Review of Singapore

I was only granted 30 days by the Kingdom of Thailand before they would kick me out, so I went to Singapore from Bangkok.

I had very nice family friends who let me stay at their beautiful home in Newton, which is a gorgeous neighborhood. I’m forever grateful for their generosity since staying in Singapore is not cheap, especially if you don’t want to stay in a hostel in a mixed-dorm with ten other people.

That was probably the rudest shock coming from Thailand into Singapore: in Thailand, I felt like a God, where everything was so cheap; in Singapore, I felt like a peasant, even with everything at a 30% discount due to the favorable exchange rate with the US dollar. Singapore is definitely not a good place for backpackers or budget travelers.

But, for the premium you pay, you get a top notch urban experience. Compared to Southeast Asia and many other parts of the world, Singapore is very clean, safe, and photogenic. Everywhere you go, it feels like you’re in an urban disneyland, it’s impossible to turn away from tourist attractions. From the Marina Bay to Orchard Road to Sentosa Island, Singapore is the ultimate haven for tourists. For people who want to experience Asia, but are too afraid of Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, or the other Southeast Asian countries, you’re in luck, Singapore is for you!

I’ve always had a fascination with Singapore when I found out that it was essentially a city that was also a nation. The fact that it was a former British colony also piqued my historical curiosity. As a consequence of its colonial past, English is widely spoken on the island, which is the lingua franca that unites the three main ethnic groups: Chinese, Malays, and Indians. I was always fascinated by the idea of three distinct ethnic groups that have nothing in common living together under Western rule. Hats off to the British for such impeccable management skills.

Transport

Getting around Singapore is a pleasure. The MRT (metro) is clean, fast, efficient, reliable, and has air-conditioned trains, platforms, and stations, pretty much the opposite of New York’s MTA. The only downsides are that fares are distance-based (which I feel like it penalizes those living far from the city centre), and it doesn’t run 24/7, shutting down around midnight. But I would gladly trade our miserable MTA for Singapore’s MRT. The only way to experience it is to try it out for yourself, then you’ll fully realize just how piss poor New York’s metro service is, and how we can still continue to tout ourselves as a world-class city with a straight face. For getting around Singapore after midnight, there are late night buses, but I wouldn’t recommend them since they are not as intuitive as the MRT, and quite expensive when you can easily grab a taxi that’s not much more expensive.

Society and history

One of the strangest things I’ve observed is that despite living together for over 150 years on the same island, the three different ethnic groups are quite distinct, and have not mixed much. As a New Yorker, I’ve come to accept and embrace our melting pot society (even though it’s usually within the same race most of the time), so for me, it’s almost a given when I expect different members of a city to mesh together. I did not really see this in Singapore. There is a group called the Parenekens, who are a hybrid of Malay and Chinese, so there is some degree of mixing, but I was not really able to gauge how much.

Chinese is the main ethnic group at about 75% of the populace, Malay is around 13%, and Indians rounding it out at 9%. They all have their distinctive neighborhoods such as Little India and Chinatown, and maybe Bugis for the Malay, but I wasn’t sure.

If you thought it was redundant to hear about a Chinatown in Singapore, you’re not alone as I thought the same. Apparently, the British master of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, divided the city into parts based on racial lines. Therefore, it makes sense that there is a Chinatown because that is where all the Chinese had to live. Speaking about the Chinese, they all come from different parts of Southern China and speak separate dialects.

Another interesting tidbit about race in Singapore is how people are classified on their identification cards. A Singaporean Chinese lady showed me her ID card, where it had her race listed, which said CHINESE. This was interesting, because in the US, she would have been labeled Asian, which is ridiculous to anyone who actually understands how anthropology works. But it just shows you how race is culturally determined depending on the country’s history, sociological development, and cultural understanding. I wouldn’t be surprised to see MALAY and INDIAN as the other races, which also would be classified under Asian under the incorrect US system. Actually, maybe Indians in the US would self-report themselves as White or Caucasian instead of Asian, but then this clearly demonstrates just how messed up the US racial classification criteria is. I’m not saying Singapore does it better, but this definitely supports my belief that race is socially constructed in many countries, instead of relying on a scientific basis such as skull shape, DNA alleles, or whatever racial scientists prefer to use.

Language

Due to the multicultural background of Singapore, a distinct dialect of English has formed called Singlish, which is basically English corrupted by ethnic languages such as the Chinese dialects, Tamil, and Malay. Learning Singlish and practicing it with my Singaporean friend was really entertaining due to all the inappropriate and pejorative terms embedded in the dialect. Interestingly, my Singaporean Chinese friend demonstrated difficulty in comprehending Singlish terms derived from Malay and Tamil at times, which made me doubt its efficacy as a universal language for the whole of Singapore. To me, it seemed like there might be dialects within Singlish for the three respective communities, confusing.

Food

Food is a big part of life in Singapore. For me, food has always meant a source of sustenance, but for Singaporeans, it’s a way of life; it’s not just fuel for the body, but as entertainment, source of happiness, and even spirituality.

I won’t go too much into the food of Singapore, but it is essentially derived from Chinese, Indian, and Malay food. They have food courts set up called Hawker Centers, which is essentially centralized street food. Thanks to this ingenious concept, you will not see street food vendors like you see in Thailand, and thus breathe a little more easily.

The most expensive Hawker center is in Newton, which is also apparently the most famous. Local friends tell me that they rip off tourists big time, and should be avoided. The other Hawker centers are much cheaper and offer the same experience.

These centers are probably the cheapest source of food in Singapore. You can get decent meals starting at three Singaporean dollars, but the experience is very bare bones: the tables may not be clean, no AC, and you have to pay thirty cents to get napkins, so come prepared.

But if you’re on a budget, and somehow manage to travel in Singapore, you’ll be eating at these places a lot.

Depending on the center and its location, you can get more selections of either Indian or Chinese food. We couldn’t really find a center that catered mostly Malay food, although I had a Laksha with chicken cutlet, which was pretty good and filling.

Sentosa Island

There is an island off the coast of the Harbourfront station, which has tons of tourist attractions. You can normally take a cable car there, but it was out of service when I was there, so I had to take the Sentosa Express which is a monorail, not as cool though. As a plus, it works with your MRT card, which you pay once as a round trip fare.

Once you’re there, you can check out the Merlion statue in Imbiah station, go to the beaches, climb Fort Siloso, iFly, go on the luge, among many other activities.

iFly off the bat is a worthless activity. It’s around 150 dollars, for which you get 45 seconds of simulated skydiving, which you must also train for 45 minutes prior to your actual session. I don’t think its worth the money, and neither did my local friends.

The luge was also disappointing. Owens said that it wouldn’t be exciting for anyone over the age of fifteen, and he was right. You take a ski lift called the sky ride which is kind of nice, but the ride lasts for about 10 minutes at most, and is really underwhelming.

The beaches were small and the water was kind of gross. You can see all the ships in the horizon, whom are probably dumping all kinds of things into the ocean which most likely washes up ashore. I didn’t regret not going for a swim, but it’s nice to walk barefoot on the beach at least. Go to the beach club where you can sip on beer towers and go for a swim in the pool.

Fort Siloso was probably the best part of Sentosa Island for me, although I may be a by biased since I’m a really sucker for history. It’s the site where the British placed their biggest guns to defend the southern tip of the island. These guns could scuttle battle ships before the enemy could see land, which sounds pretty devastating.

You can also see a wax reenactment of the surrender chambers for an admission fee, although the rest of the fort is free. Make sure to pay at the box office since you can’t pay at the entrance. The surrender chambers basically shows you how the British surrendered to the Japanese on their terms.

The rest of the fort has guns on display that were used during the Japanese invasion, and you can get some vantage points to see how the British soldiers sighted enemy ships.

There were also areas where they delved into what life was like under Japanese occupation, how the inhabitants resisted Japanese rule, and operation Sook Ching.

Operation Sook Ching was basically the Japanese getting revenge on the Chinese of Singapore. They knew many Chinese fled China to escape the war against Japan, and that they were sending money back home to fight against Japan. Sook Ching was essentially an operation to seek and destroy these people as punishment. The Chinese who failed the screening received a triangular stamp on their forehead, and were sent off to kill sites to be executed, ghastly stuff. I didn’t find out if Malays and Indians were also subjected to the same level of cruelty, but I do remember that many Indian soldiers were recruited as independence fighters for India, under Japanese supervision. Some even served as prison guards to watch over their former colonial masters, British and Australian troops who were interned at Changi prison and other sites. I’m pretty confident that Indian troops were not treated as equals by British troops and officers, so I’m sure they made excellent prison guards.

During Japanese rule, locals had to bow down in the presence of Japanese soldiers, lest they receive a smacking for being insolent. The Japanese also provided Japanese language classes to locals. I read that locals who spoke Japanese received far lenient treatment than those who could not. Lee Kuan Yew spoke Japanese and served as a translator for the Japanese, which really shocked me. He also sold glue during the occupation to keep himself and his family afloat. I’m sure the occupation left quite an impression on him, and strengthened his resolve for self-determination, no matter who the colonizer was, Japanese or British.

Battle Box

At Fort Canning park, there is a tour where you can see a bunker that was used by the British to conduct military operations all over Malaya. I definitely recommend this tour for the serious history buffs out there, especially if you’re into the Pacific theatre of WW2.

One of the first things I learned was that the invasion of Malaya and Singapore was launched at the same time as Pearl Harbor, a simultaneous attack on the United States and the British Empire.

Japan was pissed that the West cut off their supplies with sanctions to discourage their military operations in China at the time. Instead of withdrawing from their Chinese campaign and lose face, they decided to punish the West and invade their territorial holdings in the Southeast Asia. Malaya at the time was the most profitable part of the British Empire, and its chief export was rubber.

The Japanese decided to take Singapore from the north of Malaya, instead of taking it on directly in the southern tip, which was manned with heavy guns which I talked about in Fort Siloso.

They used French Indochina to travel to Malaya by land, since France was under Nazi occupation at the time and it’s government was technically allied with the Japanese. The Japanese also fought Thai Royal Forces for eight hours before Thailand gave up to provide them land access to invade Malaya. I feel like this could have been staged beforehand to show to the West that Thailand put up resistance, and that they had no choice but to let the Japanese in.

Update

This blog was written a while ago, but since I started traveling again, I wanted to release it as is.

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