So I’m a city person. I love the hustle, the bustle. Neon lights just get me going. There’s an unparalleled joy I experience every single time I cross a grand bridge over some waterway and see a glittering cityscape of some metropolis twinkling back up at me.
While it is undeniably true I love hiking, summiting any peak and immediately trying to find a higher one nearby to climb and the smell of manure is no longer anathema to me, at this point in my life, I desire cities. So while living in southern China, I figured Singapore was incredibly close and easily accessible in such a way as not visiting was impermissible in my view.
The city-states of Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, Monaco and Vatican City all ceaselessly draw my attention. Polities entirely contained within a single metro area? That is just magic. Everything that a city entails (transportation, crime, sewage, recreation, infrastructure, government, tourism campaigns, etc.) entirely coterminous with the national government is a huge undertaking and wildly fascinating.
Side note: definitionally, Macau and Hong Kong are not city-states, but operate in oh-so-many ways like one. In some regards the spirit of the “statehood” aspect of a city-state in, say, Hong Kong is stronger than that of the Vatican City: borders, security, identity, trade, economics. This is not to say HK is a fully independent polity; it’s not, as the CCP will tell you. I’m including them in a very slippery way that many authors and scholars on the area have done for years. I apologize for any inaccuracy as it pertains to true city-states, but it’s a convenient tag nonetheless.
So, I headed to the city-state of Singapore for the weekend. I chose it because I knew I had a Friday-Tuesday off that weekend due to the Chinese holiday (Dragon Boat Festival). This was convenient because I don’t really like leaving China during their own holidays, as you miss that subsection of culture. But having had a wonderful Dragon Boat Festival the year prior, I figure I could take an off year.
Better yet, as Singapore is 75% Han Chinese, there was still a strong sense of the motherland’s customs on the island city-state. While I didn’t see any dragon boat races in Singapore, there was zongzi being sold and statues of Qu Yuan everywhere, Qu Yuan being the reason for the season.
It is in metropolitan places like Singapore that this identity can persist, one in which people view themselves as Singaporean, yet fully indulge in Chinese customs and blend their mother tongue and a foreign one into Singlish.
Singapore was a perfect place to go as it is small enough to explore thoroughly in that time, but not too small where there was wasted time. In the end, I discovered the place is actually much larger than I thought, and you could spend a lifetime trying to understand the intricacies of both the nature of the place and the identity of the denizens. While 5 days was enough time to explore the city center, there were plenty of regions that I hadn’t explored that was mostly green areas and peripheral state-sponsored housing.
One of the biggest things I realized was just how strong the colonial presence still is in this part of the world. At a time where the nation-state is clearly the dominant polity, it’s crazy that Hong Kong, Singapore, et al exist as such. It may seem a difference without distinction, but the way they function and govern is so different to the way Russia or the US operate for instance.
Then factor in places like Goa, a tiny Indian state a world apart from the rest of the country, or Timor Leste, a tiny nation carved out of Indonesia. Or the myriad islands in the Caribbean or Pacific that are America, French and English. It’s nutty to think that in many ways, colonial vestiges persist in the very geopolitics, not just culture.
Having lived in a place like the US, or having view supranational organizations (EU, NAFTA, UN, AU, etc.) as integral to my being, it is easy to gloss over the prominence of polities than aren’t city-states. This part of Asia definitely widens the perspective in this regard of alternatives.
The rest of the essay will be a smattering of moments from Singapore that struck me, as it pertains to either its metropolitanism and cosmopolitanism.
Drive on the other side of the road. There’s some things I just don’t even bother to look up anymore, perhaps because I’m lazy or perhaps because they no longer faze me. But I was a thrown a little when I didn’t bother to think that a formal British colony (just six decades ago) drove on the left side of the road, and used….*gasp*…British style plugs. Fortunately, like many of the Asian nations I’ve been to, the outlets universally accept anything. And fortunately, I’ve gotten used to looking the other way when crossing the road, so I no longer have near run ins with traffic.
I’m not sure this speaks to more of my adaptability while traveling or absent-mindedness while doing literally anything. I digress….
Smart mall design. I hate malls in the US. They’re usually hideous having been built with cars and urban sprawl in mind, spawned mainly from one man. This won’t be the first time I ever say this: Robert Moses was a dick.
Urban sprawl in the US is an internationally unique phenomenon. It hasn’t occurred anywhere else quite like it has over in the land with amber waves of grain.
Malls never have good deals. They’re boring. Worst of all, there’s teenagers everywhere. But all across Asian megacities, malls are a huge draw: Singapore, Bangkok, Dubai, and so on. I always thought it was a waste of resources and takes away from the distinct culture of those places. But the problem is, I was approaching this thought from the perspective of the American design of roads, where cities and suburbs are way spread out. But in these tropical cities with denser urban cores, a mall is fantastic.
They can bring high end goods to people who can now afford it. More importantly, they offer cool destinations for people to enter. And they are often designed to be fairly well integrated in the city layout. They aren’t merely plopped in an area with nothing around. The entrances seamlessly connect with footpaths and sidewalks and subway stops. It was hard to tell at one point where the greenhouse, parkland, mall and subway clearly stood. It’s well executed, and probably helps capitalist aims as you are unwittingly bombarded with storefronts.
Are mall-park combos good? People hate when you take their parkland away. Governments love tax money. So one compromise (which isn’t really if you forcefully rip it from the people) is to make a combination mall and greenspace. The people retain their land and the government benefits from tax revenue. I know this has been done in Singapore and Hong Kong, and I’m sure elsewhere, but I don’t think it’s always the greatest idea. The mall basically owns the land, and it takes away from the feeling that the park is for the people, but rather that a business is doing you a favor my lending you swings and slides and benches. It feels like the city sold you out, but creating ideas that unify millions of people will tend to sideline someone I suppose.
Clean and nice. Singapore immediately reveals itself as a remarkably clean place. In fairness, this could be attributed to highly punitive measures against littering, spitting and drug usage. You’ll find the occasional cigarette on the ground, but there are public restrictions for where you can smoke. All this means that your stroll through the streets has blue skies and clean pavement, something many Asian cities can’t really offer. Walking the streets of Beijing, Bangkok, Hanoi, etc. will elicit an opposite reaction.
Tiny country, but bigger than you’d think. So my style of urban travel is to just walk around cities aimlessly (heeding occasional safety concerns) and get lost in the rhythm of a given place. I like to let the city kick the bass drum and just nod my head to the beat. I like to move with the flow, the crowd. I like to drift with the smells in the wind and have my nose lead the way to lunch. I like to see the shopping centers, if but for a few minutes, and then dart to the next spot. I like to see the rich and the poor. (I’m basically the next buddha.)
I figured this was a city-state, much like Macau or HK, for which I walked around endlessly. Certainly HK is fairly large, but for Macau I can truly walk the whole thing in a day or two, and so I figured Singapore was much the same. It’s not. Singapore is small, especially the downtown district, but it’s definitely not so small you can explore every nook and cranny on foot in a few days. There are far flung regions of the island with essentially housing and not much else that interests the resident. But alas, I hadn’t enough time to go there. Worth a trip back? Perhaps…
Sentosa. One of the beautiful parts of Singapore is the geology itself. It is a tropical island after all. There’s an island off the southern coast of Singapore called Sentosa, but it’s not really an island since there’s a land bridge now connecting it, but I guess that’s neither here nor there.
Anyways, it’s one of the main draws for tourists with its beaches, shows, luge, indoor sky diving, restaurants and bars. It was awesome for a bit, but the beaches would get old after a while, what with the scores of ocean liners crisscrossing a mile off, almost certainly emitting oil and grime into the waters. Definitely a pretty escape if you can avoid that sightline.
Alcohol tax. So although the city is generally pretty expensive, being a trade crossroads, tourist destination and general haven for the wealthy, the general prices aren’t quite Hong Kong or New York standard for a lot of things (in my experience.) However, a single beer will generally set you back a bit. I was shocked to find myself paying well over $10 on my first night for a beer at little joint in Little India that looked a bit ramshackle. Apparently the government wants to seriously discourage drinking, so the tax is super high compared to other things (along with the cigarette tax).
I met a local who explained it in two anecdotes.
The first requires the backdrop. There was a group of foreigners who got really, really drunk. So much so that when the cops came to disband the fun (it’s illegal to congregate in Singapore, as well as being super drunk). After agreeing on the proper course of action, the drunkards flipped the cop car. So obviously they want to cut down on stupid foreigners whipping through Southeast Asia trying to be idiots.
The second is simple. He said that Singaporeans are crazy, and so given cheap alcohol, bad stuff would ensue. Makes sense to me.
After a while I think I’d get bored. I’d heard this assessment about Singapore and I think it’s definitely valid. I had a blast in my short time there, and I would definitely go back again if the opportunity arose, but I would probably get really bored if I lived there a long time. There’s only so much to do, and much of it centers on tourism or is prohibitively expensive
It’s pricy all things considered, and there is a crazy alcohol tax, so even house parties you’d be priced out of after a while. I think one of the main attractions is that the standard of living is insanely high (not just for Asia, but for the world) and you could easily board a plane and zip to any number of countries in the area if you so desire. It’s status as a hub is a draw. To each their own.
Have you been to Singapore before? Let me know if you agree with my assessment of its urban nature down below.
Like what you’re reading on Singapore? Check out some other related articles in: The Singapore Chronicles!