Singapore is described as an Island City State and it certainly does not feel like a Country. What is true, is that it feels successful and relatively prosperous. The roads, underground metro system, social housing, parks and buses would be the envy of most of the countries we have passed through and would give London pause for thought. Like it or loathe it, it feels like a very successful project.
It has four official languages, namely Malay, Cantonese, Tamil and thankfully English. As far as we can tell many people either speak English as their main language, if not their second one.
Although it has been a port since the 14th Century, variously under the control of the Malacca or Johor Sultanate, it was not until 1819, that Sir Stamford Raffles contrived to get permission to set up the British Trading Colony of Singapore. Now in 2019, 200 years later, there are still many streets, hotels, hospitals and schools named after him even though his time in Singapore was relatively short.
Briefly and unhappily, during the second world war, largely due to our incompetence, Singapore was captured from the British by the Japanese. It reverted to the British after the Japanese were defeated in 1945. Confidence in the British had waned and powers were gradually ceded locally until in 1963, Singapore briefly merged again with neighbouring Malaysia.
Following various political and racially motivated conflicts, Singapore with its majority ethnic Chinese population, was soon omitted from Malaysia and established as an independent state in 1965, after which, in spite of various skirmishes, it began to prosper and begin to become the ethnically diverse and properous state that it is today.
Support for and confidence in its’ government was boosted by a massive social housing and infrastructure investment programme, which is very evident today.
On 31st January 2019, we drove into Singapore and made our way directly to the docks, where we had booked Landy onto a container crossing to Brisbane.
The very clean car was handed over with keys and carnet and we now would not see Landy again till she disembarked in Brisbane, having made the passage on the Rio de Janeiro container ship, sailing out on 5th February.
Feeling mildly bereft, we completed our journey by taxi, to the cheap Airbnb booking Jim had located in the outskirts of Town, in Yishun. Jim was pretty poorly at this stage and only wanted to sleep.
On route the taxi driver explained that the accommodation was in social housing and that they probably were not permitted to rent out a room!
Yishun and its vast social housing estates looked very well cared for, plus the blocks all looked very clean and well maintained.
Jim and I had both managed social housing in the UK and these flats would be considered very desirable in London, with good space standards and excellent amenities, good transport links and lots of leisure options and lovely parks.
We were not put off by being on the 12th floor as the lifts were clean and efficient. But the experience in the flat however, was a disappointment to me. The room was East facing, had only net curtains and was incredibly hot. Too hot to easily sleep and certainly was not a place to remain during the day with one fan and no air-conditionning and the cat.
Two large cat litter trays lived right outside the door and the bathroom was through the living room and directly off their kitchen. We had one towel between us and for me, it was pretty tricky with Jim too ill to think about relocating. (The joys of long term travelling!)
Luckily next to our block there was a Hawker Centre. These are amazing food courts which host many different outlets. Food and drinks are sold at reasonable prices in clean surroundings. It was close enough to get Jim to venture forth and at least buy fresh fruit drinks which largely kept him going for a few days.
Some food choices were better than others, and I did nearly choke sucking on a quamquat seed!
I loved the tray system. If you returned your tray you got an automatic cash refund.
It was from Yishun, that I got a travel card and experimented with the Singapore underground system.
I was tickled to see a rare, British made, Brompton bike between the legs of a young commuter. (I actually saw another one a couple of days later. An older merchant sailor working on a ship used it in port to get around town).
I was very impressed indeed with the whole public transport system and it would be the envy of any of the capital cities we had passed through in the last year. Clear messages and fab graphics and display boards.
The language used for announcements was English. I was surpised to be asked to, “please mind the gap” and to learn that the next stop was the junction with the circle line! We loved the ‘Happy Happy’ announcement when the doors opened and it was a disappointment to learn that it meant, take care on disembarking!
On the first day, I made it into the main downtown Orchard, shopping area whilst Jim slept as only he knows how. (To be fair he was later diagnosed with pneumonia, so sleeping was about right!)
All the top brands were there and many more besides. But somehow it did not float my boat. Would you believe it, but this was inside a covered, air conditionned mall!
We noticed that the authorities were very severe on drug pushers. Pushers could be punished by death and drug takers could be flogged. Even chewing gum or e-cigarettes or other nicotine products such as snuff were banned and attracted massive fines.
I think it would not be long, in Singapore, when my interest in wandering around would diminish, as in reality it was one big theme park, a series of vast upscale shopping malls and small pockets of local shops, mainly low rise and scruffy but tasty cafes dedicated to the different ethnicities.
On Sunday 3rd February, we relocated closer to the centre of town to lodgings in Little India.
This predominantly low rise shophouse style area, was economically thriving and a bustling, popular area full of local shops, cafes and downscale hotels. It is surrounded by the modern city but has somehow survived largely intact.
In Little India on weekends or holidays, large groups of Indian men ‘loitered’ outdoors picnicking and some sadly drinking tinnies on their days off. It was peaceful but a bit sad. In 2017, an alcohol fuelled riot broke out in Little India following the death of a drunk Indian man who fell under a bus and sadly died. You feel that these remittance workers, separated from family life were not totally happy and it could happen again. This was in contrast to the many men and women busily working in family businesses.
Around the town, pockets of retained heritage buildings were sign posted on walking routes. And, unlike Kuala Lumpur, Singapore had enough restored ‘shop houses’ and retained colonial buildings to create some interest. Certainly otherwise you could zip from Mall to Mall via a Casino or fun park on the fancy metro system looking for skywalks and light shows.
We were here for Chinese New Year and this was a big public holiday and thousands of ethnic Chinese went to the temple to pray. This involved lighting huge quantities of incense and the purchase of flowers. There were also vast lines of people buying lottery tickets. There was a huge emphasis on lucky days, lucky numbers and lucky colours.
Many people were wearing red clothing and tangerines and oranges were being purchased and gifted. This was an opportunity for live music on the streets in the Chinese quarter.
There were horoscopes displayed in Malls and on walkways and all the shops had happy new year signs displayed.
People gave gifts of cash in red envelopes and these were being sold in massive quantities. Whole shops selling thousands of brightly coloured, mainly red envelopes. I slipped into a Christian Church and there too it was a special New Year Service and the congregation were each given a red envelope containing a prayer and a couple of oranges to take away.
We did go to the Gardens by the Bay and wandered around Marina Bay and saw the well known iconic views. Gazed in the many designer shop fronts and were amazed by the opulence of these places. In addition to the high end brands, every high street brand of shopping and fast food can be found here.
There are several Marks and Spencer. I would say duller than at home - yes it is possible. I was intrigued that they had a whole section of clothes for muslim women labelled as the Modest section! They were not selling like hot cakes.We took ourselves off to Sentosa, a small island connected to the main island by a walkway and a monorail train. I was not expecting it to be one big fun fair. I was intrigued to see a vending machine on the covered walkway selling over the counter medicines including insect repellant, sting calmers, antihistamine, muscle pain pads, tissues, panadol etc. They are very big on arthritis pads here.
Whole shops can be devoted to these products. I tried to buy a tiny tube of Zorvirax. Luckily the dispensing chemist was having a break and it was controlled, it would have set me back 29 Singapore dollars! I looked harder and found the one I had with me under the bed.
Well for us, South East Asia is finished. Tomorrow we head off to the airport and will be whisked away on a 7 hour flight to Australia. There we will wait in Brisbane for Landy to arrive and then we will continue our voyage in Oz!