíre getting close. However, during most of our stay, the skies were clear and it was beautiful. But it was really hot.

So just what is Singapore? A country? A city? What? Itís both. Singapore became a self-governing state in 1959. There was a tie to Malaysia for a short while after that but it eventually became its own country in 1963. Singapore is an island, actually one large and several small islands. The main island is kind of diamond shaped and is 26 miles wide by 14 miles high at the maximum points. The country is about twice the geographic size of Philadelphia and is home to 4.5 million people. The city sits pretty much at the southern tip of the main island. The airport is in the northeastern part of the country, about 12 miles from the city. We took a taxi from the airport along something called the East Coast Parkway to get into the city. It traversed almost the whole east coast kind of like I95 only shorter.

One day while Lynn was at work, I thought Iíd see the whole country using some of the extensive rail networks. The cars are like subway cars and in the city they run underground. For S$1.90, about US$1.20, I crossed the country to the north side. I picked this place because it was maybe a mile and a half from the causeway at the border. I was going to walk to Malaysia, something I could tell my grandkids about one day Ė not that theyíd care because kids never care about stories their grandparents tell them. Besides, I donít have any grandkids yet. I walked about half mile when I decided the oppressive heat was going to get in the way so no story for the grandkids. Fortunately, I have other stories for them. From the train I observed that most of the country looks like suburbs but with almost no single homes and high-rises everywhere. Almost everyone lives in a high-rise.

Thereís a river that runs through Singapore, so on our first morning there we went down to take a look. One can take a "bumboat" for about S$6, less than US$4. A bumboat is small vessel seating about ten that is used mostly for moving cargo or for local fishing. The one we were on appeared to still function as a working boat as it wasnít at all dressed up for tourists. The banks of the river are developed on both sides. There are outdoor restaurants one after another in this city thatís always warm and behind them are serious skyscrapers, some 70 stories high.

As we drove into the city on the first day, we passed a building called the Raffles Hotel. (Look at the ebrochure). Itís world famous. Thatís what they told us. That information seems to have skipped our old neighborhood in Montgomeryville but what do I know? The taxi driver said that some rooms in there go for S$4500 (US$2840) a night and even more. From the outside the structure looked imposing. Each of the five or six floors had a walkway around the outside so that rooms didnít look directly outside to the street. When we walked in to take a look, the center of the building was broken into about four different courtyards, each with an outdoor bar and restaurant seating. When it rains, and it can rain hard in the tropics, theyíre out of business and we saw that happen. There is an indoor bar there called "The Long Bar" which is the home of the Singapore Sling, a drink that is known in Montgomeryville but that Iíve never tried.

There are a lot of things in Singapore named Raffles. For instance, Singapore Airlines has economy class, first class, and Raffles class. In the beginning of the 19th century, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, an official with the British East India Company, established Singapore as a settlement and trading post. He was the first Westerner to discover Singapore and is regarded as the founder of the modern country. Exports in chemicals, electronics, and services, along with tourism, provide the most of the revenue for the economy.

Before arriving, I had heard stories about people being whacked with a cane for some offenses. Many of these stories are very possibly true and caning was even mentioned as a punishment for some crime that was in the newspaper that day. I was worried about going to jail for 25 years for inadvertently dropping a tissue on the ground. Itís not that bad; there arenít people watching every move you make. But the place really is pretty much free of litter, at least in the central business district and the tourist areas. However, it isnít that way in some of the ethnic areas. Raffles laid out the city to segregate different ethnicities, so that thereís a Chinatown, Little India, and the Arab Quarter. These have a very distinct ethnic charm but they are not nearly as clean and tidy as other areas, and the parts we saw were significantly run-down.

Americans sometimes complain that the government is too involved in their personal lives. Thereís nowhere in the U.S. that is as intrusive in personal lives as some of the things we heard about here. A Singaporean woman told us that some years ago, the government decided the population was growing too fast so they "encouraged" families to have no more than two (I think) children. The "encouragement" came in the form of denying maternity benefits to families for any kids beyond the second. Women less than 30 years of age and with less than two kids were given about S$6000 and a down payment for a low-cost government apartment if they agreed to be sterilized. Not only that, tuition rates in school were substantially higher for the third and later kids. This limit led to some disastrous consequences. For reasons which I will never understand, on a macro or micro level, families decided that male children are superior to female children. This led to gender selection by parents and female fetuses were aborted because of their femaleness. When I hear stories like this, I often wonder how people think there will be a subsequent generation after the one with no females in it. Evidently the government realized that telling families that there was a maximum number of kids they could have didnít work, so they began to encourage larger families. I was led to believe that thatís where things are now.

Iíve mentioned before that I like to watch the sun, moon, and stars. In Singapore, practically on the equator, the sun is very high in the sky. Iím about average height and around noon, my shadow was barely six inches long, so the sun is almost directly overhead. Also, the variation in the length of days here from summer to winter is negligible. The sun rises around 7 a.m. and sets around 7 p.m. all year. When the sun does set, itís going straight down, so very shortly after sunset, itís "lights out." Thereís no long lingering sunset like there is in Delft where the sun sets on a steep angle. Does anyone other than me ever think about this stuff?

One night, Lynn and I were going out for dinner. She was wearing a very colorful dress; she looked smashing. As we got on the elevator, there was another man there who evidently thought so also, and said so. He was apparently an American and when Lynn thanked him, he recognized her as an American, too. I asked him where he was from. Philadelphia. I told him I knew of the place and he said he lived in New Hope. As we got out of the elevator and he started to walk away, I called after him. "Hey! How Ďbout them Birds?!?!" He came back and said, "Iím so glad they got rid of Owens and Iím expecting another big year." My kind of guy. I left him with a high-five.

See all my pictures of Singapore.

See a video from Singapore

 

© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008