Everywhere You Look, Skyscrapers
Maybe it was just because of where we came from, rural Ubud, where anything over four stories counts as a rather imposing structure. But I’m pretty sure that the city-state of Singapore has a statistically impressive density of skyscrapers within its tidy 272 square miles.
Our departure from Bali had only a touch of melancholy about it. Our landlord Nyoman gave me a nice man-hug on our way out and said, in his characteristic friendly way, “See you next time.” Next time indeed. I give it 18 months, tops, and pre-hope that his place is available.
It’s funny, because Tracy and I both felt more sad and were waxing more nostalgic during our cab ride to the airport in Cusco back in September, yet by all accounts we enjoyed an even more lovely time in Bali.
I think this year is providing us with a lot of good practice at the mental task of setting up and tearing down life and living situations. Being good at this means being quick to find fondness in a new set of circumstances, as well as readily accepting of the impermanence of things when it’s time to move on. In our less practiced state surrounding our first month-long living situation, we were much slower to find our groove, and less ready to give it up once we had.
But here we were in the cab ride to the Bali airport, well rested and inspired to experience whatever lay ahead.
Against two months living essentially in the sticks, Singapore immediately impressed as a thoroughly modern and beautifully well put together metropolis. The two little dishes at every station’s counter in airport immigration are exemplary of the attention to detail: one with candies, the other for the candy wrappers. Welcome to Singapore.
Heck, we were just delighted to have potable water on tap again, and eagerly filled our 1.6 liters of water bottle capacity from the public drinking fountains like thirsty little urchins.
The change in the currency climate immediately revealed itself with a visit to an ATM. In Bali, you have to type a lot of zeros in manually to get 2,500,000 rupiah, hope that the machine will actually allow such a big transaction (of about $260US), and then hope that it will give it to you in bills of the largest denomination, 100,000 rather than 50,000 notes (which basically leaves you with a fat stack of fivers).
Here in Singapore your best bet for being able to fold your wallet isn’t what equates roughly to a series of ten dollar bills, but rather you’ll get a tidy stack of 50 Singaporean dollar bills (worth about $39US a piece), meaning any withdrawal you make will fit in just fine. You want S$300? S$600? S$1200? No problem, just push this button here, no need to type in a lengthy series of zeros.
The light rail system out of the airport continues the immaculate and well-engineered mojo. Just a look at the sign detailing the fines for mucking things up hints at how they keep it all so clean. You wanna eat or drink on this train? S$500 is the fine. Smoking? S$1000. Bringing on flammable goods will set you back a few mortgage payments at S$5,000 per offense. I don’t know if those fines are strictly responsible for curtailing infractions against the tidiness of the city’s public transit infrastructure, but goodness whatever they’re doing is working.
Amid my delight in how clean and well kept everything is, I couldn’t help but think that punk kid from the US who got caned here back in the 90’s for vandalism totally deserved it. Having been a grateful guest of now 10 countries this trip and counting, combined with admiring the environment before me, makes the idea of going into another country, messing it up a little, and expecting an exemption from the law of the land when you get caught doing it seem utterly brazen and disrespectful1.
Upon arriving at the station for the rendez vous with our Couch Surfing host Yee-Pin, I was in desperate need of my first dalliance with Singaporean cuisine. It did not disappoint. A small counter in the station set me up with a pile of rice, some super flavorful chicken, and something deep fried of a potato nature, all for S$2. My earlier concerns from the ATM withdrawal options that Singapore would be a baller city in terms of its pricing were allayed to know that delicious food could be had this cheaply.
After a quick rest at his place, set on the 6th floor of one of the many many 20+ story housing complexes in the neighborhood, Yee-Pin took us out to partake in two mainstays of Singaporean culture: food courts and mega malls.
The food court was just a few blocks away, an open air space on the ground floor with a sprawling lineup of varied Asian food counters. Like so many countries with an abundance of skyscrapers, it’s probably fair to say that Singapore doesn’t have much of a native food culture itself, but rather boasts ubiquitous availability of neighboring cuisines. In this food court you’ll find options for Malaysian food, Korean food, Chinese food, Japanese food, and so on. With each counter restaurant offering between 6 and 10 staple dishes, there was so much delicious ground to cover. I settled on bulgogi beef from the Korean joint. Over dinner I did the math while contemplating how many menu items within eye shot seemed worth a try, and worked out with 3 days here I could work in 9, maybe 12 meals in Singapore. Decent coverage.
After dinner we went to the mall. The way neighborhoods are laid out, Yee-Pin explained, is that they are centered around a train station, and the mall which is generally within a few hundred feet of that station. In fact sometimes you’ll exit a train and be somewhere nestled deep inside a mall. Malls are generally tall, with a large central atrium and series of escalators taking you up the 3-6 stories. Malls house food courts not unlike the open air one we just ate at (super clean and with really good food options), as well as movie theaters, grocery stores, post offices, and libraries.
Humility and Awe from a Positive Racial Stereotype
Malls also house arcades. For grins and nostalgia I asked Yee-Pin and Tracy if they would indulge me a walk through, to see how over-the-top fancy arcade games are getting.
And to see if there was a Dance Dance Revolution machine there.
For back in the US, there’s generally an understanding that it doesn’t matter how good you think you are. If you go out looking for a match in the arcade you will sooner than later meet, say, a 12-year-old Asian girl wearing a Hello Kitty backpack, and you will lose. You can challenge her to a song of your choice, a tough one that you’ve mastered. And at the end you will be out of breath, having managed a solid B, while she will have finished AAA with her perfect 536 combo and saying “Tee hee, that was fun, let’s go again!”
I think I’m pretty decent at DDR. Now and again I can get an A on 8-footer (on a 10 foot difficulty scale, you see). I’ll be winded, but I can do it and that’s more than most people can do without serious practice. So here I was is Asia, in a thoroughly modern city with a mall loving culture. Surely, I thought, I might see one of these legendary stars of DDR and thus quickly jettison any futile pride I might be carrying in this area.
Indeed I did.
As we encroached upon the DDR machine there was a guy, maybe 15, who was doing impossibly hard songs with sequences that spanned across both dance pads, and getting perfect scores. For me this was a delightful grounding exercise, one to wipe away any delusions of grandeur regarding my prowess on the video game dance floor. It was also just plain fun to watch and marvel, something to genuinely make me mutter WTF in awe and confusion as to how2.
When this spirited youth finished out his 4 songs (3 for the S$1.60 he paid for a game, plus a bonus one for being awesome: even the machine knew it), he graciously allowed me to step up for my turn, presumably allowing him a nice chance to take a breather (not that he looked like he needed it). Like an old man out of touch I couldn’t figure out where to swipe my card to start my game, and after he patiently helped I played my 3 songs with joy and on a difficulty level that impressed no one.
Still, my peeps cheered me on and even the super star player gave me a thumbs up as I descended from my rondo of mediocrity. I appreciated his and his friend’s patience during amateur hour, and hope that my gangly, flailing white guy limbs did provide entertainment for their break. Who knows, perhaps just as I gained humility and grounding from watching them, my DDR performance served them as an exercise in sympathy and compassion. Either way, they were super nice and the subsequent show of now two titans of DDR dueling it out was similarly impressive.
I thanked Tracy and Yee-Pin for their patience in all of this.
Incidentally, it should come as no surprise that my mini spiritual journey in the arcade was not captured by Tracy’s masterful photographic skills and equipment. But you can see a grainy image of it taken by her iPhone, along with a few other fun shots of Singapore, here.
A Whirlwind of Milling and Malling About
The next morning we rose bright and early to do good on a perk for our hosts: Tracy did a yoga class for me, Yee-Pin, and his roommate Cheng. After that it was breakfast at another outdoor food court nearby (Yee-Pin explained on the walk how Singapore is one of those cities where most everyone eats the majority of their meals out, owning to a combination of it being so good and so cheap, and generally tiny kitchen space at home). Then we parted ways for the day, bound for the botanical gardens and then a lunch meeting with a friend.
One of the inciting factors to visit Singapore was a casual invitation months ago from a Dr. John Kenworthy, the first paying customer (and one of the most vocal fans) of my baby, coachaccountable.com. The serendipity of it was just too good to pass up, given that Singapore was already a worthy destination for a visit3. Our face to face meeting after months of emailing back and forth was a treat, and yep, it was at another super fancy mall with a more than ample food court.
From there it was onto another mall, this time killing time with a snack, of a pair of gourmet creme puffs4, and a meal of noodles and dumplings. The fancy, crowded atmosphere of even the basement level began to explain why in such a populous city you see virtually no one about on the hot city streets: everyone is packed into the air conditioned malls.
From there it was to The Stamford Swissôtel, a fancy hotel at which, in our rugged backpacker state, we have no legitimate business, but nonetheless they allowed our presence at the bar on the 73rd floor as we sipped our wine and took in views of the city from on high, looking down at the sea of skyscrapers. I kept feeling as though we must have snuck past some snooty concierge to get there.
Dim Sum Cultural Exchange Program
Yee-Pin and Cheng were grade-A couch surfing hosts, an not just because the cushioned sleeping arrangement on their living room floor was way more comfy than you might expect. It was the numerous conversations (spread over 3 breakfasts, 2 dinners, and 3 sessions of living room loafing) in which we compared notes of what life and society was like in our respective backgrounds. Over mall dim sum for breakfast one morning in particular we went into all sorts of interesting nuggets.
Yes, Singaporean society does have a more strict set of rules for acceptable behavior (as suggested by the lore of caning and fines for metro offenses), but it’s hardly authoritarian, and the rambunctious youth still get away with defiance and malarkey. As youth are, you know, apt to do.
The school system is setup to split students into separate tracks at the tender age of nine based on testing, which puts some serious pressure to perform early on. Everyone’s mama wants their baby to get accepted to the engineers’ track as opposed to, say, the burger flippin’ track5. Yee-Pin had the odd fortune and misfortune of being at the bottom of the elite tier.
It is hard to say which system is better or worse. In the US, the great split doesn’t really happen until the dance of college admissions. But the Singapore system is carefully metered to get the right mix of professionals, meaning if you make it into the engineering tier and finish there will indeed be a job waiting for you. It is a much more solid proposition than how that promise in the US has been a crap shot for the last decade or so.
Male citizens of Singapore have mandatory military service for two years starting around 18, and then something like 10 more years of reserve duty. While it makes for a bonding, shared experience and should be a rewarded mark of service, the harsh irony is the tendency for employers to disfavor young, male citizens for jobs because of their yearly need to take two weeks paid time off for their service duties.
The broad stroke economics of the upwardly prosperous city state are a real study in long term sustainability. Everything is super nice, impressively architected, and just all seems to fit nicely. But to keep it all going that way requires something like a 10% annual growth in foreign investment. As such Singapore constantly strives to make itself attractive to outside capital6, and to fit it all in regularly bulldozes 10-story buildings to make way for 30-story ones. Even affordable public housing, lived in by 85% of Singaporeans7, is getting progressively pricy and tricky to land. People have to be married to qualify, unless you can land a rare rental deal from someone else able to legitimately get in.
Just a glance at a map makes clear that the only option is to build up, not out. The mathematician in me, familiar with steady state analysis and exponential curves, wonders how many more years this can possibly hold together before something needs to fundamentally shift in the equation.
But until then, Singapore is a lovely place. Make no mistake about it.
There was just one more important thing we really learned from Yee-Pin & Cheng during our last breakfast, and that is the degree to which couch surfing hosts really want to hang out with their guests. “That’s the fun of it. I don’t want to host people just looking for a place to crash, I want to spend time with them and have conversations like this.”
Up until our fab host made this point so abundantly clear through such straightforward reasoning, Tracy and I erred on the side of not wanting to be a burden, treading cautiously to not require much time and attention. Always grateful for the opportunities to hang out, for sure, but deliberately maintaining and independent and non-assuming demeanor throughout our stay. To learn that our company was itself the perk of hosting (and so much more than a means for earning good hosting karma to be cashed in later) was a most welcoming sentiment indeed.
All told, our couch surfing hosts made our trip to Singapore a real gem.
After our 3 days here it’s on now to Vietnam. Tracy, through her diligent homework back in Bali, has all of our paperwork in order to enter the country (it’s one of the most complicated to get into ’round these parts), and we are excited for it.
- I suppose this puts me just a few steps shy of yelling at children to “Get off my lawn!”, if I had one. ↩
- I know people generally find their dose of such marvelous grace on say, a figure skating ice rink or at the metropolitan ballet. Whatever, I find mine in Asian malls. ↩
- Now, if he had invited us to swing back and visit him in, say, Cuba? Whole different story. ↩
- Seriously, this was from a counter that offered 30 varieties of creme puff. We tried the Boston creme and tiramisu. ↩
- I’m sure the actual track labels are much kinder this, I just don’t know them. ↩
- You didn’t think those little candies at immigration were just to be nice, did you? ↩
- Unlike many other countries, living in public housing is NOT a sign of poverty in Singapore–very few here live below the poverty line. ↩