…I’m spending a few days now in Singapore, everyone’s favourite nutty regime. Hong Kong and Singapore share similar histories and are often compared — people rave on about how clean the city is, and it’s true that it’s quite a ‘sterile’ and law-abiding place. You might say Singapore is to Hong Kong what Windows Vista is to XP. Singapore is more stable, cleaner and ‘just works’ – but, aside from the extra expense, HK does many things a lot better, and Singapore is always paranoid, asking stupid security questions at every corner. I could probably live just fine here, but I’d very quickly want to downgrade back down to Hong Kong…
Geeky analogies aside, it’s certainly fair to say that Singapore’s less polluted, the food is more familiar, there’s more of an ethnic mix and a higher prevalence of ‘hotties’ compared to back home in the Kong. A typically futile attempt to communicate with a fine example of the latter ended in the usual humiliation yesterday. After asking where my hostel receptionist was from (err.. Singapore), I said “ah, you’re sick?” noticing that she seemed to have the sniffles. This was meant to come out with sympathy, warmth and concern, however, it just sounded accusatory and the tone came out more along the lines of “ah, you’re sick! <i.e. in the head>”. Congratulations Tom, you’ll be single forever.
Talking of ridiculous, the densely populated city state has no shortage of wacky laws and archaic rules. Here, everyone *must* do two years military service, censorship is rife, all drug traffickers are sentenced immediately to death and you can get a good official caning for offences such as piracy, graffiti, playing with fireworks or outstaying your 90 days. Standing water, satellite dishes, feeding pigeons, Malaysian newspapers and homosexuals are some of the random things banned on the island – God help you if you engage in all of them at the same time. If you fancy a big fat fine on top of that, consider littering whilst chewing gum, jaywalking or taking a smelly durian on the metro – these indulgences are likely to leave you bankrupt. Human rights and true democracy are ‘overlooked’ in what is a super developed ‘tiger economy’ – all in the name of ‘your security’, ‘your convenience’ and ‘your protection’. It’s a ‘rampant capitalism sans democracy’ model – and this ‘shut up and shop’ system is unfortunately becoming a worldwide trend. I recall only in May being detained at a peaceful protest ‘for my protection’, back in HK. Singapore is very much a nanny state – and an often sinister nanny at that, as it has the world’s highest per capita rate of capital punishment.
Despite all of this, it does make you wonder if they’re onto something as crime levels are practically zero. I left my big kahuna camera in an internet café last night and found this morning that they’d stored it in a locker in the hope of my return. The café’s manager received an almost-inappropriately-enthusiastic hug as a ‘thank you’ for their honesty. I doubt you’d find this happening in any of the surrounding countries, and although a cynic may suggest that theft is low due to fear of punishment, a local guy literally forced me to have $2 from him earlier, having noticed that I’d boarded a bus from the border without the necessary currency. So something’s going right.
Over the past couple of days I’ve been venturing out into the steamy, streamlined city with regular air-con pit stops at various cafes and soulless shopping centres. I had a mosey around the excellent Museum of Asian Civilisations and the surrounding colonial district. I saw the famous Raffles Hostel and pressed on to the weird and wonderful architecture of the Theatres on the Bay. A litre of sweat and some disappointing 7-11 noodles later, I ventured on to ‘Little India’, where many of the city’s Southern Indian population work and reside. Even here, the streets were spotless, the buildings were quaint, traffic jams were non-existent and everyone spoke near perfect English – yet it still had the undeniable, colourful characteristics of Mother India which I know and love. Perhaps a preview of what Delhi might look like in a few decades, without random cows and shit everywhere? From there I had a browse around Chinatown and the Thieves Market, home now to scavengers, recycling anything useable for a profit. The city prides itself of its multiculturalism, Chinese form 75.2% of the populace, Malays 13.6%, and Indians 8.8% – there’s a few Eurasians knocking around too – 2 points if you spot one when you’re out and about. Whilst Malaysia introduced positive discrimination laws after independence to protect its indigenous and minority peoples, Singapore broke away and – decades later – seems to enjoy a better of level of community integration.
Today, rather than patronising the usual touristy spots, I got a bus out to the suburbs to see the ’10 Courts of Hell’ in the grounds of the late heir to the Tiger Balm fortune. [Tiger Balm is an old Asian ‘cure-all’ – a greasy orange ointment good for bites, stings, burns, broken legs, leprosy – just about anything really… almost]. In exchange for a dollar, you pass hell’s guardians – Ox-Head and Horse-Face – and enter a giant omelette where small colourfully gory models represent the 10 punishments one could apparently endure before being granted reincarnation. Standard stuff.
The models are quite graphic and dramatically lit. Accompanying signs detail the sin and the punishment – robbery, gambling or prostitution, for instance, will get you thrown into a volcano pit, placed on blocks of ice and drowned in pools of blood. Tax dodging or business fraud gets your body ground down with two large stones. All sounds fair enough, but one can’t help but think some of the sentences are a tad disproportionate. For instance: guilty of wasting food, misusing books, looking at porn or swearing? Then expect your body to be sawn in half and thrown onto a tree of knives. Exam cheats should expect to have their extremities chopped off and their intestines pulled out. Meanwhile, whilst book botherers and cheaters endure permanent dismemberment, mere rapists can simply expect their tongues to be cut out. Where is the justice, I ask you? And how gutted would you be if you endured this misery only to find you’d been earmarked to be reincarnated as a rat, an insect or a piece of coral – being a patch of coral which would surely be a rubbish existence! I found this blog which has a few more pictures.
Singapore is also home to the usual familiar bastilions of the British Empire – the bureaucracies education system, street furniture, police cars and they still have Belisha beacons for which I harbour an irrational attraction to. With my money belt taking a battering, I’ll be moving on tomorrow morning hopefully boarding a ferry for Jakarta, Indonesia…