Singapore Slingin’

500 miles from Singapore somewhere over the Gulf of Thailand I found myself in the lavatory dumping a bottle of Advil into the blue water of the airplane’s toilet.

My around-the-world trip was about to begin, and I was really nervous.  The comfort of the airplane was the edge of my bubble of safety, and the in-flight movie was the last taste of the West I was going to see for a long time.

What was it going to be like?  Asia… God, help me I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into when I bought this plane ticket!  I already missed home, and my mind was going over everything I had sacrificed to make this journey.  I had spent most of the plane ride reading a book on traveling, but for some reason I could not get myself excited about the prospect of living on $15 a day and sleeping in flea-infested hostels.

And now THIS?!?!

The stewardess had just made an announcement that we were approaching Singapore and had causally reminded us that drug smuggling was punishable by death, and that even prescription drugs must have an accompanying doctor’s note…and five minutes later here I was in the bathroom, dumping my over-the-counter Advil down the toilet.

I was jumping into the abyss of the unknown, desperately grasping at the last things within my control – such as not going to jail for smuggling Advil into Singapore.

I made the jump into the abyss and it was not as bad as I imagined.  I actually think I might have developed an immunity to culture shock after my trip to India, as nothing can be as shocking as leaving Mumbai’s airport and driving past the slums and into the mass of humanity that is India.

Singapore was tame compared to that.  What?  The taxi actually has a meter?  And the meter works?   The roads from the airport to the city center were wide, smooth and divided by a manicured grassy median – a world away from Mumbai.

I spent my first few days “adjusting” to Asia here in Singapore, though it was really not that much of an adjustment.

Singapore is the poster child of globalization – this little city-state of 4 million people has one of the highest GDPs per capita in the region and has grown at a constant rate since its independence from the British a half century ago.  Singapore is the ideal progeny of East and West, combining the best of both worlds to create a fusion of culture and markets…but this oasis of prosperity is no accident.

The government relied on Draconian policies to purge Singapore of its ‘undesirable’ elements – for example, spitting is prohibited to keep the streets free of the Indian community’s paan juice and the morning haaawwwwkkkking noise heard each morning as Asia clears its throat.  Additionally, the Singapore River was cleared of all the Chinese junks, or boats, that used to cover the river’s waters and give a unique character to the city.

But wait a second….I have gotten ahead of myself here.  In the last two paragraphs I have mentioned Chinese, Indians and the British without explaining the role of each society in the development of Singapore.

Singapore’s early history is not well documented, but it is known to have been a tiny sea port for many years before the arrival of the British in 1819.  The first Brit to arrive on the tiny island of Singapore was a man named Sir Thomas Raffles, an employee of the British East India Company searching for a location to establish a British port that could break the Dutch monopoly on the spice trade.

Singapore was perfect. It was a small island with minimal development – much of the land was covered in swamps that could be drained and reclaimed and it had plenty of potential ports.

Raffles declared Singapore a free-trade port and started building the buildings, boulevards, and bridges that would eventually become modern-day Singapore.  The port prospered, and the indigenous Malay population was joined by Chinese immigrants and Indians from southern India.  Today, the Chinese make up about 75% of the population, while the Muslim Malays and Indians are about 15% and 8% respectively.

Singapore is a grand city – the Colonial District originally housed the British government and these old buildings still line the Singapore River and give today’s tourist a view into the Colonial Era.  While the Colonial District has not changed much, the river that snakes through it has been completely transformed in the last 30 years.  Historically, the river was full of Chinese junks (boats), which would line the quays tied side-to-side for hundreds of meters.  At one place, the river is said to be shaped like the body of a carp fish and the junks were said to be the scales of the fish.

In the 1970s, the government decided it would make the Singapore River safe enough to swim in within 10 years – the junks had to get out of the river, thereby ending the way of life of the many fishermen.  And as one of the junk owners said, “remove the scales and the fish will die”.  He was right.

Today the water is clean, and the river no longer functions as a port.  What used to be warehouses are now high-class restaurants and high-rises of high-finance.

After a day or two of walking around this immaculately clean environment, I was having trouble finding my bearings: was I in Asia or was this the Central Business District of San Francisco?  Syndey?  London?  Where were the swarming masses of people?  Where were the tuk-tuk drivers and motorcycle taxis?

I hopped on the subway and headed to Little India in search of some grit – for grit and grime is what makes life interesting, and cleanliness is next to sterility.

On the subway, I saw a sign that said Low Crime Doesn’t Mean No Crime – I immediately had an itch to move onto the rest of Asia in search the kind of adventure lacking in Singapore.

 

I checked out of my hostel, had a Singapore Sling and bought a bus ticket to Melaka, Malaysia.

I was on the road again…

Next stop, MALAYSIA!

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