Arriving in the darkness of a very early Sunday morning following a nearly 13 hour flight, my five days in Singapore were spent in a blur of jet lag and a punishing work schedule. I left as I had arrived, in darkness at midnight on a return flight to the Netherlands which didn’t afford me a single arial view of Southeast Asia’s most exceptional city-state. In between, I saw pretty much nothing of Singapore at street level, and what I did see was disorienting and contradictory…not to mention bathed in a relentless, stifling humidity.
Singapore is one of the most urbanised societies on the planet. It has few natural resources but an entrepreneurial spirit that embraces innovation; this is coupled with a government policy of centralised planning that has seen the country prosper far beyond its larger, resource rich neighbours. Taking part in a conference on water and creating a sustainable and livable city, I was fortunate to hear the Prime Minister state that it was his government’s intention to make Singapore the world’s first ‘compassionate’ city.
On the surface that seems improbable. Singapore is all fast-paced, near inhuman modernity: exclusive shopping malls selling globalised brands; luxury apartments affordable only to a wealthy elite; vast skyscrapers which have redefined its cityscape; a cosmopolitan and highly educated population; buildings so viciously air-conditioned that it feels like you’re being assaulted by the air itself; and streets so clean it is as if the entire nation has a severe case of street cleaning OCD.
Scratch a little beneath the surface though – in China Town or Little India – and an entirely different Singapore comes into focus, one that is very human. Here you get a glimpse of Singapore’s other reality: a country with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes, it is also a country with one of the largest wealth disparities. The booming economy may be founded on Singapore as a global financial hub, but it is also built on the backs of migrant labourers from India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. This is the Singapore I’d have liked more time to explore.
Still, you have to take what you can on a trip like this, so it was to these areas that I headed when I had a couple of hours to spare. I found myself wandering the charming and strangely beautiful Thian Hock Keng, or Temple of Heavenly Happiness – a name that could only have been invented in the East. Here the shock of Singapore’s modernity comes to an abrupt end, stepping off the street into the temple is like stepping back in time, the world seems to slow down.
Taoist and Buddhist temples have a glorious, garish, gory and highly decorated beauty. I don’t really understand it, but having seen people worship in these temples there appears to be a joy de vivre so often lacking in their monotheistic counterparts. There were no worshipers in the Temple of Heavenly Happiness on the rain- and humidity-soaked day I was there, just a few damp and disconsolate tourists.
Leaving the temple behind, I had a quick stroll down a shopping street in Little India before heading back to my hotel to dry off and cool down.
If my experience of Singapore was frustratingly little, it is probably not untypical of the experience many of the tens-of-thousands of people who come here for conferences or who are en route to Australia. This little taster makes me want to go back to explore more of the unusual history and intriguing present of this tiny city-state. After all, who could resist a country which has a giant water fountain of a Merlion…a creature which is half lion, half mermaid.