Singapore – from Manhattan to Mumbai

I can’t make my mind up about Singapore. Perhaps only having been there for a measly 5 days that is not really surprising. Sure, its high-tech and clean and tidy compared with some of its neighbours in SE Asia, but I could not help feeling something was missing. The business district is impressive. The skyscrapers are huge. The waterfront by night is stunning, but like many modern cities the new glitzy parts of Singapore seem somehow impersonal and soulless.

The roads are very good, there is a virtual absense of the motorbikes that infest the roads of Vietnam or Thailand, and the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) which covers most of the island, makes our London tube system look archaic.

Very different faces of Singapore are found in Chinatown and Little India, both of which are atmospheric and have some great (and very cheap) food. Chinatown has a superb museum where you can learn about the
early Chinese immigrants and the fairly wretched lives they led but preferable to the ones they had escaped in China.

Apart from great food at silly prices, Little India has Mustafas (a massive department store open 24/7) and Sim Lim Square (just outside actually) which is 4 floors of computers and cameras!

Talking of which, don’t touch the “cheapest electronic goods in the world” of Singapore (which so many people rave about). Two days of shopping for a camera (and I knew exactly what I wanted) made me realise two important problems with buying these goods from Singapore. First, in almost all shops the box seal has been broken so you could be buying a returned or faulty or refurbed item. Second, most of the Worldwide Warranties from the likes of Panasonic, Sony, etc. dont cover goods bought in Singapore (also Malaysia and others). I wonder why?

Going from the Westernised, high-rise, deodorised, downtown parts of Singapore to these ethnic enclaves in just a few blocks is a strange experience. Its like going in a time machine from The City to Southall or from Manhattan to Mumbai then Milton Keynes in the blink of an eye.

But Singapore is an island of contradictions as well as strange juxtapositions. Prostitution is legal – but pornography is not. For all it’s Western appearance the internet is openly censored. As well as pornography, publications by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church are also banned. So much for civil liberty and free speech.

A stones throw away from Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Gucci and Mui Mui designer label buildings in Orchard Rd, is Orchard Towers, which some wag once dubbed as “four floors of whores”. A high rise business building in the day that has a very different flavour after dark. Finally, remember that if you are caught with more than a few grams of drugs you will be liable for a mandatory death penalty under Singapore law.

I was told indignantly by a taxi driver, when I mentioned the cost of hotels compared to Vietnam or Thailand, “but we are a first-world country though”. Another cab driver regaled me with the importance of peoples birth and background. He was SBC – Singapore Born Chinese…he had dozens of other acronyms (I switched off after a while) but he continued for the entire ride to to explain to me where each was in the agreed ethnic pecking order.

The island state also has the distinction of being the only place in the modern times to have gained independence against it will! (see Wiki article for more)

The last thing I did in Singapore was to visit the Changi Museum and Chapel. It is a graphic yet very moving reminder of the Japanese occupation of Singapore in the Second World War, and what the people of Singapore and the Allied POWs went through during that time. As my dad was here when he was in the RAF I needed to see this place (he died 11 years ago today coincidentally).

In the end it though was the sheer of expense of staying there compared to Vietnam, Thailand, etc that made me move on after only 5 days. A few miles away by bus, across the straits in Johor, Malaysia, a similar hotel room is less than half the price of Singapore.

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