Since the last post from Johor Bahru and it’s “seedy appeal” as Auden would have put it, I went through a brief stage of feeling really flat and unenergetic. I had brain overload, I felt fatigued and generally run down. Like I had been in an art gallery for too long and my brain had cramp. I am not sure if this had anything to do with arriving in Singapore. For one our hotel there represented the best accommodation we have had in months. A proper hotel with glass elevators and posh restaurants and air conditioning. A shower with hot water at such good pressure that it could be used for sand blasting. A bed so large you could have set up a six man tent on it and still had room for a game of volley ball. Plush carpets and movies on the telly. A kettle. You get the picture. It was hard to leave that room. But we were on a new island, in a new country and in a new city, all three falling under the name of Singapore.
We made the crossing from Johor Bahru and across the causeway into Singapore by bus. On the Malaysian side the new Immigration, Customs and Quarantine complex is very much trying to keep up with the Jones’ next door in Singapore. Costing a mere US$293 million (or there abouts, who‘s counting?) and completed in 2006, the exterior of this enormous edifice is sleek and modern, whilst inside water cascades down a sheet of backlit glass and marbled floors gleam as you make your way down through customs and towards the waiting buses. Upon arrival on the other side of the border everyone was turned out of the bus to go through customs and immigration on the Singaporean side and have their bags scanned for contraband. And then onto a second bus which took us to Queen Street bus station. We thought we would stand for the journey into town, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake. Singapore maybe small but it was still well over an hour before we reached our stop. Our bus driver was wildly erratic to add to the adventure, braking and accelerating at will and cursing anyone audacious enough to jaywalk in the road ahead. “Jaywalking… Hmmph.” A maddened shake of the head. And then rapid acceleration towards them and sudden breaking to make his point. At first it was amusing, after an hour just wearisome. And my mind continually returned to the Paul Theroux remark that a city without jay walkers is like a city without artists. For good measure, jaywalking is illegal in Singapore. Freedom of speech and thereby expression is much the same.
Singapore still confuses me a little. In some ways I liked it, in other ways the sterility of the place seemed all too apparent. The typical complaint is that it is a bit clinical and has no sense of history or culture of it’s own. In some ways this is an apposite criticism, but then you get out what you put in. And because we were primarily there to meet our friends Keith and Monique for a bit of a knees up it has to be said that we did not put enough in. We did not for example, see any of the sculpture that is publicly displayed around the island. There are works by Salvador Dali, Henry Moore and many acclaimed local sculptors. Nor did we see the Buddhist cremation rites or make it to the Hindu temple or any of the famous churches. The world renowned Singapore Zoo went unvisited. And we missed the break dancers and in line skaters at the City Hall MRT. Nonetheless we did spend a bit of time exploring the city, which consists of wildly opulent shopping mauls, hotels and restaurants. I am sure that we spent most of our time in places that most Singaporeans would not be seen dead in. One of our first thoughts was that Singapore is not cheap, but like most places, with a fistful of money it could be a blast. And it seems this is a concession that most tourists to Singapore are happy to make. We went to Raffles Hotel with Keith and Monique and drank a jug of beer that cost 66 Singapore dollars, or to put it in context £33.00. Yup, that's right. One jug, thirty three quid. Thanks Keith, Monique!
It is safe to say that if a bar in London tried to charge me that amount there would be talk of fisticuffs. Raffles, however, was so rammed with punters swilling cocktails that we could not get a table inside. Likewise beer prices vary throughout the day, between 12 and 3pm a pint will set you back £2.50. The price goes up throughout the day and by 8pm the same drink will cost you £7.00. Must be that it gets more expensive to make it as the day goes on!
It is all too easy to carp on about the negatives of Singapore, but there were many good things about the place that were immediately obvious too. Poverty levels appeared to be quite low. The food could be cheap, plentiful and delicious if you avoided the quayside restaurants. It was clean. It felt very safe. And in places it was wonderfully colourful whilst architecturally elements of the place are amazing. Of personal interest there looked to be a massive and healthy photography community. For all the things that I liked about Singapore though, the same niggling doubt kept on returning to me. That was that it felt like they had taken the Asian out of Asia. And that was enough to keep the wind in our sails as we flew out to Borneo.