Monday, June 30, 2014

Five words to describe Singapore

Location: Singapore

My wife and I were on the MRT, chatting away to kill time while the train transport us to our destination. I was looking for a way to describe Singapore, the island nation where I had spent the last two years toiling away.

And so she asked, "What are the five words you would use to describe Singapore?"

Challenge accepted.

Image taken from Straits Times.

#1: Compact

Try to get your way from one end of Kuala Lumpur to the other end, and you would ask: where does the city starts and ends? The federal state actually is enclosed within Selangor, and its boundaries, while distinct on a map, is not so when you driving on the road. 

Singapore, like Penang isle, has no question on its land boundaries - it ends with water all around. Driving from one end of the nation to the other end on a traffic free day could be done in less than an hour. Its scale is dwarfed by its neighbours, and on the map, it is just a little red dot, hence its nickname for itself.

But my choice of word was not 'small' but 'compact' for another reason. Its size as a nation meant that space is a premium and land is a luxury. Unlike Penang, where it could expand to the mainland since its territory included the latter, the Little Red Dot covers only the island and then some (smaller islands). Everything could only go up or down, making high rises a norm here more than it is in even other capital cities in South East Asia.

A useful online tool compares the size of Singapore against any nation and even states of the world. Here it can be seen that the nation is larger than Penang isle, but still smaller if the state's full territory, which included the mainland, is included. Check out this fun and useful tool in OverlayMaps!

Much is packed into a three dimensional space as possible, thus creating a simmering feeling amongst the populace. Reading the local news would reveal a kettle already whistling loudly from its content going past boiling point. From its compactness comes another description though.

#2: Convenient

How do you get around in Singapore? By public transportation of course. The Little Red Dot has been described as convenient almost unanimously by all travel guidebooks, citing its excellent public transportation services as a reason why renting a car is not necessary at all to get around the island.

A First Day Cover commemorating the first operation of Singapore's MRT in 1988 (read more in my blog: Travel through Philately - Singapore Mass Rapid Transit System).

Important and well visited locations are covered by its Mass Rapid Transit system, which currently serviced the populace through four major routes, with a fifth partially in operation and another few in the construction pipeline. Distance between certain stations could be a stone's throw away, often within walking distance. This is most obvious in the city centre where most MRT lines congregated.

But MRT could not cover the whole island without major construction work. With high rises mushrooming in more far flung regions of the island as the lack of land and real estate prices forced developers to look for space in less accessible spots, bus services come into play to connect them to the rest of the island.

The good thing about the public transportation service in Singapore is that they work late into the night, with some bus routes running past 11 p.m. If you leave a party late, then taxis would be your other choice of transport. These private transport service is, funnily enough, less available when you need it.

The ubiquitous HDB estates, high rises housing approximately 80% of Singapore's population (image taken from PropertyGuru).

The importance of HDB estates in transforming the lives of Singapore's populace is immortalized in its latest 10 cent coin (read more from my blog: The New Singapore Coins).

Convenience in Singapore is not limited to its transportation services. Since landed property is a luxury not afforded by most, the general populace stays in a high rise, whether it be a private condominium or one of the ubiquitous Housing Development Board estates (HDB). Apart from a few estates lacking development (which includes certain condominium areas as well), shops are generally available within walking distance. Some HDB estates have an abundant of shops located on the ground floor, which in turn of course disturbed the lower level residents' life.

There is, however, a surprising number of inconveniences as well. Most clinics are not open on Sundays, with only a limited number of polyclinics serving the needs of the ailing in dire need of a doctor. So I have to know where is the nearest 24 hour clinic available or I will be on my own if I got ill on the clinic's off day.

With such convenience, it attracted people of different nations to this small piece of land, thus lending its next description.

#3: International

Take a trip on the MRT during the weekend and be mesmerized by the cacophony of conversations. Listen carefully and if you are a multi-linguist with a little knowledge of a few words in major languages in the world, you would detect on top of the locals speaking English/Singlish, Mandarin and a little Malay in between, you would have detected Indian (its various languages), Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, French, German, and various dialects thrown into the mix.

This is how international Singapore is compared to the various nations in South East Asia. Being the gateway to the east and a major transit hub for the region, it provided the foothold for tourists without the fear of language barrier.

Changi Airport has been nominated as one of the best airports in the world, not only due to its appeal but also to its efficiency and service (read more in Travel through Philately - Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 3).

Interestingly more Westerners congregated in Singapore as expats due to its business friendly nature and as job seekers who wanted to expand their experience in working with Asians instead of being here as tourists. On the other hand, most South East Asians who are in Singapore are not limited to manual labours as there is a significant amount of them working as knowledge workers.

The influx of foreigners did not occur significantly until recent years, creating friction between the newcomers and locals in an already crowded land. While the Westerners were revered and respected in the past and ugly habits were ignored out of that reverence, they no longer hold such a status among the local populace, landing them in the receiving end of criticism as much as the Asian incomers. The locals are tired with the influx of competitors, and the foreigners' insensitivity and ignorance of local cultures and hardships is not helping the situation either.

One thing any international traveller stepping foot in Singapore would agree though, is its cleanliness.

#4: Clean

There is very little doubt that this is one of the cleanest nation on Earth. Singapore's obsession with cleanliness is no more famous, or infamous, than its chewing gum ban. My travel to European countries opened my eyes as to how a country's economic and technological status has nothing to do with its cleanliness. I was appalled by the stench in Germany's subways and train stations, the stinging odour of ammonia assaulting my very senses.

I would still find some rubbish bins heaped tall with refuse and litters still dot the landscape, but most of them were quickly disposed of and the general sight is still free of such items. I was told by a local friend that Singapore River, now flowing past the vibrant Clarke Quay and into the luxurious Marina Bay, was once dirty. Locals who lived near the river just throw all their refuse into it and all kind of stench emanated from the body of water.

Singapore River before the 1970s was an ungainly sight (image taken from Urban Redevelopment Authority).

Its clean state would bring me to my next and final description for this nation.

#5: Safe

This is another description which share the same status as its cleanliness, again almost unanimously cited in most guide books. If you are thinking that violent crime does not occur, then you are too optimistic. They are however quite rare, so much so that each one of them are headline grabbers. Compared to the number of kidnappings, robberies, break-ins and gang wars in Malaysia, not to mention even violent ones in other South East Asian countries, the statistics in Singapore shows that unless you are really unlucky or you are involved in something shady, you will be safe.

Take a look at how the locals hold their handbags and place their wallets and phones on the food court tables and you will understand how safe it is. Singapore's size and isolation by sea meant that criminals have only one place to escape to - across the causeway to Johor. Almost all of them are captured as soon as they are discovered, and the nation's law is uncompromising and swift. You would have little chance of scoring a hit and escaping undetected.

And there goes the five words I have chosen to describe the Little Red Dot on the map. Depending on your interpretation, you may see the description's positive or negative side. To me, they are just neutral words illustrating the nation to foreigners preparing to visit the land so that they have a grasp of what to expect upon landing.

Do you agree with these descriptions? Or do you have your own choice of words?

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