Sunday, November 01, 2009

[Travelogue] Singapore: green and squeaky clean

I would not have thought it possible to build a city cleaner than Tokyo. I was wrong. Tokyo is spotless, but Singapore is positively gleaming. Even the container port where we first docked (because the berths in the cruise ship terminal were all occupied) looked like it had a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. If I had seen people scrubbing the concrete with toothbrushes I would not have been too surprised.

Singapore is a unique country. It's a tiny (20x30 miles) island just at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula. It grew up similar to Hong Kong under British rule, but with a more varied and eclectic mix of Asian influences. It has also had the benefit of a benevolent dictator who has turned the Island into a squeaky-clean and more fully Westernized version of Hong Kong. Politically Singapore is a very weird animal. It is nominally a democracy but actually a dictatorship. Like Hong King, Singapore is a pean to free-market capitalism. It makes most of its money from shipping and banking services. Income taxes are low (at least according to our tour guide). And yet it has an extremely liberal ethos. The country enthusiastically embraces its multi-ethnic heritage. It is so environmentally conscious you'd think Al Gore was prime minister. Taxes on cars are ridiculously high (there is excellent public transit to compensate) and old cars are simply not allowed on the road. There are clearly emission control laws in place. The black-smoke-belching diesels and scooters that seem to be ubiquitous in China, Thailand and Viet Nam are nowhere to be found here. Even chewing gum is banned!

There are trees everywhere. The waterfront is gleaming and chock-a-block with a wide array of restaurants housed in historic buildings that have been lovingly restored. The cruise ship terminal is part of an enormous shopping mall, again with literally dozens of restaurants overlooking the water. It appears at first glance to be the best example of urban planning in the world. I can't think of any other city that comes close. And to top if all off, everyone is friendly and speaks English. Of all the places we've been on this trip, Singapore is the one I would most like to come back to (well, maybe a toss-up with Tokyo).

The only problem with this place is the weather. It's 1 degree north of the equator, so they have three kinds of weather: hot and humid, hotter and more humid, and ridiculously hot and humid, with an occasional rain shower thrown in for seasoning. They don't get taiphoons, and they don't have earthquakes. I'm not sure I could handle living in a place that never gets below 70 degrees. But it sure is nice to visit.

The downside of everything being so wonderful is that there aren't many good stories to tell. We walked around, marveled at the architecture, ate some great food, and that's about it. So to make up for it, I'll tell another story about something happened way back in Osaka that I just realized I forgot to write about at the time.

Osaka is a sprawling city without a real center, and the cruise ship terminal is kind of out in the boonies, relatively speaking. There's quite a lot of stuff there, including the aquarium (worth a visit) and a giant ferris wheel. There's even a shopping center, but it's kind of an uninteresting one. There are no restaurants beyond a food court and a few chains. So we went on a sushi quest and ended up in a tatami room in a place where no one spoke English and the menu was all in Japanese. We had a great meal nonetheless. After we were done, as we were walking down the street, the proprietor of the restaurant came running after us. It seems I had inadvertently left a brochure on the table and he was returning it to me. He handed it to me with a lot of bowing and a long speech in Japanese that I couldn't understand. For all I know he was saying: stupid gai-jin, why can't you remember to take your shit with you? But it sure didn't sound like that to me.

When I told this story to several people familiar with Japanese custom they all told me that such a thing was not at all unusual in Japan. But it sure seemed extraordinary to me. Americans could learn a thing or two from the Japanese. And the Singaporeans.

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