<img width=”300″ height=”300″ border=0 alt=”” align=”left” hspace=”10″ vspace=”10″ src=/directory/getdata.asp?about_id=7cab81b689045135101d63ecf73084cb-1>This question reverberated in my mind as I walked the spotless, manicured streets of Singapore. With neatness bordering on sterility, lushly tropical, and super modern, this city-nation is at once self-contained and quintessentially global. Passing through customs, claiming my luggage and hailing a taxi was effortless. Half expecting a process of negotiation and miscommunication with the cab driver, I was relieved, albeit a little disappointed, to find that it was—as my friends had assured me—as easy as giving him the address for their apartment.
Admittedly, I was a little disappointed to be deprived of a sense of adventure about the whole thing. This, I would discover over the next several days, would be a recurrent theme: that while clearly I was in exotic and sultry Singapore, I could just as well be in the glossy landscape of any first-world city, complete with towering buildings and a profusion of Starbucks cafes. A not-so-exciting discovery for those trying to escape mundanity, and for whom shopping arcades offer little diversion.
The cab driver was Southeast Asian and his radio blasted some nondescript pop music. We drove down a long highway that linked the airport to other parts of the island. Running along Singapore’s coastline and lined with flowering trees, the wide picturesque road bore little resemblance to the flashing images of concrete and neon lights I have come to associate with many an American highway. After a while I noticed an extremely irritating pinging in the cab. The driver looked at me apologetically and mentioned that this was the government’s way of ensuring that cab drivers did not speed: as soon as the car went above the speed limit, a clever device designed to irritate driver and passenger would go off.
As I moved around in Singapore, I felt a sense of confidence borne of familiarity. Singapore reminded of a considerably cleaner and less populated version of Bombay and Delhi combined. The shady tree-lined avenues and sprawling bungalows reminded me of the residential areas of Delhi; the sultry weather, tall apartment buildings, and the swaying palm trees silhouetted against the ocean were reminiscent of Bombay. Or perhaps it is my proclivity to compare my experiences to something Indian to be able to fully appreciate them. Like India, Singapore’s weather can be quite intolerable: incessant heat and humidity, the air thick and pregnant with the promise of rain. And yet, men and women trotted about in their chic business suits. As one who straddles two continents and is a veteran of the Indian summer and the humid American south, I was surprised at being so enervated by Singapore’s heat. Perhaps it is because Singapore is so efficient and motionless, running like a silent and powerful well-oiled machine, that its stillness accentuates the oppressive heat. No power cuts, no dust, no dirt, no shortage of water—all the tribulations of the tropics that distract the mind and body from feeling the pure heat.
With an almost seamless blend of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians, and Westerners, Singapore is the ultimate cosmopolitan cliché—a place where cultures collide, old meets the new, and where contradictions coexist harmoniously. After scanning the tourist guides for descriptions of the ethnic neighborhoods, I settled on Chinatown as my first destination. To my disappointment, with the exception of a token strip with its melange of fortune-tellers, medicine men, calligraphers, and temple mediums, the Chinatown of Singapore was no more “authentic” than some of the more established Chinatowns in U.S. The elaborate old Chinese temples, though gratifying the modern tourist’s quest for comforting antiquity, seemed like obligatory symbols of a bygone era in what had otherwise been transformed into a hip district of thriving cafes, bars, and restaurants. After learning that the oldest temple was closed for renovation, I wandered into a café across the street. Decorated with a Scandinavian minimalist aesthetic, the spare white interior of the café looked out on the intricately carved doorway of the temple. With steel countertops, white furniture, and framed posters of monochromatic red hearts, the café was appropriately named, White Passion. Sipping on my Café Americano, I observed business executives eating curry and rice, alongside hip teenagers consuming cheese crostini and espresso.
By now I was getting accustomed to the truism that in the case of Singapore the characterizations of “multicultural,” “melting-pot,” and “diverse” were not an exercise in politically correct rhetoric. Rather the energy borne of the fusion of different communities is the very essence of Singapore. And therefore, it seemed appropriate that the oldest Indian temple in Singapore, the Sri Mariamann temple, was located in the heart of Chinatown. Indian workers first settled the area in the 19th century after the British brought them to the island as indentured labor. I had seen photographs of the renowned temple in many travel books but no photograph could quite capture the lurid colors and lifelike countenance of the statues that decorate the entire temple. So vivid are the colors and so passionate the expressions that I could imagine the deities coming alive in a mythological tableau. The entrance to the shrine was a spectacular “rajagopuram”—a towering gate with intricately carved mythological figurines. The sanctum sanctorum of the temple housed the principal deity—Sri Mariamann.
The goddess’s origin can be traced to the Tamil-speaking region of South India where she is regarded as a village goddess. Sanctums dedicated to other deities flank the sanctum sanctorum. The building of the Sri Mariamann temple was the inspiration of an Indian trader who arrived with Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. The temple is popular for hosting an annual fire-walking ceremony, a spectacle that draws many. Scenes from the Indian epic Mahabharatha are enacted in the courtyard for several evenings in a row and culminate in “Thimithi” or fire-walking held in October or November. Fire-walking represents the proclamation of the purity of the mind and body of devotees as they complete the walk on the fire-pit witnessed by hundreds of devotees and visitors from the viewing gallery.
The pastiche that is Singapore is perhaps best reflected in its food. This has been repeated in every guidebook to Singapore, but I will mention it again: perhaps one of the best reasons for visiting Singapore is to sample the food. The variety of cuisines available on this tiny island is not only a reflection of Singapore’s complex and rich cultural heritage, but also of its position as a major international contender in business and finance. During the course of my stay, of the bewildering array of foods available, I tried Thai, Cajun, Chinese, Irish, and Peranakan cuisines. The food too reflects Singapore’s preoccupation with perfection: a perfect world and its cuisine at your feet with all its authenticity intact. The Irish pub had all the right touches—a profusion of fake green shamrocks, an Irish band, and Heineken beer on tap. The incongruities of this sophisticated island continued to bewilder me: a local noodle stall next to the Ritz Apple Strudel and Pastry Shop; a restaurant called Nashville, its doorway emblazoned with the motif of a cowboy hat. There was, however, one thing in common amongst the most sophisticated and the most humble of eating establishments—I invariably had to ask for a knife and a serving spoon. On my last day in Singapore, I finally sampled what can perhaps be considered authentic Singaporean food—Peranakan cuisine. The term “Peranakan” originated when Chinese merchants settled in Malacca in the 18th century and married Malay women—the resulting community was called Peranakan or quite literally, “half-caste.” And so, the food at Casa Bom Vento was a delicious and fiery blend of Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese cuisine, tempered by the mellow strains of a Harry Belafonte song.
While Singapore’s current standing as a financial and banking leader is captured in its high rises, its soul thrives in the ethnic neighborhoods and the graceful buildings that are a testament to its history of British colonization. Buildings, road, and shopping centers bear the ubiquitous name, Raffles, in recognition of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who is regarded as the creator of Singapore. Of the many colonial-style buildings in central Singapore, the Raffles Hotel is a spectacular landmark. In the dark the distinguished building glows an ethereal white, accentuated by the tall palm trees and the inky, thick night. Rumor has it that the entire hotel was renovated in the ‘80s at a staggering cost of $200 million. Every evening, the hotel’s central courtyard doubles as a dance floor with a live band for elegant couples swaying to the melodies of a bygone era. I couldn’t help noticing that most tourists at the hotel were Westerners or as expected, the extremely wealthy bon ton in their dressy evening attire and chauffeured cars. After a brief tour of the hotel premises, my friend and I proceeded to the hotel’s famous nightspot, the Long Bar, where the custom is to down a Singapore Sling—a rather distasteful cocktail that tastes like cherry-flavored cough syrup. I noticed, yet again, that the bar was filled mostly with Westerners and the occasional “local girl” accompanying her expatriate date. Upstairs on the second level of the bar, a band belted out an amazingly authentic version of a Dire Straits song. As we sipped our drinks and people-watched, my friend explained to me that Singaporean social life was subtly segregated by a person’s origin. There were the more Americanized restaurants and bars that were frequented by “ex-pats” and perhaps, their local date; and then there were the places that the locals frequented.
Fusing old and new forms with almost futuristic function, Singapore is an urban planning miracle. The combination of astute planning and governmental intervention makes the running of a nation seem effortless. Traffic flow is carefully regulated during peak hours. The East Coast Parkway, the beltway that encircles the island, is designed in a manner that portions of it can be used as a runway by military aircraft in the event of a war. Another astounding factoid: with a size of only 600 square kilometres, this small island is one of the world’s most densely populated countries and yet more than 30 percent of the country is green space. The zoo, with its famed night safari, is regarded as among the best in the world. For the bird enthusiast, Jurong Bird Park boasts at least 600 species of birds. And for those seeking fantasy amidst natural beauty, there is Sentosa, a fancy island resort offering every kind of family fun imaginable.
Singapore is widely regarded as one of the shopping capitals of the world and no visit to this mecca of consumerism is complete without taking in the “Orchard” phenomenon. In the words of one author “… a country lane with nutmeg and pepper orchards became Asia’s most famous shopping boulevard.” Serious shoppers from every corner of the globe flock to shop at Orchard Street’s designer stores. I know of entire Indian families that plan trips to Singapore with the express purpose of shopping. Shop after shop offers the shiniest, the newest, and the most expensive. Indeed, everything is just so.
While strolling through mall after fancy mall, I was surprised to find elaborately adorned Christmas trees. And then I remembered that it was December and therefore the Christmas season. Christmas trees bedecked with white and silvery decorations graced the entrance to shopping centers—the newspapers mentioned that the 2000 Christmas had been declared a “white” Christmas. Outside it was a very sultry 85 degrees. During the course of conversations with friends, I learned that for most Singaporeans, Christmas symbolized not so much a religious holiday, as it did the advent of a much awaited season of shopping specials and extensive gift giving.
There is something very new and glossy about Singapore: like a pretty gift-wrapped present with the bow done just right. As I searched for Singapore’s unique identity, I was left with an overwhelming sense of being in a perfect and self-contained world—an Asian utopia perhaps. Nonetheless, the veneer of westernization and consumerism is just that. A façade and a reflection of the dilemma faced by many rapidly growing Asians nations: how to hold on to their soul and culture, while continuing the march forward to a global prosperity that by its very definition is devoid of identity.
During the course of many conversations with my Indian friends who have made Singapore their home, I asked them not what brought them to the country, but rather what kept them there. Amongst many reasons, one became clear: for those from developing countries in Asia, Singapore offered the most appealing alternative to being in a developed country in the West. It provided an unbeatable combination of all the creature comforts of the developed world, a strong community-oriented culture desirable to the different Asian communities who have made Singapore their home, and last and perhaps most importantly—Singapore is only a five hour flight away from “home.”