Letter from Singapore

  |  Gorp.com

[Editor's Note: Dan Kaplan, a veteran correspondent for GORP, will spend the next year traveling the ancient Silk Routes that run overland through southern Asia. He will send regular reports from his adventures, and we will feature them as soon afterwards as possible. We're happy to present this, his first letter, from Singapore, and look forward to sharing his future insights on this region.]

It's 4:30 in the morning and jet lag has me wide awake. The cool hours before daybreak are a good time to write, though, so I've come to this cafe to scribble a letter.

You'd be amazed at how busy Singapore is at this hour. All the sidewalk tables are full. There's a group of Indian teens talking about their night out, four or five Chinese businessmen eating breakfast, some Malaysian construction workers waking up with cups of coffee—it's strong here, and sweet. I'm on my third cup.

Only a few cars are passing, and occasional bus, but for the most part the streets are lonely. All the action is here under the awnings. A transistor in the back of the restaurant squawks with sitar music, and the family that runs the place is scurrying around—sweeping, cooking, clearing tables and hassling me to hand over 70 cents for the coffee. They're Indian Muslims and make a greasy prata, a flat-bread they serve with fried egg and veggies. It fills you up—good cheap walking food.

The place is a cacophony of languages—Arabic, Cantonese, German, Aussie, Korean—people switching from one tongue to another, then to a third. Under the streetlights glasses clink and a busboy collects empty coke cans. A Harley Davidson rolls up, jumps the curb, and the Japanese passengers take off their helmets and sit down to a plate of chicken curry.

That's the thing about Singaporeans, they don't discriminate. Commerce is the blood of this city; it nourishes all the cultures and keeps them working together. They've got ten religions here, living on top of each other and intermingling. Walking around this neighborhood, I passed two Buddhist temples, a Jewish synagogue, a Catholic and Presbyterian church, and a Hindu mosque.

I visited each of them and then wandered across the rest of the island, trying to understand what keeps its many cultures so civil. First thing I realized was that many of the third- and fourth-generation Singaporeans are of mixed race, which brings cultures together. Like Simon, the night man at my guest house, who I shared a beer with last night. His mom is Philippine and his dad Pakistani. As an average Singaporean he understands cultural differences and how to respect them. He describes the shrewdness of a Chinese merchant or the devotion of the local Jews. He seemed to have his finger on the pulse of this town.

Pulling out a street map, he drew his finger north along Serangoon road and circled a five block area.

"Go here," he said, "Little India. They have many Hindu temples. You must see to believe. Thousands of statues." He speaks in short, clipped sentences. Not pidgin, but with a choppy rhythm, like he's exercising his fourth or fifth language.

He waved his outstretched arm.

"Mythology. History. Go there," he said. "You can feel it."

He was right. Inside Sri Veeramakaliamman, a small temple, the devout lay prostrate. Men wore sarongs with no shirts. Incense sweetened the air, and the floor was strewn with yellow, red and purple petals. I removed my shoes and skirted between bodies sitting in the lotus position, praying with palms pressed together. The walls seem to hum their own mantra.

Walking outside, I might have been in Calcutta or Bombay. Women with painted foreheads and diamond nose rings, swathed in colorful, flowing saris, walked the market streets buying bolts of silk, gold elephants, bags of spices. A wrinkled man on a rickety bicycle stopped to buy a bag of curry rice, then rode off, his long legs bobbing at the knees.

Turning the corner, I was standing in front of a Starbucks and a Body Shop—back in Singapore. A Chinese man and woman walked the western-style streets, peeking in shops. Though they probably lived in Chinatown, ten blocks away, they may as well have been tourists here.

Jill, my companion, and I returned to Little India at night and were lost in a throng of men that filled the streets. They laughed, and joked, and walked arm in arm. Fireworks and strings of lights illuminated the street. Every home in the neighborhood had lights on to welcome neighbors. It was Deepavali, the eight-day festival of lights, a celebration of good over darkness that once engulfed the world. The holiday is barely observed in India, but here in Singapore the community celebrates it with passion.

The Indians came to Singapore with the British, coolies for a trading post set up in 1819. This was the start of Singapore's long growth into an international city. Tengku Long, the Sultan of Singapore, granted the Brits permission to use a southern part of the island. Five years later, after resolving territory disputes with the Dutch, they claimed Singapore as part of the British Empire.

Before that, the island had been fought over fiercely by the Portuguese and Malaysians—vicious sea battles that lasted months at a time. The worst was in 1615 when the Portuguese battalion bombarded Singapore so badly that they drove the islanders away. The place remained uninhabited for almost two centuries.

With the British, Singapore grew into a major harbor for the East India Trading Company. Hundreds of ships brought silk, spices, food and textiles out of China and South East Asia to for distribution to the West. British society has a lasting influence on Singapore culture, architecture, language and customs.

Schools are today taught in English, and Lipton is served rather than the Chinese green tea one might expect in Asia. The roads are wide, with names like Queen Street or Victoria Boulevard, and cars drive on the left side. There are plenty of grandiose buildings with doormen and square arches, straight lines, rectangle windows, and marble halls. The National Museum looks like it belongs in London, and the Raffles Hotel is a famous site in the city. Its pretentious billiard room and smoking lounge are still there, as is the tea courtyard where ladies with parasols once strolled below the arching palms and huge fans. Now they let the locals in, and the courtyard is lined with pricey tourist shops. There's also a "Raffles City" shopping megamall just across the street.

Another culture that came to Singapore with the British—albiet of their own accord—was the Jewish population. A group of Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jews left Baghdad in the mid 1850s when life there became oppressive. They made their way East, settling in key British trading locals such as Delhi, Calcutta, and Rangoon.

Some eventually made their way down the Malaysian peninsula to Singapore, and, like the Indians, Muslims, Chinese, and English, have prospered in a city of opportunity. In fact, when Singapore gained independence in 1965, its first prime minister, David Marshall, was Jewish. This seems a testament to Singapore's dedication to mixing cultures for economic prosperity.

I visited the Magain Abboth Synagogue on Waterloo Street. The rabbi, with a black curly beard and sweat on his brow, was preparing 200 chickens for the Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year's feast. He greeted me with salty hands:

"How can I help you, my friend?"

"You've come to the right place, my friend."

"Oh, yes, my friend, all visitors can see the synagogue."

The congregation has 40 Iraqi families and another 600 expatriates from over the world, come to do business for the multinationals. The synagogue, a spacious hall with high ceilings, hardwood benches and detailed silver adornments was built with trust money from a wealthy trader, who invested in opium.

"Opium was a respectable business back then," I was told by a local historian. The British built an empire on it, organizing its growth, sale and distribution across the old silk routes in China, the Indies, and Europe. It brought tremendous revenue and kept the natives docile, content with their low station in the British hierarchy.

It was at the synagogue that I met Mordechai, the last of the Malaysian Jews. His country, a Muslim nation, has become less and less tolerant of Jewish residents. He and his family were forced out of their home in Penang, and rather than move to a completely different culture they came to Singapore, where all cultures and religions are welcome.

Another place we went searching for secrets of was Chinatown. Actually, we were searching for Dim Sum, but like all parts of this city there are secrets to be found.

Chinatown is the busiest part of a bustling city. Opposite sidewalks are joined by elevated walkways. Red banners with calligraphy script are draped over alleyways, announcing the eateries: Peking City Karoke Lounge, Hong Kong Noodle House, the Mouth Restaurant.

We finally found our Dim Sum in the basement of a shopping mall, where the air conditioning freed us from the oppressive heat. Prawn dumplings with curry, cabbage spring rolls with ginger, vegetable soup with chili flakes: It all seemed influenced, to some extent, by the larger gastronomy of Singapore. Even in the heart of Chinatown the specialties shared a flavor with the lower-priced hawking stations, the cheap food stalls we had been eating in throughout the city.

It wasn't until our walk back from lunch that I realized what kept this city together. Passing through the Orchard Road Park, just three blocks from our hostel, we came upon one of the many public sculptures in the city.

This one, for me, symbolized this island nation. It's a 20-foot tower of various iron shapes cast together, full of curves and lines and sharp edges. The artist called it "Everlasting Flow," dedicated to the continual influx of people and money into the city.

People are civil to each other here—they have to be. Otherwise the police are prone to discipline. A few days ago, when I told an Israeli woman that I hadn't seen much of a police presence, she replied "That's a good thing. When you see them, that means something's wrong. They come in fast and leave fast. People disappear."

The government doesn't tolerate disorder, punishing even the smallest of offences. Some refer to Singapore as a "fine" city: $200 for spitting, $300 for crossing the street before the light changes, $1,000 for littering, and—no lie—$10,000 for importing chewing gum. The penalty for drugs is death.

Before I left, I thought I'd have a hard time in a place with such limited freedom. Ever since the Michael Faye caning incident, Singapore has had a reputation in America as a place devoid of human rights. Singapore subscribes to the "Asian Way" that so many American's have a hard time accepting—it's a political system that places greater value on the harmony of the community than on individual freedoms. There are no juries here, for example. Swift punishment is handed out by judges, who work for the government, for the sake of order and equanimity.

But since arriving, I've come at least to understand why ex-governor Lee Kuan Yew (who most agree is still in charge) was so intent on guaranteeing economic freedoms over personal freedoms. His government has created an environment where nobody is afraid to walk the streets at night, everyone is treated equally, and, no matter who you are, you can make a decent living.

The city runs like Mussolini's trains. Everyone has work, and growth is booming. The everlasting flow.

New shopping malls, new office towers, and condominium complexes are going up on nearly every block. It's never quiet here. Roads are re-paved every six months. Every hospital is fully modernized. Singapore's water is the only in South East Asia that the guidebooks say you can drink straight from the tap.

It seems to me that Singapore will continue to prosper as long as the flow remains constant. When it dries up, things could get scary. The fact remains that the government is the force keeping different cultures from pecking at each other. More than one resident has told me that were it not for strong laws and fierce enforcement, the people would be at each other's throats.

But enough talk of politics. The sun is coming up, and the sky is suffocating in the gray haze of the Indonesian forest fires. It's so bad that our throats burn and dawn is but a vague light.

The restaurant crew is changing shifts—another branch of the family has come to work the sidewalk for the rest of the day. It's time to leave the city, head up the east coast of Malaysia to escape the haze and find some scuba diving. I'll send word when we've found our next safe refuge.

Until the next time, safe travels.

All Original Material Copyright © by Dan Kaplan. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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