Singapore: The half-tourist
There is an old joke about a man who goes on a short visit to a place that has the look and feel of paradise. He enjoys his brief stay there very much, and then it is time for him to leave. Once he returns home, he gets drawn to those memories and wants to go back and live there permanently. His friends caution him, but he insists and moves there.
Once he goes there to live, however, he finds a very different reality. He finds out that he has to work hard, there is no respite and those heavenly gardens he saw are off-limits because he cannot afford to enter. When he asks local residents what could have gone wrong, he is told: “That is the difference between tourism and immigration.”
Most places are like that—they look terrific on a short visit, but if you end up staying there longer, reality intrudes. While that reality may not be unpleasant, it is markedly different. And once you leave that place, nostalgia takes over; and you remember the past with its pleasures, not its pains.
Over the years, many cities have been home to me—Mumbai when it was Bombay, a small town called Hanover in New Hampshire, New York for a while, Geneva and Hong Kong for a few months each, and Singapore, which was my home for eight years before I came to London in 1999.
Singapore is unique among all these places—it was India without the mess, the US without the guns, London without the cold rain and Dubai without the dry heat. It was also different in that it had broken away from a larger entity—Malaya (now Malaysia)—and had only itself, and its charms, to offer. You could get away from New York’s hustle, from Geneva’s strait-laced dourness and from London’s polyglot culture easily and still be in the same country. But the moment the aircraft took off from Changi airport, it would enter another country’s airspace. It is a place acutely aware of its smallness, denseness, of being surrounded by neighbours with whom it does not share every characteristic. Regional experts called it a Chinese island in a Malay sea, but its national anthem was written in Malay, and its cabinet was well-represented by minorities. Singapore had determined that to really succeed, it had to push into a different orbit and punch above its weight. And to do so, it had to prosper.
I hadn’t been to Singapore as a tourist before I moved there in January 1991. I had heard songs from Shakti Samanta’s 1960 film Singapore and I knew of its Bugis Street and shopping centres from older friends at school who were wealthy enough to afford holidays abroad. As the days before my departure neared, friends started advising me—don’t cross the road unless the signal says you can do so; don’t litter; eat at the hawker stalls at Newton; look at the stores on Orchard Road, but go and buy what you want from Mohammed Mustafa and Samsudin’s store in Little India; eat idlis at Komala Vilas.
I had lived abroad before that—the US for nearly three years, Switzerland for three months—so when I reached Singapore, I didn’t feel like I was a starry eyed, gawky innocent abroad, stunned by the opulence (for there was opulence) and order (for there was that too, even though it was imposed by fines and not out of an inherent civic sense). I was there as a journalist, writing about the region for publications abroad, mindful of strict laws that had one positive effect—of ensuring that you fact-checked, sometimes twice and thrice, whatever you wrote about the place or about those with power in that place. Singaporeans were careful about what they told me; it was not easy to get an opinion out of most people I met, including expatriates who lived in the charmed cocoon of districts 9, 10 and 11. Even though I was not an expatriate banker—many among them lived in that posh part—I met those bankers often. They lived life in a gilded cage, of nannies, swimming pools, international schools for children, club memberships and automobiles. Car ownership was not for everyone in Singapore, and a frequent topic of conversation among expatriates at parties was the price of “certificates of entitlement”, as the pieces of paper that allowed you to buy a car at monthly auctions were called. That and the prices of condominiums and golf club memberships.
After moving in, we did what tourists would do—we went to the Sentosa island in a cable car and marvelled at its underwater world, although nobody would tell us (and I discovered only a few months later) that near one of its monorail stations was a building in which Singapore had detained a political prisoner for decades (former parliamentarian Chia Thye Poh had been held without trial for nearly 23 years and was later kept under house arrest for another nine). We went to the bird park in Jurong, and my sons had the thrill of watching hawks swoop and rest on the trainer’s arm. We explored Haw Par Villa, the garish amusement park where we learnt about Chinese myths. We saw the transformation of Boat Quay from a row of rundown shophouses into a lively waterfront walkway with bars and restaurants, under the shadow of three tall buildings, each the headquarters of a big local bank. The Raffles Hotel was refurbished in our time, and we saw the transformation of Bugis Street, where spontaneous spurts of water from the ground would amuse and startle children. There was Chinatown, with its pale houses, the Malay Village, in Geylang Serai and, indeed, Little India, on Serangoon Road. We loved the zoo, and more so the night safari, which was a truly mesmerizing experience, and took visiting friends to these sites. For them, these were memorable experiences—they were visiting a Disneyland-like place in Asia—but living in Disneyland is a different experience. In an article in one of the earliest issues of the magazine Wired, William Gibson had called Singapore “Disneyland With The Death Penalty”, pointing out Singapore’s relentlessly cheerful façade and contrasting it with its imposed order. If you lived there, and wanted to continue to live there for long, you did so by complying. Its history was full of too many stories of people raising their heads to challenge the system and being smacked down.
There was logic to the Faustian bargain many expatriates made there—they had the choice of leaving, but there were excellent reasons not to. Singapore was clean, safe and came down hard on crime. Possessing or consuming drugs were extremely serious offences (and remain so), with punishment that can include the death penalty. This made many expatriates feel they were safe and secure in Singapore. Towards the end of my time there, I found I was spending more time away from Singapore—the economies of Indonesia and Thailand were in meltdown, Malaysia was embroiled in a bitter political struggle and Vietnam had emerged as an investment destination. Never at ease, Singapore kept reinventing itself, building highways, museums, an opera house, refurbishing property, adding an extra terminal at the airport and always thinking of tomorrow.
We left Singapore in 1999; I did not return till 2011. And how it had transformed! There was an entirely new downtown, and the joke a Singaporean diplomat had once made—that Singapore was the world’s most expansionist nation, because it kept reclaiming land—rang true. What used to be the city’s boundary by the water was no longer so; Singapore had reached out. It had casinos, which were outlawed in an earlier era. Curiously, Singaporeans started talking more candidly with me about their politics. Was it because of the fading influence of Lee Kuan Yew, the modern city-state’s founding father who had been its prime minister for three decades and who was now ailing (he died last year)? Or was it because Singaporeans knew that I was now a visitor, not a resident; I would leave, I had no real stake, and whatever they told me would leave with me (and, in some cases, remain with me in confidence)? I’m not sure. When I lived there, some Singaporeans would not laugh at political jokes made in their presence. Email was relatively new then, and many Singaporeans were afraid of forwarding jokes or comments they thought would get them into trouble.
When I went in 2011—and on a few visits since—I discovered a more relaxed nation. I saw robust discussion of politics on the Internet. I saw a fictional film darkly allegorical about the country’s politics. Two films challenged the politically orthodox view of what had happened in the early 1960s and mid-1980s, when groups of political dissidents were arrested under internal security laws. The government imposed unreasonable restrictions on those films, but at least they could be seen and the film-makers were free. I saw books written by former political detainees being sold in local bookshops. I saw a group of feisty individuals campaigning to preserve a cemetery, trying to slow down the unrelenting march of modernity. Singapore seemed to be turning into a normal country.
But the past remains a foreign country; it disappears before your eyes. When I went with my sons to Nutmeg Road, towards Jalan Jintan, where a complex of four apartment buildings stood where we had lived for nearly four years, little seemed to have changed. The iron swing for children was still in the centre of the lawn, the car park had not been turned into a swimming pool and the apartments themselves had got a fresh coat of paint, but otherwise looked as they used to. Close to the busy Orchard Road, this island of quietude remained so, a calm oasis. Looking at children playing on that swing, standing with my sons—now in their 20s—my mind went back more than a decade, when I would walk home and see them on that swing, still in their school uniforms, with not a worry in the world.
But Singapore’s urge to level the past and reinvent itself continued. The building that used to be our last apartment before we moved, had disappeared. The tower in which we lived was modern, with a fine swimming pool, and was off Orchard Boulevard, with a commanding view of the city. There was nothing wrong with it. But given the peculiarities of real estate economics, it made sense for a new property developer to tear down that tower, build a fresh skyscraper and sell the new apartments at even higher prices. The only Asian values are property values, The Economist had smirked once.
Down the road from that apartment was a patch of greenery before you reached the Orchard mass rapid transit station. It faced Lucky Plaza, the shopping mall that became mini-Manila each Sunday, when Filipino domestic workers came there to meet friends and relax. On that patch of greenery between Orchard Boulevard and Orchard MRT station was the Overseas Family School, where my sons studied and, for some time, my wife taught. When we were in Singapore last year, my elder son told me we had to visit the school that very week. “They are tearing it down,” he said. The school was to move to another location, Pasir Ris Heights, near Singapore’s north-east coast—no doubt, to bigger surroundings with better facilities. But a part of our past, my children’s past, would get erased forever.
We went there one morning and met the registrar, who remembered us. She took us around the school, and little had changed. When we saw the assembly, and heard the singing children in their uniform of shirts in primary colours and grey shorts, my eyes glistened with tears. My sons walked around their old playground, entered the classes, greeted a few teachers. We saw art on the walls and schoolbags and shoes stacked neatly near the primary school. We stood by the gate where I used to pick up my sons from school when they were very young. A new generation of parents waited there for their sons and daughters to emerge.
It was the last full day for the school on that campus. The school buses started filling up and left for homes, one last time. Come September, it will be a new term, on a new campus. The school will have gone; as had the tower in which we had lived; as had our past. All that we had now to hold on to were our memories.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint. His latest book, Detours: Songs Of The Open Road, is based on his eponymous column on travel in Lounge