A Singapore Story – Touching Down

Harbour PanoramaFrom what I gather most people who visit Singapore never manage to get beyond the airport. Now that is not necessarily a bad thing because there is heaps to do there (such as watch a movie, shop duty free, load up on cigarettes to take back to Australia – though you can’t actually do that anymore since the quota has now been cut back to 50 – or simply sleep off your jet lag in one of the hotels) but, like most places (or probably not because Changi is unique in itself), there is much more to Singapore than just the airport.

My first experience was the typical experience – a four hour layover when we transferred from the plane that took us from Australia to the plane that would take us on to London. On the way back the layover was much longer so my brother insisted that we take one of the free tours around the city. However after a 12 hour flight, and a sudden shift in time zones, I ended up sleeping through most of the tour (though I do remember seeing Raffles, as well as the tour guide talking about the Grand Prix). However, since I had been itching to go overseas again I decided that I would spend some time exploring the place, if only to throw a few reviews up on Trip Advisor and Yelp that didn’t involve some place in Australia.

Trees in the Baggage Hall
What I saw when I picked up my bags.

First Impressions

Well, my first impression of Singapore was how quickly it took to get through immigration, but then again since I have an Australian Passport getting past customs in a lot of countries is relatively easy. I guess it also had to do with the time of night, since my plane arrived at around 10:00 pm so there weren’t all that many people going into Singapore (and as I have noted, most people who do come here generally don’t leave the airport). I also noticed that it wasn’t as hot as I first remembered it, despite the fact that it was around the same time of year the last time I passed through this tiny city state. However I was still dressed in Melbourne clothes (especially since Melbourne has been incredibly cold over the last few weeks) so since the airport is air-conditioned, there was no need to take off my jumper (though that quickly changed when I stepped outside).

Unfortunately my hotel was not all that close to the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) station, which meant that I had to walk for about ten minutes to actually get there. Okay, I did have my mobile phone, and a local SIM card, so it wasn’t all that bad, but it does take time to get one’s bearings, especially when you leave by a subway station (I always seem to get disorientated when I leave subway stations, especially large ones such as those you find in Singapore and Hong Kong). I finally did manage to find my hotel, and after dumping my stuff in my room I did what I always do when I arrive in a new city – go and look for a place to have a drink. Unfortunately it turned out that the closet place happened to be a whisky bar.

Quaich BarThe thing about Singapore is that it is a very clean city. From a very early age I have heard how chewing gum is illegal (not that I actually like chewing gum), though apparently that has changed a bit. Another joke that seems to fly around is that it is very easy to land up with a fine simply because there are so many things that attract them. Mind you, I managed to last four days without attracting a fine, so that whole business is a little over the top. Hey, you even find T-shirts that proudly list all of the things that you can’t do in Singapore (though most of them attract fines in most other developed countries as well – such as urinating in an elevator). Mind you, the first thing I looked for were cigarette butts on the ground, and sure enough they were there, despite the fact that there are quite a few bins with ashtrays. However, what does stand out is that all of the buildings are really clean, despite the age of some of them. We don’t even see this in Australia where there are always ugly houses lurking around some of the best streets.

Singapore is also a very cosmopolitan city-state with a lot of Indians and Chinese. In fact Singapore has a Little India and a Chinatown, and sure enough when you get off at the station at Little India who will find heaps of Indians following you. Once again this is not surprising since Singapore was originally a British colony. In fact it was a major port that guarded the strategic straights of Malacca (touted as one of the busiest shipping straights in the world). As well as being a major transit stop for aircraft, Singapore is also a major shipping hub with ships coming here from Europe, the Far East and Oceana. Unfortunately, being a former British Colony, and major outpost, it doesn’t seem to have its own indigenous culture. Rather it has a mix of cultures from all over the Commonwealth.

That is probably the thing that I really didn’t like about Singapore: the lack of any true identity. Sure they consider themselves to be natives of the city state, and the fact that they are celebrating their 50th year as an independent state this year (it was the weekend after I was there – when I first arrived I saw Singaporean flags everywhere and thought that they were incredibly nationalistic, however as it turned out it was simply because National Day was coming up), goes to support this. However the place didn’t seem to have the same deep cultural roots that you find in Hong Kong (despite the fact that you still see old colonial houses dotted across Singapore, which you don’t see in Hong Kong – just high rise apartments).

Apartment with flagsTo be honest, I have to say that of the two Asian city states (and former British Colonies) that I have visited, and spent a decent amount of time in, I much prefer Hong Kong – has a lot to do with its perceived authenticity. In many ways Singapore, while a pretty decent place to visit, and having quite a few attractions, just came across as a little sterile (though there certainly some really cool parts to it, such as the foodhalls that are scattered about the place). Yet the other thing that struck me was that I felt as if I had not left Australia. The cosmopolitan feel about the city, and the fact that our dollar is basically at parity with theirs, gave me the distinct impression that this was simply another Australian city (you could even watch the AFL in some of the pubs). The really good thing about our dollar being at parity meant that it was fairly easy to gage how cheap or expensive the place was (and yes, it is quite expensive, to the point that it makes living in Sydney look cheap, though their public transport is really affordable, and apparently the government is looking at making it even cheaper).

Oh, the other thing that immediately stood out was that there are four major languages spoken here – Mandarin, Indian, Malay, and English (though I’m not sure whether the third language was Indonesian, though it is more likely Malay due to the fact that Malaysia is a short drive over the bridge, where as it is a little more difficult to get to Indonesia). At first I thought the second script was Thai, however while you would no doubt find Thai (as well as Indonesians) in Singapore, it is much more likely that it is Hindi due to the sizeable Indian population.

A Brief History

Okay, if you are really interested in the history of Singapore, there is always the wikipedia article, but since I do really enjoy history, and take notice of such things when I visit a place, I will throw out a few things that I discovered here. To me at least you can only read so much about a place’s history (and I must admit that until I actually came here all I knew about Singapore was that it used to be a British colony and it was invaded by the Japanese in World War II) but actually visiting a place you can feel the history come alive (even if most of the city is a modern playground for the rich). The thing with such places is that as a tourist it can be hard not to encounter the history of the city (unless of course you only go to Universal Studios and drink Singapore Slings at Raffles Hotel) because as you visit places of note you will encounter parts of the city that have been preserved for posterity.

There is a myth that before the British establish a colony at Hong Kong it was little more than a fishing village. The same is the case with Singapore – not only was the site inhabited prior to the arrival of the British, it also played an important role in pre-colonial politics. The story of the founding of Singapore comes from a Malay legend in that a prince was sailing past the island when he saw what he thought was a lion (despite the fact that lions had never inhabited the island – though tigers have, and still do to this day in the form of the local beer). Taking this as an auspicious sign (as you do), he landed on the island and called it Singapura (which means Lion City).

Ancient Map of Singapore
An ancient Chinese Map showing the Island of Singapore

Over the proceeding centuries Singapore was a hotly contested spot between the Thai, Javanese, and Malay empires. The city finally fell under the control of Malaccan Empire where it became an important trading port. In remained as such until the Portuguese arrived in the fifteenth century and conquered Malacca. Subsequently they sent a force to the island and proceeded to destroy it, at which point little is said about the place as the Dutch and Portuguese fought for control over the region. However, as Britain began to exert its influence, Sir Stamford Raffles identified the small island as a great place to set up a British Port. Since it was still nominally under the control of the Javanese, Raffles made a deal with the local prince and established the settlement that we know of today.

Over the 19th century the settlement grew with an influx of Malay, Chinese, and Indians, all wishing to work in the various industries that had been established on the island. Along with the English (who generally ruled their empire through a doctrine of a light touch, meaning that only a handful of British Administrators would live on the island leaving a bulk of the administration to the local population) these three ethnic groups formed the basis of the population of modern Singapore. Today it is not uncommon to see signs written in Chinese, Malay, Hindi, and English, despite the fact that a majority of the population speak English. The growth, and importance, of the city continued with the opening of trade with China and also with the development of the steamship.

Old Merchant ShipBeing a port city, and also because the British tended to be stingy with their resources (Singapore was ruled from India and was considered to be part of the Indian Colony), Singapore of the 19th century was nothing like the Singapore that we know today. In fact the city had only 12 police officers to look over a population of around 60 000. The city was a hot bed of crime, prostitution, gambling, and was practically run by organised crime. In fact there were regular turf wars between the various factions, and ethic violence was quite common. All of this made the merchants quite unhappy (since they generally like their ports to be a lot more stable). In response, the British decided to give it the status of its own colony – the Straights Colony.

As I have previously mentioned, you can find a much more detailed outline on Wikipdia, so instead I will jump to independence as I found something quite interesting about the city at that time. As we know Britain began to slowly dismantle its empire during the 20th century, and one of the reasons for that was its loss of face during World War II with the surrender of the city to the Japanese. After the Japanese surrendered the city was rocked by internal discontent which resulted in mass protests and strikes. The British slowly began to give Singapore sovereignty, establishing legislative chambers and after the government demonstrated their willingness to crack down on Communist agitators, arranged for full self governance. In 1963 with the independence of Malaysia, Singapore agreed to merge with the new country. However with the diverse population, and special preferences being given to Malays in the new country, this merger simply did not work, so Singapore, in 1965, was granted independence.

A Shoppers Paradise

That first morning I set out to look for a place to have some breakfast, and thankfully Yelp recommended a nice place just across the river (Toby’s Estate). However it took me a little while to work out where it was (it is actually on the promenade facing the waterfront which is referred to as Robinson’s Quay, however I ended up wandering around the back streets and walking up and down a road called Robinson’s Quay) and as I was trying to look for it I noticed that there was some construction going up in the area (they are building a new MRT line) promising a new shopping centre where the locals can undergo shopping therapy. It was then that I realised that one of the big things to do in Singapore is shop. Okay, I’m not really a shopper, namely because I do not see the point in buying something that I am not going to use (and I am also, to an extent, a minimalist – this laptop I am using to write this is actually four years old), but I do like exploring shopping centres, which was one of the first places that I was going to visit (thanks to Google Maps). However, first things first – I had to go and take some videos of some trains for my Youtube Channel (I initially set it up for my brother, however other people seem to like watching it), and here is one of the videos:

I should mention a few things about the MRT. Basically getting videos of the trains is not really all that easy, especially since pretty much all of the stations are underground and the platforms are separated from the trains by floor to ceiling perspex barriers. The barriers have doors and when the trains arrive they pretty much come level with the doors meaning that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to access the track from the platform (which does do a lot for safety). However these perspex barriers make it very, very difficult to video trains arriving and departing, which is compounded by the fact that many of them are plastered with advertisements. However, despite that this is a very sleek and efficient system, especially since you generally do not have to wait more than five minutes for a train to arrive. What is even more interesting is that the government is advertising the fact that they are purchasing even more trains, which means that you will have to wait even less time for a train to arrive. Just to think, in some places that I have lived trains, at times, depart on an hourly basis (or even longer).

(pic - Story) Singapore - MRT Station
The Bras Bahru MRT Station (I hope I don’t get in trouble for taking this photograph)

Like many cities around the world Singapore has dispensed with the old paper tickets and now uses rechargeable plastic cards. However you can still purchase temporary paper tickets which can be reloaded up to six times. It took me a little while to work this out, however the fact that these paper tickets cost only 10c meant that by going through a couple of them before realising that I could reload them wasn’t all that bad. I also believe that they are only valid for a 24 hour period meaning that you will then need to purchase a new one the next day.

Singapore Tickets
Three paper tickets that didn’t get drenched in Thailand

So, after my little foray to Redhill Station (which was one of the few above ground stations in the city) I made my way to Suntec Plaza. I’m not really sure why I wanted to go there, but I did. Anyway it is a huge shopping centre, and it isn’t even the only shopping centre in the area because right next door is the Raffles Place shopping centre. However Suntec plaza isn’t just one shopping centre, it is actually four interconnected (as well as being connected to Raffles Place) centres each with three levels. Okay, I’ve been to Hong Kong so I’ve seen shopping centres that make the ones in Melbourne and Sydney look small in comparison (well, Westfield Bondi is hardly a small shopping centre but that is beside the point) but I am still bedazzelled at the size of some of these cathedrals to capitalism. However I am still baffled as to why anybody would actually go to Singapore to shop. I suspect because there was a time when you could visit shops here (such Uniqlo and H&M) that simply did not exist in Australia. That is changing since a number of these stores have opened up here so you no longer have to go on a seven hour plane flight simply to shop.

Suntech Plaza Shopping Mall Suntech Plaza Shopping Mall

There were a couple of other parts of this humongous shopping centre that were of interest to me. Firstly they had what they called a Sky-Garden. The thing with Singapore is that it is a garden city. It is hard to go anyway here without seeing wads of greenery. These gardens are now even beginning to appear on some of the buildings, with vines and bushes growing from the balconies and the rooves. However the Sky Garden wasn’t all that impressive. It was simply the roof of the shopping centre (with the four office blocks that sat on top surrounding me) with a number of pricey restaurants and bushes growing out of pot plants. I then walked to the area that the four shopping centres surrounded to discover this huge structure at ground level call the Fountain of Wealth. Not that interesting, but nice nonetheless.

The Fountain of Wealth
The Fountain of Wealth
The Sky Garden
The Sky Garden

It was time to move on so I descended the three story high escalator to make my way to the arts centre. It was then that I discovered that despite the fact that I have Google Maps on my phone (as well as an active internet connection) I was still wandering around trying to work out where I was. Despite having been overseas only a few times, the first foray being in 2011, I still remember when all I had at my disposal was a paper map. Mind you my first adventure wasn’t much of a problem because I had a guide (one of my friends lived in Hong Kong so he accompanied us everywhere) however my second foray, which was to Europe, did cause some headaches as the paper map wasn’t all that useful at times (especially when I was driving – walking to so much easier). Still, I did have access to Google Maps but without an active internet connection meant that I could only use what had been saved in the phone, and whenever it updated the memory would be wiped. I still managed to get to most places without getting too lost (though I did almost drive into a British Military base).

As I was making my way to the Marina Bay Sands I suddenly discovered the significance of when I had arrived. As I mentioned the city was gearing up to its 50 year anniversary of independence and there were preparations going on everywhere. In fact there were numerous barricades and and vast areas of seating being erected. As I was also wandering around blind I suddenly discovered huge numbers of Singaporeans in uniform marching past me, some of them carrying unloaded assault rifles. It was rather interesting, however I simply stepped to the side and let them pass (as you tend to do when you see an army walking in your direction).

So, after gaining my bearings I finally found myself out on the waterfront where I proceeded to take the obligatory selfies that I could then post up on Facebook (which is another great thing about having an internet connection because these days I post my photos directly to Facebook without having to sift through all of them back at the hotel and then put them into albums – in fact I don’t think I have used an album for a long time – though I might do one for this trip, but then again this is why I am writing these blog posts).

Marina Bay Selfie Singapore Selfie

Anyway, I will leave it at that for this post and will continue in part 2

Creative Commons License
Singapore Story – Touching Down by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

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