Readers' Submissions

Singapore – And Why It Is So Hard To Go Back…




It brings a smile to my face sometimes – a wry smile – when some people from the land of farangs, or in the case of Singapore speak, the ang mohs, spend a year or two in Asia and then declare themselves in a position fit to espouse on the pros and cons of wanting to live there. What has made me smile even more, and shake my head in disbelief, was the timeframe a recent Stickman contributor based his observations on why he would find it difficult to leave Singapore.

Let me expand on that timeframe a little.

I remember as a kid of six running around a large, colonial style bungalow on stilts that was home. I learnt to ride a bicycle on the oval driveway in front, and loved roaming round the fruit trees that surrounded the house. We had two live-in 'amahs' – Chinese servants who wore black silk pyjamas, a white (or blue, depending on your duties) tunic and their hair in a long ponytail. We also had a full-time Malay gardener.

They were mostly fun-filled days, climbing and falling out of trees, getting scratched or bumped on the head, and running around with the dogs. The only thing in the medicine cabinet was some Dettol, a pack of junior aspirins, and Woods Peppermint cure. Woodwards Gripe water was for kids. You made your own games with your brothers and sisters, and the neighbours kids when they could join in. As long as you were back before dark you wouldn't get a caning.

I remember singing the 'Majulah Singapura', the Singapore national anthem, in school, and for a time 'Negara-ku', the Malaysian one. There was a period in time when we had some extra days where the schools were closed, something my Dad called 'Konfrontasi', but all this meant to me at the time was more playtime.

Television was something new, and a change from the collection of old 78 rpm 'His Master's Voice' records stacked under the record player. Ah, but this was a modern record player that could also play the 45's and the 33 records, and included a radio with 'Magic Eye' tuning. The community centers used to be packed with people trying to peer at a small TV perched on a high stand. Much like how the TVs are mounted in the Thailand food centers these days. There were programs for everybody, and I used to like the Cantonese programs that the amahs favoured.

I attended a mission school – there were Malays, Chinese and Indians, all in the same class. The beauty of this was that we got to celebrate all the different festivals and get the truly authentic home-cooked food that is sadly missing in Singapore these days. When the nearby mosque started their prayers, you just waited till they finished and got on with the lessons. It was nice that the Convent was a stone's throw away.

I used to love cycling around as a teenager. Singapore still had some fairly rural areas, and it was fun to find a new route through that you'd never knew existed. Part of this feeling of discovering new places has been carried over when I moved to Thailand – I still have this habit of taking the car out into the rural back roads and finding out where they lead to. Meeting locals along the way is part of the thrill. <Me too! This is one of the true pleasures of ThailandStick>

Change, however, is inevitable. The houses are long gone, as is the school. The roads have all changed and have strange names. Everything seems built over. I hardly recognise anything these days.

Change is also particularly annoying when it is practically rammed down your throat.

It started with a 'speak Mandrin' campaign, the first in a series of social engineering experiments. This meant that all the other Chinese dialects – Hakka, Hokkien, Hylam, Cantonese – would not be spoken by government departments. (It has to be noted here that Singapore has four official languages, i.e. recognised and acknowledged by the government. These are: English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil). To enforce this even further, all television programming in the other dialects were either discontinued, or dubbed into Mandarin, much to the dismay of the amahs.

Fireworks, especially firecrackers, were banned. This made for some exceptionally quiet Chinese New years. (Imagine Songkran without water)

All public parades – and this included the very popular walk of the Kavadi carriers during Thaipusam – where the people would line the streets – were confined to limited areas.

Street hawkers, who usually had the best food, also got targeted. I miss the Malay guy who used to come around toting his two baskets on a pole, selling Mee Rebus (Malay-style braised yellow noodles). Ditto the Chinese prawn noodles tricycle, also known as the 'tic-toc' mee because of the unique bamboo rattle used to advertise his presence. The Indian bread seller, who always had this huge basket balanced on his head, also did not come around any more.

The hawker food that used to set up in the evenings on Orchard Road in the car park opposite the old Cold Storage were also forced to relocate, as were similar setups in other areas. Sad days.

'Hanyu pinyin', a simplified form of Mandarin, was enforced, not just in schools, but across everything through to the New Year's greetings. So from the 'Kong Hee Fatt Choy', it became something like 'Xiang Zi Fa Cai', Happy New Year. Yeah, right. As a teacher in one of the schools complained, the Chinese students could not recognise their own 'simplified' names when called. Nor did the parents. It would be in quite similar vein for Stickman to say to me, you are no longer able to call yourself 'Vintage Kwai' here on this site. We are going to be using a simplified form of Stickman lingo from this point in time, so your new official name will now be 'Buffalo Boran'. That was how radical it was.

HDB housing estates were beginning to be built, the first in Queenstown, then on to Toa Payoh and the rest. Large tracts of land were needed, so to this intent a 'Land Acquisition' law was passed. Fair enough. This happens all over, doesn't it? Well, when some property was acquired for a project, the compensation for the land was based on the land prices at the time the law was passed, not the prevailing market rate ten years down the road. The phrase 'I got screwed' comes to mind.

You could say that this was the point in time when I decided to make plans to move away. It is only coincidental that I eventually ended up in Bangkok.

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To reflect on some of the comments the author of the recent Stickman article made about wanting to continue to live in Singapore, I would tend to think he needs to stay there a little while longer before reassessing his situation. Perhaps, as Stick comments in his end note, the author may eventually head out this way, like many before him?

So, the lift urine alarms are there. I'm surprised that they still are as they were introduced almost thirty years ago, and one would have thought the population would have been educated by now, and not be forced to comply. The leopard very seldom changes its spots; to surmise that recent immigrants are to blame is biased.

Yes, I would tend to agree with the author that Singapore is a safe city. It always has been safe. But to imply that crime does not exist is pushing the envelope a bit. Now, if I did run into a lady wearing a short skirt in a dark alley at three in the morning, I'd probably be wondering what I/she was doing there in the first place. Funny thing, but I'd feel just as safe in Bangkok. And wonder just the same.

Perhaps the author's view is that language and communication is not a problem in Singapore. Well, it is not a problem here in most places in Bangkok either. Come to think of it, I was in a major department store on Orchard Road just before Christmas last year and was surprised at the lack of any language skills of the 'newly imported' workers. Sadly, while some of the locals are beginning to complain about the sorry situation, they themselves are to blame for a general regression of the overall language skills.

Singapore, and to an extent Penang, were far ahead of the rest of the region when it came to speaking English. This was in no small part due to the British influence as they were both crown colonies. People were extremely proud of this at the time. But with the eventual repatriation of foreign teachers and replacement with only local teachers, the inevitable had to happen. I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by a well-known school there hoping to get enrolment from their counterparts over here. I was absolutely appalled that they would even dare to put that on tape…

I remember a Singapore kid being interviewed on the Disney channel on what he did for fun. Well, at least he answered in Singlish (Singapore-accented English). When it was his mother's turn to speak, she spoke…in Mandarin!! On an international English-speaking program!

Couple this with a lack of places to go to – after all, how many times can you go to the zoo, the bird park or Sentosa, and face the fifty or so people lined up just for the monorail ride – I'd rather walk. It will also cost you an arm and a leg these days.

A lot of Singapore these days is about face – always has been to a certain extent. Face and artificiality. It's changed that much.

Pulau Blakang Mati – literally translated as 'Die behind' Island – was given a facelift and renamed Sentosa.

As to the 'Singapore Flyer'. Do they really need the giant Ferris wheel?

And, good heavens! A Grand Prix! Perhaps they'll turn off the speed cameras for once. The last one I remember was in Thompson Road, back when I was still a kid.

Still, I wonder what the author was thinking when he's quite happily holed up with a friend or two in a rented HDB flat, eking out an existence in an ASEAN country known for its high cost of living and sterile environment, completely oblivious to the world around him, and actually thinking it's better than his own home country.

A word of advice – go and learn to at least understand some Mandarin, it's all that the majority of the population seem to want to speak these days anyway. Perhaps then you may understand what the locals really think of you – it may just pop your bubble. And don't talk of lost career opportunities and the difficulties of living in any other country outside of your own. It doesn't look like you've made it in your own country, and it doesn't look like you've made it here, either. Self-respect? It's all in your head.

Oh, and please don't come to Bangkok. Stickman and I prefer to keep it for ourselves.

Stickman's thoughts:

I enjoyed this perspective and history lesson – and it would be great to hear from more in the island state.