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.
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.
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…
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!
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!
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).
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!
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!