The last rays of the setting sun spread a golden sheen over the Seletar reservoir. Across the water, we saw giraffes amble from tree to tree, munching leaves.
We were on the other side, eating greasy fishcakes and slurpy mee goreng, the fried Malay noodles, listening to animals—there, that’s the cry of hyenas, this is the whine of a jackal, and the trumpeting sound is of an elephant. Most of us were silent—there was no rule requiring us to be so, but this was Singapore, and you didn’t want to do something spontaneously. The birds, animals and insects were free here; the ceaseless drone of crickets mocked the contrived silence.
Alternate reality: In Singapore, the play-acting doesn’t spare even a rhino. Salil Tripathi
William Gibson called Singapore “Disneyland with Death Penalty”, reminding his readers that the faux-cheer of Singapore has a sinister undercurrent. When Stan Sesser wrote in The New Yorker about Singapore, he called it the prisoner in a theme park. An accurate metaphor, but also chillingly real: Chia Thye Pow, an opposition politician, remained in a Singapore jail for over two decades. Perversely, or intentionally, his cell was near one of the stations of the monorail on the island of Sentosa, Singapore’s pleasure ground. The tourists looking for dolphins and Mississippi riverboats and fake volcanoes would neither know, nor believe, that their playground was also a prison.
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Safaris are meant to be wild: I have been to Sabi Sabi in South Africa where, over 24 hours, we saw the big five—the elephant, lion, rhinoceros, hippo and buffalo. But the forest rangers had made no promises. Then, in Kenya one afternoon, I saw flamingos take off from a lake like ballerinas on cue, with the breathtaking synchronicity that only a National Geographic photographer can capture. It was unplanned, unexpected, and hence more memorable.
Singapore’s night safari is different. A wild national park was never on the cards here—the amount of space needed simply did not exist—and while there was a solid enough professionally run zoo in broad daylight, you could see it was a park, not a forest. A night safari, then, conjured the illusion of appearing to be a jungle, but one where everything ran according to plan. So very Singaporean, lah.
The night safari guaranteed what you saw, and ensured that you did, as with the manufacturer who is promised a trouble-free what-you-see-is-what-you-get experience when he signs his lease at the Jurong Industrial Estate. The world was on offer, like at the shopping malls on Orchard Road, like at the food alleys of Singapore—not just the hawker stalls, but also at the restaurants at Clarke Quay and Boat Quay, with cuisines of the world. The night safari had the African giraffe, the Indian barasingha, the North American deer, the grazing mountain goats and bharal (blue-coloured sheep) from the Himalayan foothills, the South-East Asian seladang (wild ox), and the banteng, or the Bali cattle, a species of wild South-East Asian cows whose large white spots on brown rumps prompted our guide to remark, “They look like they’re wearing diapers.” This being Singapore, that would be in character, where even cattle must wear diapers.
Concealed lights illuminated the animals and their habitats, casting a gentle bluish glow almost convincing enough to make you believe you were strolling through the jungle on a moonlit night. The night safari does concede to nature when it suits the purpose: Nocturnal animals have different habits, and the only time to see many in action is at night. Like teenagers, they need lots of hours to sleep during the day, but come alive at sundown. When the lights dim, they begin to hunt for prey, to graze, mate, and check each other out. With a freedom the city lacks.
But it is a make-believe world. The safari recreates the reality—like Second Life—of a jungle, but without the danger, making it a wholesome experience, without surprises. In a city-state where the jungle is made of glass and concrete, where the national bird is the crane, and where wildlife means everything that’s banned, the safari adds a new dimension to its urban vocabulary. It transports the island back to its tropical roots. But the experience needs parental guidance.
At Sabi Sabi at night, our jeep had to pause when a herd of buffaloes thundered past. We were told to stay quiet when we passed elephants. We were told not to get near the hippo—there was no safe buffer zone. And we had to drive slowly when we saw a lion, quietly overlooking the landscape, blood trickling from its mouth.
Singapore is a make-believe city; in the end, where a king, Sang Nila Utama, mistakes a large wildcat for a lion, giving the city its name; the bartender at Raffles Hotel tells tall tales about a tiger under the billiards table; and an advertising agency gives the city its mascot—the half-lion, half-mermaid, Merlion. Even folk tales are made up here, and real lions are prisoners in a park.
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