March 29, 2012

Journey into the Past, and the Future

Singapore.
That’s where our mystery trip of kid-free bliss was headed to.

Singapore skyline at night as seen from Marina Bay Sands hotel

I could hardly stand the excitement. And Noisette could hardly stand the excitement of finally sharing this with me, as we were waiting – and waiting – at the Singapore Airlines check-in counter (note to self - or, rather, those who book mystery trips for me: use Internet check-in option next time). 

Two very excited travelers on their way to Singapore

Singapore, you see, is where we used to live in the past. From 1998 to 2000, to be exact. It seems like an entirely different lifetime now, and it was. The girls weren’t born yet, the boys were very little, and in twelve long years Singapore has grown into some sort of a magic place in our minds.

Marina Bay, Singapore

“Remember when…” we often say to each other, and reminisce about our golden days in Singapore. Forgetting the perpetually broken air-conditioning, the unfriendly taxi drivers, one of whom once drove over our stroller in his haste to get away, the stubborn landlady who was too stingy to have a hot water heater installed for the maid’s room, the annoying habit of contractors to show up with no tools and sending you to the basement three times in succession to produce ladder, hammer, flashlight, all while pretending to speak no English.

Peranakan Museum, Singapore

Starting with our flight, way before we even reached Singapore, I was instantly transported back to the past. If you’ve ever flown with Singapore Airlines you will know what I mean. I felt myself almost wishing I had a small baby with me, just so that I could let the flight attendant take it out of my arms, tell me not to worry and have a good night’s sleep while she attended to the child.

Boat Quay, Singapore [click on image to enlarge]

“By the way, we’ll have to check out this really cool new hotel they built that I heard about, the one with the swimming pool on the roof,” I said into Noisette’s direction while browsing the in-flight magazine.

“We’re STAYING in that hotel,” was his response.

Marina Bay Sands, our posh hotel in Singapore

Holy cow, this was really going to be some trip! Apart from the posh hotel, there were going to be so many new things to see, things that weren’t even there twelve years ago. Unfortunately I didn’t take many pictures of anything other than cute baby faces back in 1998, so I can’t tell for sure, but from what I remember Marina Bay was a brackish body of water whose main attraction (at least for 2-year old eyes) was the garbage boat lazily cruising back and forth on its rounds. In the distance one could still see a few barges digging up sand and blowing it towards shore through long pipes. It was like any old harbor, complete with the smells that typically come with harbors, whereas today the bay has been sealed off and converted into a fresh-water reservoir, absolutely clean and dotted with the occasional sailboat.

Chinatown, Singapore. If there is one downside of Singapore's building boom and modernization,
it is that Chinatown has lost some of its charm. I remember many doorways with cavernous
black holes behind them where all manner of stuff was sold by wizened old bow-legged men.
Nowadays, most storefronts are covered with glass and look very respectable but also slightly
boring, like any Western shopping street. Still, I did find some pickled snakes in a jar. I didn't dare
 ask for rhino horn...

Singapore has experienced one of the world’s biggest building booms in the past decade, one that we saw the beginnings of just as we left, in the form of big cranes and construction sites everywhere. Our posh hotel, the Marina Bay Sands, was not yet built back then, in fact the very ground it is built on hadn't been around for very long either. It was the result of an aggressive land claiming effort undertaken by the Singaporean government in the 1970s, and by the time we lived there it was used as a large park to go fly your kites.

Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple, Chinatown, Singapore

When I heard about the Marina Bay Sands complex - not merely a huge hotel but also an even bigger and glitzier shopping center, a casino, a promenade with boat docks, and a really cool museum reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House - I thought they must have changed their minds about the park. But it turns out the park was just a temporary measure to let the land settle, and the plans for further development were there all along, hatched most likely in the 1960s by none other than Lee Kuan Yew.

Inside of Sri Mariamman Temple [we specifically paid for the photo pass!]

Lee Kuan Yew is a living legend. In his eighties now, he has been involved in the running of Singapore his entire life (succeeded recently by his son) and has his hands in pretty much everything that is going on. Our posh hotel? Developed by Lee Kuan Yew, according to our taxi driver. [Let me just say that we had the most amazing taxi and bus drivers - one told us he had met Ronald Reagan in a business meeting back in the day when he (Reagan, not the taxi driver) was governor of California and visiting Singapore with a commerce delegation. Talk about an educated work force!].

Doorman at Raffles Hotel [who wasn't very happy about me and my camera]

Needless to say, Lee Kuan Yew must be filthy rich. But in addition he is probably the best argument in the world against democracy. That's right, I'm not kidding. I went to Singapore back then with a sense of dread, harboring visions of censored newspapers, opposition politicians languishing in jail, and some sort of police state that would forbid me to chew any gum (not that I ever chewed any gum) or punish me with a bout of caning. All this was true, mind you, and to this day Singapore isn't a real democracy as we understand it, although it has become much more open and one-party rule is on its wane [for a detailed discussion of whether or not Singapore is a democracy, my friend Google supplied this very interesting essay by one of the opposition leaders].

Raffles Hotel, Singapore [and no, I didn't drink a Singapore Sling - for the reader who likes
to keep track of my commitment to Lent]

But it is hard to find another country with quite such a success story in terms of infrastructure, education, and racial harmony, all due to the long-term vision of one man and the people he surrounded himself with. If what you find in Singapore today was achieved with something else but democracy, this "something else" at the very least deserves a serious look. I've always been a staunch believer in the dictum that the ends doesn't justify the means, but with Singapore I'm not so sure. Coming back twelve years later and seeing this hotbed of economic activity, glitz, and culture - you wouldn't believe the amount of new museums that have sprung up, as well as old buildings restored - has me convinced, more than ever, that Singapore, together with other parts of Asia, is the face of the future.

Daytime view of Singapore skyline as seen from Marina Bay

As for the promised journey into the past (my past), stay tuned for an upcoming post about the favorite expat haunts we revisited. And I think that posh hotel deserves an entire blog post of its own.

In the meantime, here is an example of our very own building boom here in South Africa:

House under construction across the street from us shortly after we moved in

Same house now, two years later, still under construction. I swear to you, there were people
working on it every single day, hammering  and banging and sawing and looking very busy.
As I said, a veritable building boom around here!

3 comments :

suzie said...

When I was travelling for business (many years ago) my boss would always choose the airline of our destination. He would go to Tokyo with ANA and to Brazil with VARIG... just in order to get set in the right mood, with local food and local service.
So this happened to you with Singapore Airline!
I had to lough out loud about you (almost) wishing to have baby, only to give it to the flight attendent.
ha ha! so funny!
And nice choice of hotel!
I have not been to SING in ages! Maybe over 12 years...

Sine said...

so maybe when you came to visit us was the last time! Remember? And I'm not kidding about the baby. Made us feel weird trekking around Singapore without a stroller and without Japanese tourists taking our boys out of it and carrying them off to take a picture...

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Sometimes ends justify means and sometimes they don't. I think it all depends on what the actual ends and means are. However, usually the people who make that argument are in favor of awful means and ends that are pretty bad in and of themselves.

I do think that many (perhaps most) of the countries in Africa could have used people like Lee when they got independence rather than the vicious dictators and assorted authoritarians they ended up with. The whole sordid history of Africa brings to mind another quote about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.