After nine weeks of settling into Burmese life it was time to blow the cobwebs away with a quick visit to the outside world, to remind myself about alternative realities, and flirt with possibility.
Singapore was a breath of fresh air. Seriously. After the grime and pollution of Yangon, stepping into a clean, efficient environment was a very welcome break. It was a relief to see familiar shops and products, eat and drink familiar (and much missed) meals and walk without having to watch every step. (Although a quick visit to Chinatown showed that some places are still immune to the clinical aura of the modern city and if I hadn’t been paying attention I would have had a rat the size of a kitten run across my feet!)
In fact, Singapore is a fine city. Literally. You can be fined ridiculous sums for smoking in public, spitting, littering and jaywalking (I was guilty of, but not caught for, one of these ;-)). Polite but firm notices using the assertive ‘thank you’ are everywhere reminding people to have a better life by observing the rules. At first it felt like being at school; motivational phrases, friendly cartoons and video guides abound to help you to live up to the high expectations these rules create and make your life stress free and efficient.
Yet few people smile here. If you catch the eye of an Yangonite and smile you are always rewarded with a beaming response, but in Singapore, as with London, eye contact is rare and if made you’re most likely to be subjected to a hard stare. One evening we were approached by a couple of different hawkers while we were eating. I’ve always objected to being interupted while I’m enjoying my meal (!) but I’ve always respond politely. Their responses to our polite but firm ‘No, Thank you’ was a long stare down their noses that could have turned our dinner to ice, and I’m pretty certain the second guy, a Chinese gentleman, cursed us to all nine levels of hell!
Yet most Singaporeans are friendly, helpful and polite to a fault. It just seems to have a harder edge than in Myanmar. Perhaps because they’re busier, have more cares and woes or possibly because they’re desensitized and disconnected by all their privileges compared to the poorer country. The more I travelled the MRT the more I was reminded of the scenes in WALL:E where the ignorant and passive humans are gliding by hovercraft around perfect, sanitized conditions, glued to their TV screens and unaware that their lives were being masterminded by a sinister computer. Most people were glued to their phones and the announcements were made in using a pleasant female voice reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver’s dulcet tones as the Ship’s Computer. Such a contrast to the automated, slightly grating voice that announces ‘MIND THE GAP’ in London’s Underground, and ultimately, a little creepy.
Singapore is a rich city. A major commercial hub and the world’s fourth biggest financial centre, the well heeled population of 5.4 million exude wealth and health. Glowing, pregnant women are everywhere, shopping is a national pastime and socialising is a serious business. But none of this is cheap. Once I’d understood that the exchange rate was S$2 to the pound I realised it was ‘London’ prices. Quite a shock after my inexpensive existence in Yangon. But actually, not as bad as I thought. The only difficulty was stopping spending once I’d started. After a few months of enforced frugality (I can’t buy decent clothes or treat myself to a Starbucks in Myanmar, they don’t exist!) I found I gave myself permission to spend a bit more each day. I did need to buy myself more clothes and shoes, (my 20KG luggage from the UK didn’t allow me to bring much with me) and I wanted more Western pharmaceutical products than I can find in Yangon and all that added up to more than I wanted to spend. But I couldn’t avoid it, even though I found budget haircuts and promotional beauty experiences to ease the pressure on my wallet.
We did wonder how the city got so wealthy and where the seedy underbelly you would expect to find was. One of our waiters laughingly told us it was through money laundering, and I do wonder if there is a hint of truth in it! Although any corruption (and poverty) is very well hidden.
On the surface it seems very Western. Branded shopping and eating; preparations for Christmas had already started even though the majority of the population are Chinese, Indian or Malaysian; cleanliness and wi-fi availability reminded me of London or New York. But underneath? As one Australian woman I bonded with over a Starbucks questioned ‘You think this is Western do you?’ I did have to pause for thought. Underneath all that is familiar and soothing to me are the Asian principles of efficiency and respect that are, perhaps, more overlooked (and abused?) in the West. Maybe it is my Western prejudices that seek an underbelly that does not exist and this city is simply the result of hard-work and good management. Maybe this is the Utopia I’ve all been looking for. I can certainly see the attraction, but still, I’d hesitate to jump in.
Don’t get me wrong. Singapore is a lovely place to visit. I did the tourist thing, finally tasted a Singapore Sling at Raffles and enjoyed good company. I have every intention of coming back and doing it again, with a better understanding of the city and its facilities. But I’m not sure I want to live there.