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
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
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.