Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Day 32 – ?, 6 May – ?, Singapore

 

Day 32 – ?, 6 May – ?, Singapore

Soundtracks:

‘Singapore’ – Tom Waits (“In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.”)

‘Green Onions’ – Booker T and the MGs

We emerged from our flight from Darwin, via the frigid and orderly environs of Changi Airport, helpfully overseen by soldiers with large and imposing armaments draped across their bodies, into the syrupy Singapore evening air. A pleasant cab ride took us to our friends’ apartment. Maddy brought us together with the Punton/Comte brigade through her friendship with Ruby since they met in Prep at CJC. Since then, after a few local family holidays and shared meals, they introduced us to Singapore life.

 

 

 

(Pic: Maddy, Sandy and Raffy catching up on some work on the plane from Darwin to Singapore)

Our friends Debbie, Russel, Ezra and Ruby have opened their home to us and shown us a life in Singapore that isn’t all hotels, tour busses and shopping. While we have visited some of the museums and taken a boat along the river, we generally shop, eat and hang out with locals, using the fabulous MRT (underground train) and bus networks. (Memo to the Victorian government – if you want to see an efficient, inexpensive,clean, and safe public transport system that runs on time with a clever ticketing system and carries more people in a smaller geographic area than in Melbourne, come check this out. As Doug Hawkins once said, “it ain’t rocket surgery”.) Markets and hawker food centres are friendly and inviting. I’m glad that, no matter how many western (American, lets face it) fast food outlets open, they don’t seem as well patronised as stalls offering various Asian delights, washed down with lime juice or Tiger beer.

Yet, somewhat surprisingly, it turns out it’s much cheaper to eat out at hawker stalls than cook at home. In Melbourne, eating out is a treat, but in Singapore, we have discovered the opposite – it’s almost a necessity. A couple of times now we have shopped for food to cook our hosts dinner, and both times we have spent more than other evenings when collectively eating out. Restaurants would be more expensive again, but at a hawker stall we can eat a large, healthy and fabulous meal with drinks for under S$6 per person, or about AUS$4. And this is our first indication that not all things are equal in Singapore.

So, we seem to have stumbled upon a bit of utopia, with cheap food and public transport, but then they get you elsewhere. Housing is hugely expensive, with average apartments (condominiums) demanding vast sums. The vast majority of the population live in apartments, with a few cashed-up families affording houses – most of them gaudy, ostentatious and on main roads.

It has become apparent that the expat community seem to integrate the notion of segregation into most of their lives, and it has been so since Sir Stamford Raffles lobbed up and shoved a British flag into the clay. It seems that it would be, and is, very easy to choose to isolate one’s self from a more generalised Singaporean culture and lifestyle and live a westernised life entirely by shopping, eating and socialising in predominantly western businesses, sending children to western schools, working in western environments. Life in Singapore during its infancy was deliberately segregated, and very much defined by ensuring the hierarchy of culture, or ‘race’, began with ‘Ang Mo’ at the top (which refers to Europeans and I was told supposedly means ‘sage’ or ‘knowledgeable’, and also in Hokkien translates as ‘red hair’, but seems to have a derogatory tone to it). Today, the people at the bottom of the food chain are similar to those generations ago – not only defined by class but by culture. That is, for example, it is rare to find someone of Chinese heritage doing menial work, and never a European. It is certainly the case for the thousands of people who work as maids; they are all of course women, and mostly Indian, Sri Lankan, Burmese, Malaysian, Filipino or Thai.

It’s not that often you see a Ang-Mo face at a hawker stall, yet walking through Boat Quay (hey, those Brits sure knew how to choose creative names for places – and I thought ‘Great Sandy Desert’ was descriptive), alongside the flashy halls of economic power in the central business district, its mostly Europeans frequenting expensive restaurants and bars. It seems the Europeans choose to pay way over the odds for steak and chips and Victorian Bitter (S$37 a jug!), although the question of why you would around here is another matter.

 

 

(Pic: Riverside in Singapore)

The notion of ‘separation’, or even segregation – us and them – is ever present. When describing someone’s accommodation, it seems it is unsatisfactory to refer to a flat or apartment, but rather an HDB or a condo. The Housing Development Board is responsible for the provision of affordable housing through multi-storey high-rises that are available for purchase. Condominiums, on the other hand, usually include security entrances, uniformed guards, closed-circuit television monitoring, a pool and grounds keepers. So, if you can afford it, you get yourself a bit of luxury. But it’s interesting that, ultimately, they’re all flats, yet are spoken about with an air of judgement about what they cost, and the people who inhabit them.

The condos that we have seen also offer something we haven’t seen before; they are designed to accommodate a maid. The one we are staying in has a separate entrance for the maid, who would, if here, enter the apartment directly into the kitchen instead of the main area. Adjacent to the kitchen is a tiny space where she would sleep and ablute, and she would only enter the main apartment to clean it and serve the meals she prepared. She may also spend some time there caring for small children – we have seen a number of them pushing prams around – and it was interesting to see that the sight of three adults with one or more children out and about is quite normal. It’s easy to work out which one the maid is – usually the one with a dour, down-turned expression, no makeup or jewellery, plainly dressed and often the only one interacting well with the children. I definitely got the sense that, not only is having a maid a certain type of status symbol, but comparing maids may be akin to comparing one’s latest glamour handbag or sports car. It is a trophy similar to any other adornment of the nouveau riche. When out one day at the fabulous Singapore zoo, I couldn’t help feeling like I was part of a different type of display outside of the cages and exhibits. The peacocks fanned their tail feathers, the baboons flashed their gaudy red bottoms, and the wealthy humans strutted two paces in front of their maids.

Which is not to say that all maids are treated badly, although Human Rights Watch are monitoring the plight of Foreign Domestic Workers now, but for me it does speak of the entrenched inequality of Singapore society. While it might be useful to have someone around at home to do all those jobs we hate, the fact is maids are more plentiful in Singapore than in most other countries because they are affordable. Even though the average annual wage in Singapore is about S$40,000 (before big taxes and duties) at more than 46 hours a week, there is a substantial portion of the community who make much more than that. And good luck to them, but there’s something wrong when some people can regularly earn five or ten times that of someone else in their employ.

Which has got me thinking about wealthy families here, when one parent – usually the dad who suits up for work in a glass tower in town – works, and the children go to school. What does the other parent do all day? Of course there are those who work, volunteer, study or, without a maid, maintain the household. After all, there are only so many times one could trawl Orchard Road for the latest designer trinket. For the rest, thankfully, the answer came in a publication called ‘Expat Living’ – a monthly Singaporean magazine dedicated entirely to people other than the working class, and providing all manner of ways in which you could spend your time, and of course, money: social clubs, bespoke tailoring and jewellery, the latest electronic must-haves, resorts for weekends away, restaurants, home decorating, and even where to find decent help these days. It conjures images of the most frightening type of colonialists looking to bring western ‘luxury’ to the east.

For Asian women, the ‘Western good, Eastern bad’ adage takes on a most disturbing interpretation with the overt promotion of products and services to make them look, well, less Asian. Skin whitening creams (produced by large European and American cosmetics companies well known at home) are advertised alongside mobile phone and airline ads, and the concept does not dance around the issue that whiter skin is not only a desire and aspiration, but it is also achievable. Even weight-loss companies are not backwards in coming forwards with claims that you need to have a smaller waist – the sole purpose in weight loss. Of course, such products are exclusively aimed at women.

Which seems to reinforce the adage that Singapore is a city/country/island of massive contradictions. We are lead to believe that it is a place of progress, modernity and seamless integration of cultures, yet not too far underneath the reality is somewhat different.

We know that language is vital in describing intent and purpose, and none more so in Singapore. For example, it seems quite deliberately, people speak and write of ‘multi-racial’, as opposed to the notion of a multicultural society that we are familiar with in Australia. It is an important distinction as what is being described in Singapore is different people based not on experience, values or ways of being, but rather an ethnic derivation that is unambiguous and explicit.

(Pic: Visiting the family at Singapore Zoo)

So much so that in some real estate  advertisements in the local rags, apartments (HDBs) are sometimes advertised and described by noting that “All races” were welcome, or that a particular racial make up, or that a certain race has already reached its ‘quota’. For example “Indian quota filled” and “Chinese quota filled” (The Straits Time classifieds, 10 May 2008). I remain unsure if this is legal here, but then again, it is also understood that maids experience violence and abuse at extraordinary levels, yet it remains hidden, unreported and, tacitly condoned by the ruling classes. Maids invariably are making money to send home to family and hence are reluctant to complain or quit, or believed. So whether certain things here are legal or not may be a moot point. There seems to be distinct parallels with this circumstance and my work in family violence prevention.

(Pic: Cavenagh Bridge, Singapore)

I will often read local newspapers to get a feel for a place, and Singapore is a cracker. While I am unable to understand the Chinese, Indian and Malay papers, the various English language rags provide a great insight. It seems nothing much really happens in Singapore, save for a few new construction projects and business deals, a couple of exhibitions, and a few nasty souls who have fallen foul of the law and are facing jail, a caning or the noose (I read a bloke faced 12 months’ jail and a caning for making a prank call to the police when he was sozzled – warning kids!). It has a feeling of freedom and opportunity, but it’s difficult to get past the lack of freedom of the press, let alone within government. Lee Kuan Yew officially handed over the reigns of Singapore a couple of years ago, but in the same action invented the position of Minister Mentor which, it seems, has a very vague job description and even vaguer length of tenure. So important is this position that the “MM” is quoted almost daily in the Straits Times.

Another interesting quirk of this city is that most cats have short tails. At first I thought it was cruel to dock tails of cats, but it turns out that, given the strict quarantine restrictions, the cat population is sufficiently inbred to lead to genetic defects, which in this case is shorter tails.

 

Singapore is often referred to as a fine city – ‘fine’ having two definitions. There are rules, regulations, directions, sanctions and laws about most things. Yes, it’s true that chewing gum is illegal, although now ‘medicinal’ versions are allowed as directed by a doctor, and generally speaking Singaporeans are faced with serious consequences for most transgressions. I read about another bloke who was fined SG$4,000 for feeding a monkey in a reserve. It’s hard to get a handle on the notion of human rights here, aside from it being a relatively foreign concept, while at the same time it is being taught in universities. And, conversely, Singapore has a very different approach to what we know in Australia as Occupational Health and Safety. Spending a morning at the Wild Wild Wet amusement park, we left after the water became a teeming mass of people and floatation devices that seemed to take precedence over little kids, while I observed a couple of men who brought their shampoo along and used it while under a shower of water at one of the attractions. Let alone OH&S issues at the famous Raffles Hotel. In the Long Bar, it is customary to eat peanuts from the shell, with the shells thrown to the floor. Staff and guests then need to gingerly make their way over a floor crackling with strewn nut debris. This may have been a practice almost a century old, but I would hate to be the one who ended up ‘a’ over ‘t’ spilling my $30 Singapore Sling (a famous bright pink tipple invented at Raffles that tastes one step away from cough medicine).

There is something slightly Orwellian about Singapore’s efforts to promote English as the preferred official language. It seems for most Singaporeans, English comes as a second or third language, yet has a feeling of aspiration and class. While many signs and notices have a number of languages displayed, it seems that unless you have a good grasp of English you would find it difficult to access some retail outlets or services, such as the MRT train system. All announcements are in English, and even the names of stations seems to be an not too discreet attempt to bring a little Old Dart to the tropics – Somerset, Queenstown, Woodleigh, Commonwealth, Devon. However, many people here struggle withEnglish – even those whose families have been here for a while. English might be the official language, but not the common one. I can’t help feel that the overt use of English is meant to prevent many others from having equal access or participation in sections of Singapore life. ‘In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.’

I became quite excited by the names of one of the areas and principle roads here, though. I was chuffed that, during a cab ride, others were referring to seminal 1960s American Stax Records band leader Booker T who, it seemed, had had his contribution to Memphis soul music and popular culture acknowledged, along with his band the MGs. “About time, too,” I thought, “Booker T Road sounds pretty cool,” and started humming ‘Green Onions’ to myself. However, I was somewhat disappointed when I discovered that ‘Booker T’ was in fact ‘Bukit Timah’, ‘bukit’ Malay for ‘hill’.

Nevertheless, despite all it’s misgivings, Singapore is a fun town to hang out in. One thing that has become apparent is the capacity for people to develop their own senses of community. Food hawker stalls are located in what could notionally be called food courts, but are really outdoor, sheltered communal spaces set aside for small specialty food stalls that share tables and chairs, and sometime cutlery and crockery. These areas, of which there are thousands, are places where people can congregate in areas that otherwise people are forced to exist in small concrete boxes. That hawker stalls exist below every few apartment blocks is not an accident. People are social beasts and value the opportunities to get out of their boxes and be with other people. What better way to do it than over great food? It gives us an opportunity to experience different cultures and foods, and we are becoming more adventurous. I can highly recommend the stingray at one of the stalls near South Bridge Road. The hawker markets are often located near or amongst other market stalls selling anything and everything. The ‘wet markets’ are fascinating, displaying a range of fish and seafood, both alive and recently departed, and surprisingly, creatures such as frogs. Ribbit!

Of course, between our two-hourly meals and snacks with our hosts in Darwin (yes, JJJZ, all your fault – we were just being polite) and the hawker stalls in Singapore, I have never been heavier in my life. We needed a break.

Our truck was going to be at least ten days late arriving in Singapore, if not more, due to the scheduled ship being cancelled and the truck being placed on the next one. So, even though this was already putting some stress on our already tight itinerary, we had some time to kill. Sandy found a reasonably priced resort in Malaysia, and we headed off for a few days.

The mini-bus for Sea Gypsy Resort on Pulau Sibu (Sibu Island) collected us on Tuesday 13 May from one of the nearby MRT stations, and the driver directed us through the enormous and imposing Singapore customs and immigration centre, that takes architectural cues from the Star Wars Death Star, after driving across the Causeway. Then, a short drive to the Malaysian customs and immigration building that has the classic lines of Border Town Bus Station, and we were suddenly in Malaysia. A bloke in what seemed to be a uniform said something and pointed to my backpack. I instinctively thought he wanted to check our baggage, but soon realised he was touting for customers for his passenger van – or perhaps anything else we fancied. In a distance of just over a kilometre we had gone from wide, orderly roads, traffic, shops and grassy reserves, to a typical boarder town that was hectic, fumy, rundown and seemingly haphazard. Sandy and I raised eyebrows to each other, not in a way that judged our new environs, but knowing that in a matter of days we would have to negotiate these roads on our own.

 

 

 

(Pic: Our own ‘Raffles’ gets himself a swanky hotel)

The roads took us through villages and past wild monkeys along the roadside, and eventually through vast tracts of new palm plantations. This, it seemed, was a heartland of a growing global environmental tragedy – the wholesale destruction of rainforest and traditional farming lands for the planting of palm trees, the oil of which will be used to sate the global hunger for fuel. Given the skyrocketing prices for rice, I thought about the real potential for cheap fuel being available to transport to hungry people food that doesn’t exist, while hurtling along in our air-conditioned Mercedes van. Two hours later after we were dropped off at the village of Tanjong Leman on the south-east coast of Malaysia and were met by the boat that would take us to Pulau Sibu. A storm had broken about 15 minutes before, which meant that we had to sit and wait it out so the boat crew could see where they were heading and not miss the island all together.

Ten minutes after heading out on a bumpy and wet speedboat ride the boat reversed into the sand. Little did we know that we were to step into the water and onto the sand to get to the resort – it seems the more expensive places had wharfs and piers. That was my first big mistake of the trip. While carrying Raffy over the water I forgot about the phone in my pocket. Checking it later, the water under the screen looked pretty cool, but I knew that salt water and electronic circuitry didn’t mix very well – or perhaps too well. I pulled the battery out and left it to dry as best I could in the humid and salty air. If it ever worked again, I knew it wouldn’t be for very long.

Which wasn’t a great loss right now because we knew there would be no internet or mobile phone access on Sibu anyway. After settling into our two bedroom hut with adjoining bathroom – cold water only – we fell into the routine of playing at the beach, hanging around the large, open bar/lounge reading or playing backgammon, eating and sleeping, and dodging plummeting coconuts. A game of coconut beach bowls (as opposed to lawn bowls) was another hightlight (of our own invention). There seemed to be some competition between the local workers and the Brit and Aussie backpacker workers over the lounge stereo, with the Europeans preferring more alt-rock as opposed to the evils of Toto and Foreigner. A happy medium was found with the resort favourite of The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers. All of the buildings were made of local timber and palm, and it had a village feel to it. We had our valuables locked in the office safe as there were no locks on doors anywhere on the resort – just one big, happy family.

(Pic: Pulau Sibu)

(Pic: Our place on Sibu)

The resort would accommodate some 80 people on Friday, when we would be leaving, but until then there were only 16 of us with the whole place to ourselves. The Malaysian fish and vegetable dishes were delicious, the sand white, the weather mostly fine and the water beautifully green and warm.

Maddy continued her habit of injuring herself soon before leaving somewhere. In Melbourne she burned her hand on an espresso machine, and in Darwin she grazed and badly bruised her foot in a minor bicycle accident. At Pulau Sibu, after I had been in the water for about 15 minutes, Maddy joined me only to be almost immediately stung by a jellyfish. After the initial panic, a treatment of lime and vinegar eventually took the pain away, leaving no trace in a day and the makings of a nice salad dressing. Hopefully these things only come in threes.

We said our goodbyes and got back on the speedboat, and then the bus to Singapore. I allowed the ‘more mature’ members of our boat party onto the boat first, which left me at the back, copping face fulls of sea spray and soaking me to the bone. Our children were so concerned for me they pointed and laughed.

Back in Singapore we received notice that the truck was on its way. The next phase of planning commences…    

(Pic: Relaxing in the lounge on Sibu)

db

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6 Comments»

  David Taylor wrote @

Dear DSMF,
Just read you’re latest blog. What a long one, I thought I’d never get to the end of it. But still fascinating. Really sounds like you’re having an absolute ball. With all your stuff on the truck, it must feel like you’ve been stripped bare, alone in the world with no possessions to tie you down, or weigh you down. Could even be an exhilarating experience. I noticed you’ve had a comment from my friend Judy. She’s loving following your trip. Photo’s are great, but is it possible to label them. Sometimes, can’t work out where they are.
Anyway, “keep on Truckin”, and having a ball. Love reading all about it.
LOve & Peace, David.

  Richard Bright wrote @

Hola! The resort looks gorgeous. Hopefully I’ll feel less envious in a couple of weeks when we are in Port Douglas 🙂 Is the Treo still alive?

Yesterday it was announced that our new ticketing system will be delayed another two years and will be even more massively over budget. Rather than learn from the MRT it would probably be better to just let Singapore run Melbourne’s transit system for us.

Don’t worry about the Saints – I’m sure they are just lulling everyone else into a false sense of security.

Ciao for now,
Doogie

Using my Treo 750 to post and listen to Lady Sovereign. I am Geekboy. Hear me roar!

  Richard Bright wrote @

Hola! The resort looks gorgeous. Hopefully I’ll feel less envious in a couple of weeks when we are in Port Douglas 🙂 Is the Treo still alive?

Yesterday it was announced that our new ticketing system will be delayed another two years and will be even more massively over budget. Rather than learn from the MRT it would probably be better to just let Singapore run Melbourne’s transit system for us.

Don’t worry about the Saints – I’m sure they are just lulling everyone else into a false sense of security. Sob!

Ciao for now,
Doogie

Using my Treo 750 to post and listen to Lady Sovereign. I am Geekboy. Hear me roar!

  Hilary wrote @

your account of singapore had quite a science fiction/ orwellian ring to it. i did wonder if the regime is an inevitable partner of the orderly public transport, which suggests we’d be unlikely to see it happen here – a whole different mentality.

at the other end of this journey i’ll be interested in your utopian society, gleaned from the best bits of the places you’ve visited, and in the different ideas of each of you.

hilary

  Condo wrote @

finally i can read it to here 5555 however it’s good article

  mostrim wrote @

Excellent article about Singapore – I didn’t delve as deeply as you in the time I spent there. I should probably show this to my sister who spent four years there teaching english to locals, learning to speak some malay and mandarin while she was there. I liked the city and could easily imagine living there. However I guess there is a price to pay for this and you highlighted it well


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