47. Singapore

by H. W. Moss

An architectural masterpiece: The ship has trees growing out of it. It sits atop the Marina Bay Sands Casino

The last conversation of any length I had with a Singaporean was with the young cab driver taking me to Changi airport. Making small talk, I asked if he was married. No.

“Women do not want to get married in Singapore,” he explained. The latest study he read claimed girls in Singapore are only interested in economics, how wealthy you are.

“Yah, well in the United States, if you grow up in a small town and don’t go away for college, you probably never leave, marry your high school girlfriend and get fat.”

“All the meat they eat,” he observed.

This was a particularly cogent comment and somewhat ironic: I was in Singapore to attend a wedding and I found no steak houses there.

Nor did I see any pizza parlors, burrito stands or El Salvadoran pupuserias. There is no local news in English on the hotel TV programs, just people enjoying themselves, drinking liquor, visiting nightclubs, taking adventure rides on Sentosa island off the coast. The country is a clean city-state under a benevolent dictatorship and according to legend there is no crime. Of course this is not true, but it is said to be one of the safest places on the planet. The low crime rate is undoubtedly due to the fact the penalty for theft is five to seven years in prison.

The penalty for possession of a pound of marijuana, or any number of other proscribed substances for that matter, is death. This may be compared to hitting a gnat with a sledgehammer, but it certainly reduces street dealing.

Gambling is big business and prostitution is legal in Singapore, but restricted to an area called the Geylang district. Any cab driver will take you there. But unlike, say, Hawai’i where I was propositioned five times in twenty minutes on Kuhio Avenue or Frankfurt where a madam and several of her girls sunning themselves on an upstairs porch beckoned me by shouting down, “Hey. American! Come on up, American,” no one propositioned me in Singapore.

The sidewalks are clean in Singapore and unmarred by blackened chewing gum.

Jet lag was not a problem. Flying from the West Coast to Japan simply meant keeping your old schedule only you went to bed early and got up before the sun. Same held true for Singapore.

Starbucks, McDonald’s, 7-Eleven and Subway are prevalent, but not ubiquitous. Food courts are everywhere. Their realm is the first floor or basement level in most any building and includes your choice of Pakistani-Hindi-Indian restaurants, Malay, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai and vegetarian cuisines.

Candidate for a name change.

These are the street foods so acclaimed by visitors. There is usually a choice of main course, rice or noodles and a vegetable for the price of a sandwich in the States. There may be no plate, merely a layer of wax paper on which the food lies. Leave the utensils and tray when you finish and it will be whisked away by a diligent cleaning crew. Nor is tipping a waiter or cab driver or any service personnel expected.

Detailed maps of the island are scarce. Readily available tourist maps specialize in a subject, the Medical Map for example identifies “Medical Centres and Hospitals.” None of these maps show details of Singapore’s streets such as the alley you have to turn up to get to your hotel. There is an Automobile Association, not related to Triple A, which ran out of maps three months ago and they anticipate receiving new ones in a month or two. Please call back.

My hotel was half a block from the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple on Waterloo Street which was right next to the Sri Krishnan Temple. Buddhist supplicants wandered with prayer hands in and out of each as incense filled the air and merchants made much of the need for floral offerings.

A vibrant sales district surrounds the temples and two blocks up is Little India where a restricted alcohol zone is delineated by public signs.

Prohibited inside a theatre were “OldKang Kee Foodstuff” and at the bottom, “Betel Nut / Leaf Spit.”

This sort of market mixed with religion is what makes up much of Singapore. But when you get inside the mall of a high rise building which is a temple to all things commercial including movies, billiard halls and video gaming, you are brought smack back into the 21st Century.

It rained every afternoon I was there, but these were short cloud bursts and people merely huddled beneath a building overhang which seemed to be there for that reason. Singapore is less than 100 miles from the equator and the rain drops were warm.

“Tap water is safe to drink,” a sticker on the mirror of the hotel room reads. However, the water heaters must have been in the basement of the modern hotel where I stayed because, in the wee hours of the morning when you have a six ayem plane to catch, the shower has no hot water. Even allowing it to run unimpeded at full throttle for five minutes produced a tepid shower.

In Japan it is common to see signs in at least five languages: Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Hindi and English. Everything is in English in Singapore and the word “Salida” is nowhere to be found.

Also in comparison to Japan, a Singaporean toilet seat is nothing more than two pieces of thin plastic held in place by ill-fitting bolts with loose nuts. The whole thing shakes and shifts when the lid is lifted.

There are no ass gaskets in public restrooms and the toilet may be a squat. On the other hand, there are no “restroom restricted to patron” signs and there was never a charge to use a bathroom in any restaurant or office building. No one ever denied my request for a toilet. In fact, I was often ushered to it.

Singlish is how foreigners describes the pidgin they hear local people use when talking with them. The locals have no trouble communicating with one another.

The transit system includes two competing surface bus lines which are indistinguishable to any but a local. There are no transfers, you pay every time you board and you should pick up a receipt to prove you paid in case there is an inspection.

The MRT is to Singapore what BART is to the San Francisco Bay Area, the Underground is to London. If you know where you are going, you can never get lost on the MRT.

However, it infuriates a Singaporean bus driver if you do not have a specific destination in mind. If you sit up front near the driver who is known as the Captain, he will insist on asking, “Where you go?” at every cross street or turn in the road.

The minimum fare is $1.30 (all figures are in Singapore money). Since the locals work the system in five cent increments, it is a safe bet that $2 will get you almost anywhere. With a smart phone in hand provided by the hotel, you can chart your progress around the island using the GPS function, then hop off at the nearest MRT and ride quickly home.

I took a surface bus to Jurong East which is waaaaay outside downtown. The driver kept asking me where I was going and not until a school girl boarded at one stop was he able to ask her to ask me his question once again and receive my translated answer: “I’m just riding.”

At the MRT I picked up my $2 return ticket to Bugis which is pronounced Boo-Gis as in Booger. A voice behind me said in American English, “Kilowatt? That’s the first bar I went to in San Francisco!” I turned around and shook his hand and asked which track I should wait on to get to Bugis.

They have their own separate money in Singapore and there are no one dollar bills. There are two types of one dollar coin, new and old, and the old one won’t work in some machines like the hotel clothes washer. Yusof bin Ishak’s face is on all Singapore paper bills starting with the two which has a couple holes drilled in it covered by clear plastic. Ishak is widely known as the first president of the republic of Singapore. He looks not unlike Errol Flynn.

Fort Canning is a hill overlooking the city’s downtown and on which the first lighthouse was established by the British mid 19th Century. In the late 20th Century the lighthouse was rendered useless by the growth of surrounding high rises. But when the Japanese occupied Singapore during WW 2, from 1941 – 45, they could not use this guiding light because the locals hid the parts.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of architecture in Singapore, although there are several in the running, is the Marina Bay Sands Casino. Three fifty-five story high rise buildings support a ship straddled atop them.

An architectural masterpiece:
This ship has trees growing out of it. It sits
atop the Marina Bay Sands Casino.

What gets me traveling is an invitation to a wedding. In this case, Cathal from Ireland was to marry Grace from Singapore. They planned two weddings, one in each country. But since next year’s family reunion is in Clare and I’ve been to Ireland twice, I chose Singapore.

Cathal and I shoot pool at the Kilowatt. That’s how we met: over a pool table.

Australians Ashley and Monika sat next to me at the reception. Ash lives in Darwin and is in communications. He knew every rude, impolite ethnic joke that slurred homosexuals. Throughout the meal, he nudged me and began another and at one point quoted complete lines from the rape scene in “Deliverance” laughing the whole time.

Ash — tall as a tree —
and me, new best

The wedding was held in the Fullerton Hotel which means no expense was spared. It is comparable to holding a wedding and reception in the Paris Ritz or the Fairmount in San Francisco.

I was early and wandered the Fullerton where on the ground floor it tells the story of being known for years as the General Post Office building. I got off at different floors and took pictures of the river below and surrounding architecture. Finding the fourth floor empty but for the set up crew and one person standing there taking pictures, I introduced myself as a member of the wedding.

“I am the Solemnizer,” he said somewhat inexplicably. “The Reverend Tan.” Turned out he was what we refer to as the minister.

Grace, the bride, told me that among the approximately 100 guests, fourteen nationalities were represented and I was the only American.

Back at my hotel, I shared the elevator ride up with two stout fellows from India. One said to the other as we lifted, “Tired. Five hour flight from Delhi.”

I said, “I got you beat. More than fourteen hours from San Francisco to Hong Kong, then another three to get here.”

One of the men scrutinized my wet neck and damp shirt. “Is it raining outside?”

Nope. That was just me dripping from the heat.

All buildings are air conditioned except the food courts. As you pass an emporium, a sliding glass door might open and you are covered with a wash of cold contrasted to the humid air in which you walk.

The most common refrain about the place is, “In Singapore you pay for everything.” They do not offer paper napkins in restaurants, they do not automatically bring water to your table and there are no paper towels in bathrooms. You dry your hands in the air. Often there is no soap.

In open air dining areas inside a food court, such as those to be found in Chinatown’s Hawker’s Square and opposite in People’s Park, you will be accosted by purveyors of Kleenex tissue packets offered for sale. These are the equivalent of our paper napkins. My American friend who now lives there told me the story of how at first it was unclear why fresh, unopened packets were laid around a table like place settings. She picked some up thinking they were for common use only to learn this is how seats are reserved.

People’s Park in Berkeley is known as the birthplace of the free speech movement. In Singapore, People’s Park is a giant parking garage with stores attached. People have to park somewhere.

There are no drinking fountains in food courts and, except in museums or public buildings like the National Library, if you want water you must pay for a bottle. In the more sophisticated sit down restaurants you may ask for water to be brought to the table. However, it comes at room temperature unless you specify “iced.” But there is no ice in it. “Iced” merely means it has been refrigerated.

High rise buildings have run amok along the Singapore River. Near Boat Quay I found Circular Road which was not razed to build a high rise along the river. The structures are representative of 19th Century British colony construction in the shop house style which is a ground floor commercial with a residence above, all bunched up close together with no room in between. Made of wood or brick with lath and plaster interior walls they lined the sidewalk in front of a single lane one way street.

A guy wearing a uniform was giving out parking tickets. He was amused by my inquiry of where you buy the colored strips of paper on the dashboard that prove you paid for parking.

“Corner market, the 7-eleven,” he said.

It was a Friday afternoon and he held a small ticket delivery device. He had a gleam in his eye as he explained there was only an hour left before all the cars had to be gone. The weekend is revered along Circular Road where pedestrians are encouraged and there is no parking from 6:00 o’clock Friday evening through all day Saturday.

The 7-Eleven was next door to Molly Malone’s, an Irish pub, which was next to a Chinese restaurant, which was beside a karaoke night club which was not separated near as I could tell from the Pakistani restaurant that nestled up next to the trendy clothing store that was beside a Hindi dance club. And that was only one side of the block.

Riding the bus I jotted down the phone number on a real estate for sale sign. The building was the same shop house style: small, no wider than 30 feet, no taller than sixty, perhaps two units on Neil Road. It had nothing going for it other than being in a row with a dozen other similarly nondescript buildings.

“Twelve million, but we’re negotiable.” Yes, that’s in Singapore dollars. Even translated to U. S. we’re talking ten million for perhaps 1,400 square feet plus whatever attic there might be. We can’t get anywhere near that for a three story Victorian in San Francisco. This is a sure sign of a Singaporean real estate bubble; it is now a matter of how big can it grow?

There was a self-serve laundry inside the hotel. It took four Singapore dollars, new ones, to wash and four more to dry one load. However, that included soap which was pre-measured inside the machine.

They have no Yellow Pages, but there is such a thing as the Green Book with which one looks up phone numbers. I never used or saw one of these. The equivalent of dialing 411 information is 100 which will cost you 70 cents for every contact number.

There are plenty of museums within walking distance of one another. The Asian Civilizations Museum is close to the river, the Singapore Art Museum is a block or two from the National Museum of Singapore. A discounted three day pass to eight museums was available, but since I was only there five days I did not want to spend three of them inside of buildings. The basement of the National Museum was free so I wandered down and found geologic formations from around the world on display. Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico were among the many scenes hanging on the walls.

They drive on the other side of the road in Singapore, as in England. Cabs are air conditioned, quite comfortable and relatively cheap compared to San Francisco. The meter read fourteen dollars on the taxi ride to the airport, which seemed reasonable at first. But when we got there, the price doubled to twenty-eight. Was I going to argue? My guess is he gets to take a customer back to town and do the same for that ride. Heck, he’s looking for a bride.