Thursday, January 5, 2012

Singapore Observations

The Singapore Flyer (like the London Eye), at 165 meters,
is the world's largest observation wheel.
Singapore - Asia's business and shipping nexus
My husband and I visited Singapore in September, 2011. This was our first, and probably our last, visit to Singapore. We had always wanted to visit Singapore, because it is the stuff that dreams and great architecture are made of. Here are some observations about Singapore, not in any particular order.

That's the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus
we took to get a sense of Singapore
It is really hot and humid in Singapore compared to our home in the Mile High Rocky Mountains. Even in relatively “good” Singaporean weather, we sweated our brains out everywhere we walked. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m overweight and out-of-shape by Singaporean or any standards. In a week, I only viewed two or three overweight Singaporeans in this island city-state.

Food Republic at Suntec Convention & Exhibition Centre
Choosing ingredients for the chef to make your soup dish
Chef preparing dish from ingredients chosen by the diner
Prepared dishes at a food stall
Food Opera at the Ion Mall where
there are chandeliers and sculptures
The “hawker” courts (aka food courts) are bits of heaven on earth, especially the upscale ones like Food Republic and Food Opera. For around five Singapore dollars (less than four U.S. dollars), you can get what we call plate lunches in Hawaii that abound with wonderful Asian food of every ethnicity and variety. And the made-to-order iced tea at Food Opera was a true delight, made by a barrista who was handling actual brewing pots and not a complicated cappuccino machine.

The view from the Marriott on Orchard Road where we stayed.
The swimming pool on the left is atop the Ion Mall.
The malls, from glistening marble, glass and stainless steel new ones, to older, funkier ones with roll-down metal doors on each storefront, all devoted considerable floor space to multiple escalators, although not so to benches or other resting places for weary shoppers. Shoppers are never forced to walk to either end of the mall in order to make their way up or down the many-layered malls, often four stories below ground and at least another four stories above. In fact, at the Ion Mall, you could see multiple escalators while riding one up or down. Obviously, with the multitude of malls, there is no lack of entrepreneurial fervor or designer chic profit. The number of jewelry stores with significant inventory both in number and quality of pieces is astounding, as is the number of hair and nail salons in all the malls, especially the more “local” ones that don’t specialize in designer goods.

Inside Tang Plaza, one of the local malls
Singapore is Asian through and through. In many venues, such as malls, the subway and the country’s two casinos, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of non-Asians, one of them being my husband. The only exception to this was in our hotel, the Singapore Marriott, which had over half its guests being non-Asian, many from Australia. For me, I felt “at home.” I was surrounded not only by people who look like me (except for my height, weight and graying hair), but who also speak Cantonese and English both, so that I felt at home regardless of which language was being spoken by the people around me. Incidentally, it was interesting to note that the English spoken in Singapore is more akin to American English than British English.

A storefront Buddhist worship space in Chinatown
View from Chinatown in a city of contrasts -- pagoda roofs
and high rise public housing
All the women dye their hair. I did not see a single Singaporean woman with gray or white hair. I did see some older ladies with white roots, indicating that they were overdue for a touch-up. So, I was odd not only because of my relative size, but also because I have allowed myself to go gray, although after I noticed this phenomenon, I admit that I did then feel self-conscious.

The shoe stores sell women’s shoes to about an American size 8 from what I could gather when viewing a size comparison chart in one shop. So, I quickly stopped looking to replace a pair of sandals that snapped a strap, thankfully in my hotel room and not while being worn out on the street. I observed many Singaporean women fashionably attired in high heels and dark hose, a look that I failed to carry off even in my younger, more fashionable days, given my penchant for red and purple colored hose.

Singapore is an incredibly clean city-state, and Singaporeans appear to be really careful rules-followers. The signs say, “No eating, drinking, smoking, gum chewing,” and you don’t see any eating, drinking, smoking or gum chewing in public places and especially on the subway. This observation led us to notice that we had not seen a single dog or cat in our week there. We had to Google "pets in Singapore" to learn that there are very strict rules about owning pets in Singapore and where they’re allowed to be.

Herb waiting for our subway train
In a week’s time, we only saw uniformed police officers once, and that was in the subway station underneath the governor’s residence. There was a group of six or eight uniformed officers who had two bomb-sniffing or contraband-sniffing German Shepherds under their control. I tried to take a photo of them with my phone and was warned off by one of the officers. Needless to say, I complied quickly and put my phone into my pants pocket.

Along with not seeing uniformed police, we also saw a great casualness with which people handled their personal belongings in public places such as the hawker (food) courts. It was apparently normal for women to put their purses and packages down at a table and choose a food stall to place their order. No one seemed to worry that someone would walk away with someone else’s belongings. It made us wonder about the presence of un-uniformed police, security cameras and other crime deterrents. We noted that low crime is not the same as no crime.

We were told, and had read, that the unemployment rate in Singapore is very low (2%) and many workers are imported from Indonesia and the Philippines. The notion of adequate staffing in shops, restaurants, malls and hotels is considerably different from what we’re used to in the United States. Here, we have to compete for the attention of scarce retail workers, while, in contrast, we noticed a surfeit of retail workers, hotel wait, maid and maintenance staff, and restaurant servers in Singapore. We also noticed people stationed at some of the escalators to assist people off in the large upscale malls.

There is a lottery system to become eligible to buy a private auto, and the almost 100% license fee (tax) to own a private auto means that only the economically well-off can afford one. To alleviate rush hour congestion, the downtown city streets have overhead electronic signs and toll systems that operate during rush hour, and apparently, all vehicles are equipped with transponders to pay those tolls. The public transportation system is extensive with buses and subways arriving constantly. Taxis are another matter, as we discovered the one night we went to a performance at the Esplanade and then waited over an hour in a taxi queue until we finally got one to take us back to our hotel. Flagging one on the street would have been impossible, as we learned from stories told by other tourists.

The Marina Bay Sands Resort seen from street level --
three 55-storey towers joined by a one hectare roof sky park 
The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands Mall
We visited the two casinos in Singapore, both opened in early 2010, and observed some noticeable differences from American Las Vegas-type casinos. Singapore residents must pay an entry fee of 100 Singapore dollars each visit or an annual fee of 2,000 Singapore dollars, while foreign visitors with passports enter for free. Those entry fees don’t seem to deter Singaporeans from gambling though, and we saw only a handful of non-Asians in either casino. You can buy an alcoholic beverage in the bars and restaurants, but inside the casino, you can only get tea, water or soft drinks. There were some table games that were foreign to us, appearing to be Asian card games.

Evening at The Forum gathering and shopping area
on Sentosa Island

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