Thursday, January 24, 2013

Intro to Singapore 101

At my alma mater, Mount Holyoke, students referred to all introductory classes as “Baby” Whatever:  so welcome to Baby Singapore!

Chinatown's "Food Street" is lined with little restaurants.

This intro class is necessary because, although many of my acquaintance have either visited or lived in Singapore, they are few and far between.  My very own sister thinks I live in Malaysia now!  And another, highly educated, well-traveled relative believes I’m in the Southern Hemisphere!  This leads me to conclude that a few facts about Singapore will serve to orient my readers.

Just some flowers you see everywhere in Singapore.

Singapore is located less than 100 miles north of the equator.  As a result, the weather is tropical (an average daily temperature of about 90 F, and humidity in the range of 85%), and the length of days and nights (about 12 hours each) does not change throughout the year.  “Winter” in Singapore is the rainy “monsoon” season, which I hope is soon ending.  On a good day in winter there’s at least an hour of rain, and sometimes 24 hours.  In Massachusetts, sunsets can be spectacular on a clear day, and winter skies are often the loveliest of the year.  Singapore’s sunsets end quickly and in winter are often obscured by clouds.

Bird sheltering from the downpour.

This is an island nation:  one large island, and over 60 small ones, at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula.  The land area is approximately 272 square miles but Singaporeans are using land “reclamation” to extend the land area and it has grown by 20% in in the past 50 years.  Despite the increase in land area, Singapore is still less than 1/5 the size of Rhode Island!


Singapore was ruled by the British from the time of its founding in the 1820s by Sir Thomas Raffles until after the British were defeated during World War II by the Japanese Army.  Singapore gradually separated from Britain during the 1950s, and briefly joined with Malaysia from 1963 to 1965.  During that period, however, the Malaysian government began to put in place preferential treatment for citizens of Malay descent.  This was unacceptable to Singaporeans, who are 75% Chinese, about 9% Indian, about 3% Eurasian and “other”, and about 13% Malay. 

Opening ceremony for Chinese New Year celebration featured a snake made of lit red lanterns.

Singapore is one of the “Asian Tiger” economies, which have grown tremendously while other economies have stalled or shrunk.  Singapore is very business-friendly, and is rated as one of the least corrupt governments in the world (second, I believe, to New Zealand).  The rich people here are very, very rich.  Poor people here are pretty well assisted by the government.  The unemployment rate is about 2%.  Something for the USA to envy! And another thing: the gross domestic product per capita, nearly $60,000 in Singapore, places it in international rankings way ahead of the US where the GDP per capita is several thousand below $50,000.

The Mustafa Center is an enormous 24-7 store that has everything, likely to be packed on weekends and busy all the rest of the time.

Singapore has a reputation as the “no” country:  no chewing gum, no littering, no assaulting the bus driver, no spitting, no vandalism, no being nude in your own home with the curtains open:  and the list is long.  The challenge, in Singapore’s early years of independence, was to unite citizens of sharply differing backgrounds, and to pull the nation out of the ruins of the Japanese invasion.  Lots of rules, sternly enforced, got everyone on the straight and narrow.

A beautifully restored shophouse with modern skyscrapers all around.

Singapore is largely a nation-city.  Old Singapore, before World War II, had mostly two-story buildings for business in either the Chinese or the British style of architecture (and inevitably the two were often blended in one building).  After independence in 1965, the Singapore government concentrated housing development on high-rise apartments to ensure that even the poorest citizens had a decent roof over their heads.  As the nation prospered, the two-story “go-downs” (warehouses) and shop-houses of old Singapore were demolished in favor of shiny, air-conditioned multi-use tower blocks.  Thankfully, sometime in the 1990s, the government recognized the cultural loss of the old buildings and slowed their demolition.  Many old mansions have been remodeled into “clubhouses” for soaring condominiums built where gardens once surrounded the stately homes of the rich.

Nicknamed "The Garden City", Singapore's national flower is the orchid.

That doesn’t mean that Singapore is an urban wasteland.  Despite being the third most densely populated nation on earth (slightly more than 5 million people live here so there’s something more than 18,000 people per square mile), there are trees, flowers, and gardens everywhere.  With all the sunshine and near-daily rain, encouraging plant growth is not the problem.   The greater challenge is to encourage desirable growth instead of mold and mildew.  Singapore’s heat and humidity are made much more bearable by the presence of gardens.  The latest contribution the nation has made, also designed as a tourist attraction, is the indoor, self-sustaining and stunning Gardens by the Bay.

These futuristic, fantasy-world giant trees at the Gardens by the Bay are topped with photovoltaic cells.

So, now you have an idea of where I am now, in time and place.  I lived here for six months with my family 12 years ago, and came away with mixed feelings about Singapore.  There is much to enjoy, but although this is probably the most accessible of Asian countries for an American to encounter, it is still a very foreign place for me.  As a Causasian and a Christian, I am in a tiny minority.  I don’t have a workplace except my own desk, or belong to an expensive Expat club, or have kids in a school here, so my social interactions are quite limited.  I am determined that during this long stay, I will find my way into Singapore, and leave it with greater understanding and appreciation.  And meanwhile, I plan to enjoy every minute of the local cuisine!  

Fried kway teow with extra veg! 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Time for a Change

Three weeks.  Not a long time to make two transitions:  from our idyllic stay in Germany to our home in Acton for Christmas, and from Acton to Singapore for the next six months.  Shortly before Christmas, we packed in a hurry, had last minute visits with good friends, and shipped home a few boxes of recent acquisitions and gifts (not all of which have yet arrived in Acton).  Acton was lovely as ever, especially with a light snowfall, and our beloved family around us.  Best of all is our baby granddaughter, our first grandchild, experiencing Christmas for the first time, using all her senses. 

 I'm wearing my apron which says "Keep Calm and Carry On" while we hurriedly decorate the Christmas tree in Acton.

Acton was also lovely because of the people who live there.  One generous, warm-hearted family in our neighborhood invited all two dozen families who live there into their home two days before Christmas!  We all took a few minutes to stroll our little streets admiring one another’s holiday lighting (except ours, of course, since we didn’t have time to decorate outdoors).  My family is now (after almost 20 years in Acton) the longest-surviving homeowners in the neighborhood and there were quite a few neighbors whom we’d never met before.  We were delighted to meet several families who’ve lived in Germany or other parts of Europe and who share our desire to bring to Acton a little of what we learned to love in Europe. 

My Dear Husband and I laughed when we remembered the last all-neighborhood party we know about:  our own house-warming party in 1993!  We invited not just our quirky, individualistic friends from academia, but also neighbors we’d never met.  It was not followed up by any other all-neighborhood parties (at least, to which we were invited) with the exception of a home-sales party which I should not have attended since we’d spent all our money moving to Acton.  Until this year, almost 20 years later!  Such a good time was had by all that we vowed as a neighborhood to do this kind of thing more often.  And then, a week later, we moved to Singapore!

This move entailed digging out, and trying on, all my summer clothes.  We had to collect six months worth of our medications and our favorite health and beauty aids.  We were each allowed two large suitcases, and two carry-ons since my Dear Husband’s work assignment, which requires this six-month stay in Singapore, provided us with business-class seats on Singapore Airlines. 

The perk of a second suitcase was nice, since I was able to bring practically all my summer clothes, but the flight, all 18 hours of it, was a treat in itself.  The airline is planning to discontinue the non-stop flight to Singapore from Newark later this year, but not before we return to the US in six months.  Everything about the flight—the flight attendants who addressed me by name, the delicious food, the extremely comfortable seat/bed we each had, and the 800 choices of audio and video entertainment—was a pleasure.  I especially noticed and appreciated the way each family with children was brought aboard by an individually-assigned airline employee, who helped each child get settled before the rest of us came aboard.  There were a lot of children on the flight (who can afford a $10,000 ticket for a pre-schooler?) but we heard almost nothing from them during all 18 hours of the trip.

Thanks to those comfortable airline seats, we were almost rested when we arrived at Changi Airport.  We were able to stay awake for most of the first day, which is amazing when you consider that Singapore’s time zone is 13 hours ahead of Acton’s.  

We have settled into the furnished, serviced apartment that will be our home until July.  We have already grown to love the view of the Singapore River from our windows.  My Dear Husband has spent weekdays in what will be his office for the next six months, and I have begun to map out, and to put into action, my plan to come to know and understand this nation-city better than I did when we spent six months here in 2001.  And I’m really glad I excavated from my closet and brought along my most comfortable pair of sandals, because that plan entails a lot of walking.