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Singapore: Courtesy First

    I was surprised to find that I love Singapore. But that's a more complicated sentiment than it seems at first...

    Visiting Singapore hadn't been in our original travel plans. We decided to come when we found there were no direct flights to Vietnam from Indonesia; so we figured we might as well spend a few days in Singapore instead of just passing through. To be honest, Steve was much more interested in it than me, since I really didn't know much more about Singapore than its reputation for strict laws and anti-chewing gum legislation.

    When we arrived, we were overwhelmed by the level of comfort that had been absent in Indonesia. Suddenly, the streets were clean, tree-lined, and full of late-model cars (with very few smoke-spewing scooters). The public transit system is easy to navigate, most buildings are air-conditioned, the tap water is drinkable, and most notably, EVERYTHING IS IN ENGLISH.

    This was the biggest surprise; to find that a city that could be considered the cross-roads of Asia had adopted English as its lingua franca. All the signs are English. All the people speak English. It causes a constant cognitive dissonance as I try to resolve being in Asia, yet communicating in my own language. As you might imagine, this makes Singapore a very easy place to travel.

    And therein lies the complexity. I really like Singapore -- it's an enjoyable place to be -- but this also makes me feel kind of guilty and spoiled. I have been mulling this over since we arrived: Do I like Singapore because it's comfortable and easy? Or is it really a nice city on its own merits? Am I just more relaxed here because I don't have to worry so much about theft or hawkers? Or is it really because of Singapore's interesting neighbourhoods and thoughtful architecture?

    On the positive side, Singapore does an excellent job of maintaining discrete neighbourhoods and a multitude of small shops and restaurants as well as giving in to the inevitable multi-national chain stores. The island is predominantly Chinese, but quite diverse and you can find all kinds of people here. A national priority seems to have been placed on efficiency, which is evident in its extra-fast escalators, conveniently timed subway trains, and organized cab-share programs. Signs reminding people to be courteous are plentiful, and while good for a chuckle, they also reflect a hearteningly polite attitude. Something that Steve and I particularly enjoyed were the geek havens-- excuse me, electronics malls. These are multi-storey malls that are packed with nothing but electronics stores. You can wander around and buy everything from the smallest radio components to consumer electronics and computers. We spent a few hours wandering around goggling at the array of circuit boards and batteries and wires. In fact, we've done a lot of window shopping here.

    Which leads me to one of the negative aspects of Singapore: all the shopping. The country has tried to present itself as a shopping destination, and is blanketed in air-conditioned malls of all kinds. American chain stores are plentiful. This came in handy today when we needed a Vietnam guidebook -- only the large Borders store had a good one. But we generally try to avoid familiar things when we travel, and it is hard to do that here. Another troubling issue is the government policies. While the strict anti-littering and other courtesy laws make Singapore a nice place to visit, I don't think I agree with mandating politeness. There are some funny t-shirts for sale here that say "Singapore is a 'fine' city" and then list eight or nine of the silliest offences and their fines. For example, it will cost you S$150 if you are caught not flushing a public toilet. I'm a strong proponent of courtesy, but it makes me uncomfortable when a government tries to enforce it.

    Steve and I leave tomorrow for Vietnam, a country that will undoubtedly be a bigger challenge. We leave Singapore wishing we had more time here, and with a desire to return someday. I loved my stay in Singapore, but without the clear conscience of a rugged adventure traveller.


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