Flight to Singapore uneventful. I was in economy, next to a man who twitched continually and behind a woman who pushed her seat right back as soon as we’d taken off and then kept stretching her arms up and putting her hand over the screen in front of me. Resisted urge to slap both of them.
Also resisted the meal: plastic scrambled eggs. I just ate the bread roll and dessert, which was garnished with a strange plastic looking fruit. I bit it. Think it really was plastic.
Stayed in St Regis Hotel. It’s very nice, clean and comfortable with very helpful staff. The hotel restaurants are not too great.
We got a taxi to the old part of town to an old colonial hotel, Raffles, famous for the cocktail Singapore Sling. Had one in the long bar – very traditional in a sort of Disney, pretend way. It was very pleasant, all clean and very atmospheric with lots of dark wood, ceiling fans, sacks of nuts on the table with nut husks all over the floor. The cocktail is tall and sticky with froth on top and served with a pineapple chunk and a cherry. Mine was sadly lacking in discernible alcohol.
There is currently (October 2015) a lot of air pollution in Singapore – a ‘haze’ as they call it (it looks misty all the time.) This is pretty bad and causes itchy eyes and breathing problems when it’s at its worst. It’s caused by people burning great swathes of land in Indonesia. They do this for a couple of reasons: it’s much cheaper to clear land for crop planting to burn stuff rather than to cut and clear it, it is also a way of attacking your neighbours when there are disputes over who owns land (a problem due to how forests cannot be registered) and also, peat bogs, when they dry out, are very flammable.
The people in Singapore and Malaysia are furious about this, especially as it happens every year. They have to close schools, cancel flights and avoid going outside when the pollution is at its worst. The Indonesian government are making plans to stop the problem but from reading the papers (which are in Singapore, so possibly a bit biased) they make plans but don’t actually change anything. This is a problem that seems to have occurred every year for about forty years. The funniest report I read was where a politician in Indonesia said that rather than complain, the people of Singapore should thank Indonesia for their clean air the other eleven months of the year. Not sure that helped relations much…..
On Monday I walked around the historical part of the city. I got a taxi to Raffles hotel, then walked past St Andrew’s cathedral – I could have been in England.
I arrived at the National Gallery but couldn’t work out the doors. They appeared to be bolted shut from top to bottom. The sign said the gallery was open but I tried pushing, pulling and sliding the glass doors – they did not move. I suspect this was my fault. However, peering through the glass, the gallery did look very empty, so perhaps other people had problems getting inside too. Seems to be bit of a design fault for a door to not open (is rather the defining point of a door, separates it from a wall.)
Abandoned non-opening doors and walked to river, crossed a bridge to Fullerton Hotel. This has the absolutely best sculpture outside. Walked along quay. There are lots of tiny restaurants, the whole world in one lane. I passed English pubs, Spanish tavernas, Chinese restaurants (these had the biggest shellfish outside in great glass tanks). It was a little like being in the Epcot Centre at Disney. There were good views of the Marina Bay Hotel (which looks like it has a giant boat perched on its roof) but it was too hazy for a decent photo. Several people were wearing face masks to keep the pollution out.
I followed South Bridge Road up to China Town, passing Park Royal Hotel. This is opposite Hong Lim Park, but actually there was more stuff growing on the hotel than in the park – green blankets of plants spilling over every balcony.
I passed tailors claiming they could make a suit in six hours, Chinese sign-painters with canaries singing in cages, a Hindu temple with shoes littering the street outside, stalls selling silk, beads, masks, key-rings, lots of street food.
There was a mosque with a big sign outside, declaring that Islam is a peaceful religion and should not be judged by the actions of a few terrorists. I thought that was rather sad.
It was hot and humid, so I walked back to the park and drank a Sprite before getting a taxi back to hotel. In Singapore you cannot hail taxis in the street (I spent a long time trying to do that on a previous visit. They ignore you.) You have to wait at a designated taxi stand, which is a lot like a bus stop. It’s easiest to just go to a hotel foyer and wait for one to arrive. Singapore has a lot of hotels.
Typical streets in Singapore.
We met some work colleagues from David’s office and they kindly took us to their house. We went via public transport, firstly the underground train, which was very easy and a lot like in Beijing, where there are maps in the train and lights that show where the train is. There was an automatic ticket machine, where you could look at a map and then press which station you wanted to go to. Each station had a shopping mall above it with lots of eating places.
Then we caught a bus, which would be more confusing if you weren’t with someone who knew where to get off. From the bus we saw some ‘government housing’. These were blocks of small apartment buildings. The government owns the leasehold, when you buy one you take out a lease for 99 years. If your salary is low, the price of buying is subsidised. This means that if a couple are in jobs where their salary will increase and they plan to get married, they will often get married legally, before the increase in salary, so they can buy a property at a lower price. They then have a ‘proper’ wedding later, when they are ready. Hence they have two different wedding anniversaries.
Housing is expensive in Singapore. The home we visited was a small, three bedroomed terraced house. It would cost 3 million Singapore Dollars to buy (about 1.5 million UK pounds.) This is way beyond what most couples can afford, so people tend to live with their extended family. It is not unusual for grandparents, married children and grandchildren to all live together. Sometimes the children share a bedroom with the parents or grandparents.
Having ‘maids’ or ‘help’ is also not uncommon. It seems to be restricted, so a woman can only employ one helper. If two women live together (Granny and married daughter) then the household can have two helpers. They often live in, so the house also has to be big enough for bedrooms for the maids. Due to the crowded home arrangements, many young people find staying at work for long hours an attractive option. If they go home, they will share the lounge with several other people, if they stay at work, they are with their friends, can eat in the staff restaurants, etc. I suspect this has done much to add to the hard working ethos of Singapore.
We ate in a local restaurant, which was fun to see. We had Hainan Chicken, which was cooked whole and then chopped up by a chef with a big machete. It was served with rice and small bowls where we mixed ginger, chili and soy sauce. It was clean but very plain – no tablecloths, plastic plates, etc. I drank beer, which is apparently unusual (Singaporean women do not tend to drink alcohol with a meal.)
I also learned a little about the welfare system in Singapore (though don’t quote me on this, I was only half listening.) There seems to be very little help for people who are unable to support themselves – not having a job is not an option. Most people live with their parents until they can be self-sufficient (and often even beyond that.)
The parents are deemed responsible and therefore liable for, their children. So, if a teenager rebels and gets into trouble, the parents are held to account. It is therefore possible to ‘divorce’ your children. If you are not able to control them, you can apply for them to be taken into care by the state. This sounded pretty extreme, almost like a reform home situation, or being sectioned under the mental health act in the UK.
When walking around, I did not see anyone living on the streets or begging, which is unusual in a city. Not sure if this is because there are no homeless people or because they are not allowed to be in the central parts of the city.
On Wednesday, before our flight, we went to Singapore Botanical Gardens. These were brilliant. I have been to many botanical gardens in various countries. Usually they are rather naff, these were completely worth visiting. They are an area of original rain forest that has never been cleared, with lakes and gardens grown around the edge. I saw huge turtles swimming in the lake, a massive lizard, the size of a dog, in a tree and amazing plants.
The orchid garden was beautiful. Every layer was lovely, you looked at the flowers, then the bushes behind them, then up into the trees beyond. It was brilliant.
The area of rainforest was also good. You’re not allowed to visit during a storm. The trees were so high I got a crick in my neck trying to see the tops. It was like all those half forgotten geography lessons when they teach you about the layers in the forest, the ground bit, the tree bit and the canopy (okay, so I may have forgotten the correct terms, was never really a geographer.)
These gardens are my favourite place in Singapore, if you come you should try and visit. There was a charge for the orchid garden (5SGD) and there were toilets, cafes and a gift shop (with stuff in that you might actually like when you get home!)
Our flight was very late, so we had a little time to kill between checking out of our room and leaving for the airport. I had read in the hotel blurb that they owned a Chagall painting. I couldn’t see it in the lobby, so asked the concierge where it was. After a little phoning around, they told me it was in the presidential suite. As they happened to not have any presidents staying at that time, they asked if I would like to see the painting. Wow, what a treat! I got taken up to the poshest room you can ever imagine and shown the picture. They let me take a photo of the painting. I decided it would be too ‘uncool’ to also take one of the room. I did feel though that this typifies the service we received at The St Regis – they really did do their best to make our stay pleasant. I would highly recommend staying there.
I like Singapore. I think there might be a few too many ‘rules’ for me to enjoy living there (even chewing gum is illegal). However, as a place to visit it is clean and safe and interesting. I would love to go back one day.
Thanks for reading…..
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