If Singapore was a person it would be an overbearing mother. One with multiple bachelor’s degrees and qualifications from a life spent studying hard and working harder so she can provide for her children and expect more in return. She would have nets around her children’s trampoline, plastic on the furniture and gates around the stairs. She would petition to have contact sports banned from schools and sporting participation would be more important than winning and subject to grades and completion of homework.
That doesn’t mean Singapore isn’t any fun, it’s just fun with a strict code of rules and regulations. The arrival card on an aeroplane is usually the first official document a traveller sees when visiting a country. The Singapore arrival card is stamped with a big, red ‘WARNING DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW.’ No trial, no hearing, just ‘DEATH.’
This automatic punishment can seem a bit harsh at first but after a couple of days you may notice a lack of junkies and beggars roaming the streets asking for change. I never once was asked for anything in Singapore other than a donation for a Philippines disaster relief fund. I never even saw a busker.
Sometimes the odd junky or homeless man can add some character to a city but usually they will be a nuisance, especially when they get violent and start threatening people. Singapore’s aggressive stance against anything drug related, however, means drugs are non-existent which reduces the threat of knife wielding maniacs. It’s a huge relief on the police and legal system which has allowed them to concentrate on other issues like chewing gum and spitting in public, which both carry significant fines.
Banning spitting in public sounds pedantic but for anyone who has been to China or spent time around the Chinese you may know that loudly hocking up a loogie and depositing it on the wall or floor is a routine part of daily life. Singapore’s population is officially 75% Chinese, so outlawing spitting in public is a hygienic necessity that has kept the habit at a minimum and helped ensure the squeaky clean image.
These manners and respect for others are contagious. There is no graffiti on public transport, children offer seats to the elderly and teenagers keep the volume of their music down on their headphones instead of pumping it from their phone’s speakers purely to annoy everyone.
A sign on a train said 98% of Singaporeans thought it’s faster to ‘queue up and let people alight before boarding the train.’ Is this overkill? Maybe, but if you consider the Chinese population and the struggle the Chinese race as a whole has had in understanding the concept and fairness and benefits of queuing rather than all pushing as one, it’s just as necessary as the outlawing of spitting to enable the society to function in an efficient and amiable manner. And what was the other 2% thinking? They must have just arrived.
Little India and Chinatown are two of the only places with a bit of grit and character, places that actually look lived in and have a life and vibrancy about them other than architectural ambition and business and trade. This doesn’t exist in the rest of the ultra-clean, modern metropolis. Many of the locals think of these places as the ghetto, but the echoing Bollywood music, hawker food stalls and cheap markets found there offer a charm and some culture that is usually lacking in the shiny shopping malls. And like everywhere else in Singapore, you would have to be ultra-paranoid to feel anything but safe.
Singapore is a model of China with the order and efficiency of British colonialism, a pseudo utopia that modelled itself on its neighbours and eliminated the bad bits. A strict, charmless, authoritarian, yet ultimately smiling and safe utopia where laws are obeyed and people work hard for long hours.
If you’re rich you can have a great time in Singapore. If you’re not rich you can have a great time but you’ll probably be sober and you’ll eat in different places. Eat in Little India for enormous portions and quality choice in a refugee ship atmosphere instead of paying corporate prices for a little scenery in Clarke Quay. Shop in the Chinatown markets for the same quality without the labels you’ll find in Orchard Central.
The SMRT rail network is world-class and makes the whole country easily navigable, and the vast underground terminals can be an attraction in themselves if you take the time to appreciate just how much of the ground had to be dug out. To get to Malaysia all I had to do was a short train ride then a public bus to the border. Hanging from the railing on the bus are information flyers from the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore about products you can and cannot take into Singapore. Seafood, fruits and vegetables, processed foods and pet food is okay in small quantities, as are ornamental fish in ‘not more than 3 litres of water.’ Meat, eggs, plants and seeds are banned and I hate to think what the punishment is if you’re busted. It’s one final shake of the finger before leaving Singapore and entering the spitty, littery and chewing gum filled chaos of Malaysia.