It’s been nearly a year since I was in a ‘rich’ country. Coming from Nepal (the poorest country in Asia) to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and then onto Singapore (the 3rd richest country in the world), is like time travelling far into the future. In KL (more on it and Malaysia in the next post), where I spend two nights, the streets are spacious and clean. After Kathmandu, the most noticeable thing is the absence of any vehicle beeping their horn, which is a nice change to every vehicle beeping every few seconds. It’s hard to believe I’m still on the same continent. Those who follow the blog will wonder why I came to this part of South-East Asia, especially Singapore, that bastion of hyper-capitalism. I never thought it’d be a place I’d want to visit but this trip has been a strange, unpredictable one. The reason I came here should be clear enough by the end of the post (and its not the Guinness!).
Singapore, a multicultural English speaking island city-state off the the coast of Malaysia, is one of the most economically ‘developed’ places on the planet. It is hailed as a capitalist success story…a paean to ‘free-trade’, modernisation and progress: a paean which disregards the distinct history, conditions and location of the island. Its population is majority ethnic Chinese with large ethnic Malay and Indian minorities but the main language of its people is English (or rather its fast colloquial Singaporean version, Singlish). After traveling the Indian sub-continent for 6 months, I can’t, despite myself, help appreciating how easy everything is. The transport system runs like clockwork and everything seems spotlessly clean. Amongst endless gleaming shopping malls, the fashionably dressed young and professionals are more often than not engaged in their smartphones and tablets. On nearly every train I travel, I marvel at how everyone (literally everyone within sight) is staring into a handheld gadget of some sort. I was aware of the existence of smartphones when I left London last year – on the tube it wasn’t uncommon to see them but it seems they’ve completely taken over since I left. I’m not going to get into a luddite rant now about technology (I’ll save that for another time), but to witness the majority of a population totally distracted by it, so soon after spending time in an areas that don’t even have electricity, is a bit unnerving. Considering the feel of the place in general, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World comes to mind.
I pass most of my time hanging out with Vienna, a phycology student who’s lived most of her life in Singapore. I met Vienna briefly in Mumbai 4 months ago and we stayed in contact via email since. She’s the perfect antidote to the grey post-modern monotony of the city’s cosmopolitan environment and the reason I’ll be returning. Another reason I’d been looking forward to coming here is that I’d see my parents for the first time in a year. They decided to go on holidays to a place they could meet their rambling son and arrive a week after me, staying for a couple of days before the three of us go to nearby Malaysia for a few weeks. I could criticise Singapore for many things but I count my lucky stars that I didn’t meet Ma and Da in India or Thailand as I had considered. Both of them immediately remark on how clean and relaxed everything is…how easy it is to move around. It’s ideal after a long-haul flight. Locals are also friendly, polite and treat them with respect, especially the older folk. While walking to a hotel from the train station, not long after they arrive, we take a wrong turn in the opposite direction for ten minutes and so decide to get a taxi to the hotel. A air-conditioned private taxi takes us the short distance but the driver refuses payment as, “it’s only a short journey”. I’ve never known this behaviour from a taxi driver and neither have my parents. It’s a pleasant start to their holiday, as they quickly adjust to being in this calm corner of Asia.