“Drug traffickers will be punished by death,” the customs card reads. Then, “Welcome to Singapore.” That pretty much encapsulates Singapore. They’re severe when it comes to criminal activity. But they make you feel very welcome.
One thing they criminalize is gum chewing. Gum is contraband, just like narcotics and weapons. The police probably have a Gum Unit (known around the force as the “G-Unit” or GU). A cab driver related an incident in which he was caught at the border attempting to smuggle in gum for his private use. He actually wasn’t formally punished but he had to throw it away. Punishment enough, the crack G-Unit must’ve determined.
I’ve got a pretty bad gum habit myself. Two packs a day. But I exercised self-restraint and went cold turkey for my entire stay in Singapore (2.5 days). Not that I haven’t been on the wrong side of the law during this trip. In Warsaw my friend Rick and I were fined for jaywalking. But that’s just because Rick is a bad influence. (Me: “Are you sure it’s okay to jaywalk at this spot?” Rick: “Sure I’m sure. The sign right there says ‘Fine For Jaywalking.’”) Here I’ve been on my best behavior. I don’t know what the penalty is for possession of gum for chewing, but it might involve the infliction of pain. You might remember the American teen who was caught committing vandalism in Singapore and was punished by caning. (Being a prosecutor here must be a hoot.) This sort of thing must work because the public areas really are immaculate. No litter. No graffiti. Virtually no crime.
Although Singapore is in Southeast Asia–situated at the southern tip of Malaysia–it seems worlds apart from the other Southeast Asian countries I visited. As different as the East is from the West. English is widely spoken. Streets are clean. Traffic is regulated by traffic lights. The tap water is potable. Everybody’s favorite American ex-pat, Phil Stanley (“L.A. Phil”), lives here (although I didn’t see him). There’s an intricate public transportation system. (Protected by $500 fines for smoking or eating.) Skyscrapers gleam in the sunlight and futuristic elevated walkways connect them one to another. It looks like a king-sized Century City…from the future. Sometimes it took the exotic cry of a bird to remind me I was in the tropics.
Multiple ethnicities and religions are represented in Singapore. According to Lonely Planet, the population is roughly 77% Chinese (mostly Buddhist), 14% Malay (mostly Muslim), 8% Indian (mostly Hindu), and 1% other (completely Otherian). On the streets and in the trains, nehru-collared suits and bright-colored saris and turbans intermingle, like citizens from different galaxies in a Star Trek episode. The attire is immaculate, just like the streets. Not even a sign of lint. It’s probably illegal.
“Singapore” is derived from the Sanskrit word “singapura,” which means “lion city.” (Guess that explains the widespread civic “pride.”) The island/nation/state/city became a British trading colony when a Brit named Thomas Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819 with the authority to make it so. Apart from a short period of Japanese occupation during WWII, it remained a British colony until 1965 when it declared independence from England.
I arrived 188 years after Raffles, on December 1, 2007, and stayed two nights. The first day, I wandered around the marketplaces and skyscrapers and shopping malls and visited the pristine waterfront and buzzing Chinatown. (There’s also an Arab Quarter and a Little India.) For dinner I had cereal-batter crayfish at No Signboard Seafood on my brother’s recommendation. At night I joined an open-topped bus tour of the city. Anyone who hadn’t realized the yuletide season was upon us sure knew it after that tour. In the primary shopping area on Orchard Street, there were rows and rows of lights and hanging glitter strands and elaborate Christmas displays all over. That area alone was probably visible from outer space.
The highlight was the Singapore Zoo, though, where I spent the second day. The animals–who are kept in moat-bordered habitats rather than cages–were active and vibrant, not lethargic like the animals at some zoos. The white tigers, who pranced and swam and broke into sprints, were mesmerizing. So were the baboons, who wiled away the time congregating in groups and frolicking and preening each other. (Much like my officemates.) The orangutans climb across raised terraces and in overhanging treetops. That means that sometimes they dangle directly above the visitors below, with nothing separating them from the homo sapien onlookers but the strength of their grip.
The primate kingdom included a proboscis monkey exhibit. The unique adult male proboscis monkey is recognizable by its large, bulbous nose. I felt personally affirmed when I read that the big nose is a sign of beauty, designed to attract females.
My experience exactly.
Tags: Singapore, Southeast Asia, Travel