An Open Letter to Singapore

Dear Singapore,

I have a confession to make. I never wanted to like you. Heck, I never even wanted to visit you! To me, you were always just some big, Western-style, static city at the tip of Southeast Asia. I thought you were a police state and that your famous ban on chewing gum was “Exhibit A” of that. And had I not spent more than a few days here, I’d probably still think that.

Marina Bay Sands

Singapore’s glitzy casino, Marina Bay Sands

At the first glimpse of your glitzy Central Business District (or CBD, as the locals call it), you are freakishly clean and orderly. And even some lifetime Singapore residents will feed into that “police state” mentality. One guy I spoke with plainly put it: “Singapore is like a corporation. And we’re like its employees, not its citizens.” Rather than political pressure, he told me, the government responds to foreign economic pressure.

Gardens by the Bay

Standing on the Canopy Walk around the solar collection “trees” at Gardens by the Bay

Maybe it’s that your society is built on a sort of fear of the caning punishments you’re known for handing out. Even my arrival card warned in big, bold letters, “DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW!” Maybe it’s that surveillance cameras everywhere and that you have no such thing as free speech, as evidenced by your “Speaker’s Corner,” where, with police permission, you can speak only if you avoid banned topics and follow all these rules…

Speakers' Corner

Rules at the Speakers’ Corner

Departure Card

“DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS”

But as I explored beyond the cool architecture and relatively sterile environment that is Clarke Quay (that’s pronounced “Clark Key”), that image began to crack. Chinatown, with its wonderful “Hawker Stalls” (essentially, food courts) is touristy and squeaky clean, but Little India was less so. I couldn’t believe when I started seeing litter on your otherwise pristine streets. And even, (*gasp*), a homeless person! Little India and in the surrounding areas feel like a different world–a wonderful one! Maybe it’s that you, Singapore, should be known for your wonderfully diverse neighborhoods, just like New York City is!

Little India Food Festival

A food festival in Little India

And right next to those fancy new buildings are the beautiful colonial ones, which are pristine and kept up, unlike the crumbling colonial architecture you find in so many, many parts of the world!

Colonial Building in Chinatown

Colonial building in Chinatown

Ok, sure, from a residential standpoint you do look very static. What with all the public housing all over the place. In fact in some ways, you almost remind me of the crumbling Soviet-era apartment buildings I saw years ago in the Ukraine… It’s all fairly uniform (but most definitely not crumbling).

Public Housing

One of the more premiere public housing complexes near the CBD

You are the picture of diversity, Singapore, with your four official languages (English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil Indian). All your ethnic groups living together in harmony. Over there is a brilliant church. And there? A mosque. The other way? A giant Chinese Buddhist temple. And every which way? A Hindu Temple, dotted with towers and freezes full of carved Hindu figures, a seemingly endless chanting emanating from those open doors. You are the picture of what the world should be like. Coexisting. I love riding your efficient MRT (metro) and hearing all the different languages! Is that cooperation the beauty of how humans can understand each other? I sure hope so!

Hindu Temple

A Hindu Temple in Little India

Buddha

A Buddha image at Chinatown’s Buddha’s Tooth Monument

Chock it up to a mix of cleanliness, functionality and diversity, but I’m fond of you Singapore. You’re so much more than meets the eye. So what if everything people say about you is true? Everyone should know that it takes a little while to get to know you, but they should also know that if they give you a chance, they might just be surprised at what they found. I sure was!

Light Fixtures

Innovative light fixtures at the Red Dot Design Museum

Stay classy!

Aaron

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27 Responses to An Open Letter to Singapore

  1. Maria August 6, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

    Clever, witty, informative – love this post. How do you do it so well and consistently?

    • Aaron August 8, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

      Haha! Aw thanks Maria!

  2. Sam August 8, 2013 at 10:56 am #

    A friend of a friend once described Singapore to me as “Disneyland on prozac”, which I found to be an apt description after visiting. I had a similar preconceived idea as you to the city, but ended up enjoying it. I especially liked Little India; so much less perfect (and therefore more interesting) than the rest of the city!

    • Aaron August 8, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

      Yes that’s a WONDERFUL description. Until I got to Little India, I was freaked out by just how clean Singapore was! The city almost felt sterile and lifeless. People didn’t smile. But once I got to know some locals, my views began to change. I moved hostels to the outskirts of Little India and saw that “less than perfect” spot that I always look for. After all, perfection is boring!

  3. Someday I'll Be There - Mina August 9, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    This is exactly my idea of Singapore. When I was talking to a friend and making vague plans of re-visiting SEA I completely refused the part of the plan that goes to Singapore saying it wouldn’t really have the South East Asian spirit with its perfectionist state. Now I might change my mind 🙂

    • Aaron August 10, 2013 at 6:33 am #

      Yeah I too always refused to go to Singapore. But when planning this trip and looking at what city I could fly into before hitting up Indonesia, Singapore proved to have the cheapest onward flights. So I figured I’d spend 4 days there just acclimating to the time difference. Ended up spending a week there because I found I liked it so much. But finding the non-perfectionist state takes a bit of work, so get your explorer shoes on!

  4. Jennifer August 10, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

    I absolutely loved Singapore when I visited earlier this year, it is really so diverse.

  5. Linda McCormick August 10, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    Great post! I think Singapore is like so many other cities, once you leave the touristy/CBD areas you uncover what the city is really like.

    • Aaron August 12, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

      So true!

  6. Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) August 10, 2013 at 11:17 pm #

    Did the diversity in Singapore seem genuine? I remember when Sarajevo, Yugoslavia was supposedly a great melting pot, but when the iron rule of a dictatorial regime cracked, all the ethnicities and religions started hating on each other, followed by a brutal civil war. (I am either being cynical or despairing for the human race—or both). My husband knows some scientists in his field working in Singapore. Your post has just about convinced me to add Singapore to our SEA itinerary for next spring.

    • Aaron August 12, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

      You know, I’m not sure. It’s illegal to talk about anything that could potentially be viewed as inflammatory from an ethnic or religious standpoint, and if there’s one thing the government of Singapore is good at, it’s ensuring that rules are not broken. The main place I saw diversity was on the MRT (subway), which is a great melting pot, just like the subway in New York City. But I also noticed that people barely talked. Or smiled. Or laughed together. Transit in NYC is a vibrant thing, even though everyone’s doing their own things. Singapore transit though felt a bit flat…

  7. Tracey - Life Changing Year August 12, 2013 at 10:47 pm #

    We were pleasantly surprised by Singapore. We expected it to be outrageously expensive but found that besides accommodation everything else was fairly reasonable. Those food courts were amazing and hiding all over the place. We loved wandering around Marina Bay Sands and the other tourist areas. There was plenty to see without spending a tonne of cash! I’d definitely go back to explore some more.

    • Aaron August 12, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

      I too was expecting it to be wickedly expensive and by and large, it wasn’t. Sure, accommodation was a lot, but no more than you’d find in North America. Food, though, was quite cheap (except alcohol)! Getting around by MRT was cheap too when you compare it to the cost of taking the New York City Subway.

  8. Pamela August 15, 2013 at 10:12 pm #

    I am glad you kinda change your perception about Singapore.

    I grew up with a large part of my life without chewing gum, chewing gum is something that is a out of sight, out of mind kind of product and it is not that difficult to be on the right side of the law (most of the time). Ha….

    If you compared Singapore public transport fare to other developed countries, I guess it is still consider cheaper side but being one of the most expensive country in SEA, we do feel the pinch..

    • Aaron August 18, 2013 at 9:45 am #

      Haha most of the time… While I was in Singapore a friend offered me a piece of gum, reminding me to keep a low profile with it. That was the most nerve-racking MRT ride I ever took!

      Yes public transit in Singapore is quite cheap compared to many comparably-priced countries, especially once you factor in the various discounts. I also found food to be rather cheap too, for you could find a good plate of chicken rice in those street-side food centers for a few dollars. Only thing a few dollars buys you in the U.S. is a crappy McDonald’s burger!

  9. Jules August 31, 2013 at 6:30 am #

    Hi Aaron, really enjoyed this post which was really well written. Hits home a little too being Malaysian myself! 🙂

    • Aaron August 31, 2013 at 6:38 am #

      Thanks!

  10. The Guy October 11, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    That is a great tribute letter. So now you have the Singapore bug which grabs us all.

    My first time in Singapore was not a great one as it saw the end of a long term relationship. Yet each trip back is full of excitement and discovery, always something new to find.

    The public transport is good as you say. I often dive into the MRT just to avoid the height of humidity during the day.

    It is a great city which I enjoy visiting. Not sure I could live there long term, I think I’d feel claustrophobic.

    • Aaron October 12, 2013 at 10:22 am #

      I definitely don’t think I could live in Singapore. It feels way too sterile to me to be livable! The crazies who roam the streets of NYC kinda make my day!

  11. Wheres Sharon? (Sharon) October 25, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    Lol great post. I love Singapore too. If only it wasn’t so much pricier than its neighbours, I would probably find it hard to leave!!

    • Aaron October 25, 2013 at 8:47 pm #

      Well I feel like Singapore is and isn’t pricey. Sure, attractions are expensive. And are places to sleep. But I was surprised as to how cheap the food was. Eat at “hawker centers” and you’ll pay S$5 per meal or less. All that said, Singapore is a bit too sterile for my taste. While I enjoyed my time there, if it weren’t for the people, it wouldn’t have been too hard to leave.

      • Wheres Sharon? (Sharon) October 26, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

        Yeah the food is definitely great value. My issue is more with accommodation and attractions – it adds up when you are a family 🙂

        • Aaron October 28, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

          Oh yeah I don’t doubt that! The only attraction I paid for was Gardens by the Bay. I’m too cheap to pay for most attractions! 😛

  12. Bernard December 1, 2013 at 6:34 am #

    Hey Aaron, am delightful to know that you enjoyed your stay in my country. Singapore is super diversified, it has it expensive and exquisite side and also its affordable and local flavoured side.

    • Aaron December 2, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

      My pleasure Bernard! Fortunately I was able to experience the affordable and local flavored side! I was really surprised by just how cheap Singapore could be if you went to the right places (in many ways New York City is similar). I loved the diversity, architecture and food! Cheers!

  13. dusty July 12, 2015 at 10:01 am #

    HO HO HO Aaron you might want to go to Sentosa for a few days though is really really expensive. Usually town area are the most expensive places to eat at, or even to stay. Have you tried the infamous fruit (durian) yet? during the month of june to july that is the best period to eat those fruits.

    • Aaron July 22, 2015 at 11:58 pm #

      I actually did make it to Sentosa and wandered down to the so-called “Southernmost point in Southeast Asia.” Sentosa wasn’t really my favorite place though. And no, I haven’t tried Durian (well I had a durian chocolate bar in Indonesia but that’s it). I’m not the most adventurous eater and the smell is pretty off putting. I understand it tastes great though! Maybe next time I’m in the region.

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