Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Singapore (2), Day 41-50, 16-25 May 2008

Singapore (2) (More photos – with captions – coming soon!)


‘Sounds of Silence’ – Simon and Garfunkle

‘On the Road Again’ – Willie Nelson

(Pic 1 – speaking at the Australian International School)

SK: We had the opportunity to talk about our trip to some year 8 classes at the International Australian School. The classes were writing their own travel blogs, and Ezra (he who kindly give up his room for us) had mentioned to his teacher that we were travelling through. We had a great time – the students asked intelligent, thoughtful and insightful questions (some of our answers revealed as much about them as they did about us) – and it was great to see another level of life in Singapore. Our thanks to Debbie for facilitating this, and to the class teacher Barb Angell for welcoming us into her classroom. 

We also headed out to other local sights with our old friends from Melbourne, Katie and Trevor and their three gorgeous kids. They took us to the Children’s Botanical Gardens and the Wild, Wild, Wet water park. 

In both cases the places were filled with locals from all over the world, and lots of water play – both of which were engaging for us and for the kids. Hanging out gave us the chance to catch up, which was great, and also to see another aspect of life in this city. Having the opportunity to visit people in their home, sharing the warmth and hospitality of friends, is always a treat when you are away from your own home.


Finally we had received word from the shipping company that our truck had made it to Singapore. But there was a veritable container-load of red tape we had to wade through to get hold of it first, such as the ICP from the AAS; the ERP from the LTA.

Once we had formal notification from the shipping company that the car was arriving, we went to get an International Circulation Permit from the Automobile Association of Singapore. I had been in email and phone contact with the carnet officer there, Rosie Chan, who was even more delightful and helpful in person. Armed with our ICP and car insurance for Singapore, we could then proceed to the next stage. (Interestingly, we will need to obtain another ICP if we choose to return via Malaysia and Singapore at the other end of the trip. But we need the ICP in order to have the car on the Singaporean roads. One of us will need to stay with the truck in Johor Baru, Malaysia, while the other takes a cab or bus into Singapore, where the Permit can be procured. Then, they return to the truck in Malaysia, affix the permit, and then it can then be driven into Singapore. Yes, Minister.)

DB: The Perkins Shipping office was near the port and had a view of it from its fifteenth floor – a coastline of containers, sheds, cranes and forklifts that seemed to go on forever. This is what Sandy and I would need to negotiate the next day. We would steel ourselves that afternoon with a hearty meal in Little India, knowing that negotiating the release of our car, through the shipping agent, police check and customs, could take anywhere from a few minutes to an entire day – or more.

SK: The shipping company provided us with an official letter requesting the Singapore Port Authority allow us access to the port. Without official access, we wouldn’t be able to physically enter it, and therefore not collect the truck. We were also told that we needed to pay SG$2 to pay for our wharf passes – the hitch being that we were not permitted to pay in cash. Or credit card. We were suddenly faced with a rather confusing element of the process that could throw a spanner in the works, all for two bucks. We were finally advised to get a ‘Cashcard’. “A what? And where do we get one?” After some hunting, we found that they could be purchased from a 7-11. Of course! 

DB: Maddy and Raffy stayed with Debbie while Sandy and I set off for the port. Our taxi driver had trouble finding the right entrance, and we eventually settled for Gate 3, instead of the elusive Gate 4. Dodging semi-trailers and cars, we walked along the road towards one of the officials, who informed us that the gate we were after was down the road behind a used car lot we had seen earlier. The twenty-minute walk in the humid thirty-degree morning was to set the scene for the rest of the day.

We wandered into Gate 4, again dodging trucks belching diesel fumes and we wishing there were footpaths, and were finally directed to an office that would provide us with our security passes. Sandy and I had to fill out forms, provide our passports, and then sit on a rickety office chair on a concrete veranda while peering through a small window, while another official inside the office entered our details onto a computer and took our photos. By now we had a good sweat going, and the blast of frigid air emanating from the small window only teased us.

Our passes were finally presented and, after looking around somewhat dumbfounded, were directed towards a security gate where our passes could be swiped for entry. Naturally, the passes didn’t work. Another guard approached us and explained that the passes would not work so soon after they had been issued, and simply manually opened the gate for us. So, we spent twenty minutes in the heat providing all sorts of details only for a bloke to unlatch an unlocked gate.

We needed to find a Mr Liu at PT4. We weren’t really sure where or what PT4 was, but that’s where Mr Liu, and our truck, were. Few people seemed to know where it was, until someone directed us towards a canteen, and told us it was behind there. We found the canteen, again playing chicken with machines considerably larger than us, and went behind it, only to be confronted by walls of shipping containers, cranes the size of skyscrapers and forklifts buzzing around like flies around a barbeque. We weren’t at PT4, but the areas were numbered, and we guessed that ‘4′ was further down one isle. But it looked all wrong. We knew our truck had not been transported in a container, but was a ‘roll on, roll off’ job. We started to walk along the aisle, but soon realised that we were dicing with our lives.

We found a workshop where various bits of machinery were being repaired. As Sandy approached one of the mechanics wearing frayed and greasy overalls, he shoved a finger up his nose and wiped it on the workshop wall. He didn’t understand English or the note from the shipping company we had describing where we needed to go, and instead motioned us towards someone else. He didn’t know, and neither did the next person. This was getting us nowhere.

We retraced our steps back to the canteen. The enormous, grimy room was bathed in neon light, with pungent Chinese, Malay and Indian foods in bain-maries wafting through the air. It was populated entirely by men in grimy work clothes, with dirty yellow helmets either on tables or on heads. Some would briefly raise their heads to observe these two strange Westerners who had strayed into their domain, only to droop back again over a plate of food. Sandy honed in on a dock-worker who was reading an English language newspaper. He too had no idea, but suggested we try the office that was part of this particular complex. The office was teeming with dirty, sweaty workers who looked like they were pitching for shifts, and had the ambience to match, so we gave that a miss. We had noticed a few buses idling along the road in front of the canteen. The buses had numbers printed on sheets of paper in their front windows, which seemed to indicate which docks they would go to. These were for the workers, and we found a timetable stuck to the canteen’s outside wall. The bus going to dock 4 was to leave in fifteen minutes, at 11am. We purchased two bottles of water that we downed in seconds. We’d been going at this for an hour already with not much to show for it.

Walking towards the bus, another bus driver motioned towards us. His bus was almost full and ready to go to another dock, but he was willing to assist. Sandy climbed the steps and showed him the note we had telling us where we should go. Disappointingly, I watched through the windscreen as the driver read the note, and then pointed in the direction from which we had come, waving his hand as if to indicate ‘wa-a-ay over there’. He was right. We were in the shipping container area. These buses were no good to us. The area that dealt with other sorts of cargo was at the other end of the port. We stared down the barrel of another hike in the tropical sun.

We walked for half an hour, past acres of mainly new and some used cars imported from Japan. Each car had keys in the ignition. We briefly discussed the option of jumping in a new BMW 5 series for the journey – there were so many of them, they probably wouldn’t miss one – and then thought of the Singapore criminal justice system’s likely response. We plodded on alongside the water, past PT 1 and PT 2, then PT 3 – all massive sheds not unlike those in any port around the world – when the Arafura Endeavour came into view. This was the ship that our truck had called home for the last week or so, and, tethered to the dock, was already being loaded with large bags of rice after the previous cargo had been unloaded the night before, including, in theory, our truck.

We entered the vast shed that was mostly empty, past the labourers who were making exceedingly slow work of demolishing part of a wall to make way for a larger door, when a young, jovial man waved to us. It was Mr Liu, and he immediately pointed to our truck. It was there! The shed was rather dark, so it was difficult to see in great detail, but it was our truck, and we were ecstatic.

Mr Liu ducked into his office to retrieve the key to the truck and emerged with it, sans the alarm/central locking button. After a brief search I found it in the centre console of the truck. And that was basically it. Aside from the fact that we could have been anyone, he gave us a smile and hopped into another imported car to drive off. I opened the door of the truck and climbed in.

And stared at the gaping hole in the dashboard.

As Sandy was climbing into the passenger seat I jumped out again and whistled out to Mr Liu, who stopped his car and approached. Sandy had seen the problem and swore. “The stereo has been stolen,” I said to Mr Liu. He looked horrified, and came with me to the truck for a closer look. “Car stereo was there?” He looked as though he knew it was a ridiculous question, given there was a dirty big hole in the middle of the dashboard with a bunch of wires showing, but saved himself by telling us he needed to report the matter immediately and got out his mobile phone. “Firs’ time it happen to me-lah,” Mr Liu said in his staccato Singlish. I was tempted to rage against him, but knew that we needed some allies.

It was immediately obvious that the stereo wasn’t going to magically reappear. Nobody had carefully removed it and hidden it somewhere else in the truck, for whatever reason. On closer inspection it became apparent that the front facia of the dash had been removed, the stereo and all its brackets hastily extracted and all the wires sliced in one go. The USB and phono cables for the iPod sat limp, unattached and useless in the glove-box.

Our next moves were not to try and determine where the stereo was, or who stole it, but simply getting a police report so as to satisfy our carnet document and for an insurance claim, and make like a tree. The Carnet de Passage is effectively the passport for the truck. Many countries require a record of it coming in and out, less we should decide to sell it, or parts thereof, during our stay, and incur taxes and duties. The carnet not only describes the truck in detail, but also lists the other stuff in it, including camping equipment, spare parts, tools – and the car stereo. If we didn’t have anything officially documenting why the Kenwood CD/Tuner was no longer with us some customs official might cause us grief. Of course, a police report would be required for an insurance claim.

We were asked to wait in the shipping company office – yet another grimy place that stank of stale cigarette smoke and was furnished with decades-old crumbling office furniture and filthy walls.

Mr Liu handed over the dirty office phone to Sandy, who then spoke with the Perkins Shipping representative. She asked for the Port Authority to be notified so that we had a formal record of the theft, but found herself playing semantics with a man who insisted the stereo was “missing”, not “stolen”. He eventually relented and said that she could call it what she wanted. Mr Liu made himself scarce, delivering cars somewhere else, but soon to arrive in a hail of flashing blue and red light was a representative of the Port Police. A jovial and slightly paunchy man, he was immediately genuinely concerned with our predicament, while at the same time making it clear that it was highly unlikely anything went awry in Singapore. He responded as if this was a major catastrophe. “Jus’ take like that-lah”, he opined taken aback. “Why people jus’ take property not belong to them…” he trailed off, shaking his head. This man took his work seriously.

It became apparent that this officer really didn’t have much to do. He explained to us that the police responsible for the port had recently been privatised, which meant they had had their powers of investigation removed. “Jus’ report, tell regular police, like that-lah”. But he was determined to get involved nonetheless. He was quickly on his mobile phone: “Yes sir, stolen sir, come right away sir,” he offered obligingly. “Three bags full, sir,” one of the shipping company workers muttered under his breath with glee.

The Port Master came, as did the head honcho of the shipping company’s local office. A substantial posse boarded the ship more than once, and held conferences in the smoky office. All the while, we were staring at the clock. We still needed to get through customs and then navigate our way back to Debbie and Russel’s place in Toa Payoh – without using any of the Expressways because, without an Autopass, you can’t use them, and without physically being in possession of a car, you can’t get a pass.

It was around 1.30pm when our friend Officer Port Police provided us with a signed statement from the Master of the Vessel (ship’s captain) that he observed that the stereo was missing when he checked the truck after it had been reloaded onto the ship in Dili, Timor Leste.

‘Reloaded?’ ‘Dili?’ This was all news to us. First, we had no idea the ship was going via Dili, but that’s not much of an issue. What was concerning was the truck had been unloaded there, for who knows how long, and then reloaded. It was then, supposedly, that the stereo had gone walkies. And that the Master had noted it. But not told the shipping company, nor obviously us! Now, for all we knew the captain of the ship was just trying to cover his arse and the collective derriere of his crew, but ultimately we didn’t really care. We just wanted an official police report and to get the hell out of there. We knew there was no chance of retrieving it and that pin pointing the culprit was impossible. We hadn’t eaten for about six hours, we were hot, and we were fed up.

Armed with the statement, having said our farewells to our friendly Port Authority officer, and received an embarrassed goodbye from Mr Liu, we finally got in the truck, fired it up and headed off to try and find the police checkpoint then the customs office. (The air-conditioner was on full as I started the engine. What were they doing with it? We did check the odometer and were relieved when only a few hundred metres had been added to it, meaning that no serious joy-riding had been had.)

One of the reasons Maddy and Raffy didn’t come with us to the port, aside from the possibility of the whole process being long, hot and boring, was that all of our gear that usually lives on the roof-rack (camping gear, spare parts, etc) was packed into the back seat for the sea journey. Therefore, the truck was packed to the gills with stuff. Nothing controversial, but still, we had been warned that Singapore customs at the port were notorious for being sticklers for due process and difficult questions. We had been prepared to unpack and then repack every bag and storage container.

Not this time. In fact, the port police and the customs officials were much more concerned about our capacity to drive on Singapore roads than any potential contraband. A few truckies waiting in the customs queue asked us some questions about our trip, and we had to give the customs officers some significant direction about the carnet and where to stamp and sign it, but other than that, we were off!

We located a regular police station just down the road from the port and the very amenable police officer provided us with an official report, when I noticed boot marks on the truck, on the bonnet near the windscreen and on the roof. We hadn’t noticed these when the truck was in the shed on the dock because it was so dark. Now it seemed someone had used the truck as a stepladder. Even less happy, Jan.

Our GPS (Global Positioning Sandy) worked a treat, pointing us back to Debbie and Russel’s place in Toa Payoh without using any of the expressway toll roads. It was strange to drive in silence, since we were so used to listening to some favourite and new albums or padcasts on the iPod, or checking out the local (and often humorous) radio – Class 95FM, playing music exclusively from the 80s with Glenn Ong and the Flying Dutchman. Wacky AND zany!

Maddy and Raffy weren’t pleased about the stolen stereo, but we had a distinct collective feeling of being back as a travelling unit, ready to head off north into Malaysia. It was Thursday afternoon, and we had initially planned to leave for Malaysia on Friday, but between needing to replace the car stereo and not being able to find any accommodation in Melacca for the weekend, we decided to stay put for a couple of extra days.

It was Friday and we had to organise the last bits of paperwork for the truck and a new stereo. And, as is often the case when travelling, one bit of misfortune provides an opportunity to redeem itself that otherwise would not be presented. It was difficult to get any tips on where to get a new car stereo in Singapore as most of our contacts had not had the need. I blindly chose one that seemed to come up in various internet searches, and called them up. In stilting Singlish, they told me to bring the car down. Now.

SK: I got back to the apartment just after lunch, after having my own fun being sent on some wild goose chases in my search for the right bits of paper for the truck. I needed to get an Autopass from the Land Transit Authority that would enable us to travel on toll roads (such as the freeway heading out of Singapore) and also get us through the final toll at the border. I had all the bits of paper required except, of course, the ICP which was already affixed to the car, and the car was safely parked in Toa Payoh (to ensure that we didn’t accidentally drive on toll roads). After some firm discussions with the clerk, his manager, and the branch head, I obtained the Pass and returned triumphant. We then headed back out onto the Singapore roads. We found Pin Liang Enterprises on, perhaps serendipitously, Zion Road and immediately found people who were at the same time disappointed for us and extremely helpful. We chose a new stereo that, as fate would have it, was better than the old one, and a crew of workers immediately got stuck in.

DB: Most businesses in Singapore, like much of the world, are small premises located under apartment buildings. For a business such as Pin Liang Enterprises (everyone has enterprises, not just a shop), that meant that all work on cars happens in the car-park out the front of the shop. The job was to take about two hours, so instead of returning to the apartment by train, Sandy and I hung out there and looked for a feed. A hawker stall provided us with a sumptuous laksa and cold Tiger beer, after which we returned to the truck to find it had drawn a bit of a crowd. Before long, Sandy and I were entertaining a number of people who wanted to know about us, our trip, the truck, our children and our lives in Australia. Some, like ‘Paul’, were able to speak to us at length in English and at the same time translate for others. We exchanged business cards and wished each other luck. We gave the helpful people at Pin Liang a couple of souvenir koalas, and, in turn, they gave us armfuls of car stereo brand merchandise! Most of which was not all that useful to us, but we were touched. Picking up our truck yesterday, with its missing stereo, immediately made us slightly suspicious of strangers. Meeting strangers around Zion Road reaffirmed our confidence in humanity.

We spent Saturday repacking and checking the truck (and discovering a few other stolen items that were either unimportant or worthless to the thief), and shouting our hosts a sumptuous Indian banquet on Dempsey Road, and on Sunday we headed off for Malaysia, accompanied by our Singapore host Debbie – our first travel partner!

SK: We bid farewell to the rest of Debbie’s family, who had opened their home to us for three weeks (we originally only meant to stay five days). It was hard for Maddy and Ruby to say goodbye, and Raffy was sad to be leaving his “older brother” Ezra and new Uncle Russ. 



  David Taylor wrote @

My God!!! What a total balls-up. I don’t know where you got the patience from. I would have exploded after about 1 hr. (especially in the sticking heat). I think I would have come straight home. Thank goodness, you have youth on your side.
Apart from that, loved reading all of that blog. Hope the smaller guys are still having fun, and that you’re all well and happy, and keeping safe.
Glad we’ll be getting some captioned photos soon.
Nothing to report here in Argyle St. Oh, my boarder went last weekend. Enjoying some peace.
Hope the next blog is more about travel, than hassles.
Take care, Luv, David.
PS bloody cold, but no rain. Damn!!!!!

  Hilary wrote @

riveting stuff! the process is of course integral to the whole experience – is that a comfort – and makes the best reading, in large part, i suspect, to do with relief at being spared such trials. you know – reporting the tale means you survived to tell it.
> ..°.

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