Friday, 17 February 2012

Down and out in Singapore

18th – January - 1st Febuary 2012, Down and out in Singapore
Changi – East Coast – Pasir Ris – West Coast - Singapore City – Little India – Pulau Ubin – Bukit Timah
Total distance: 1945 – 2000~ km

Speeding along in our boat towards Singapore, we noticed that even the ocean currents obeyed the no littering policy; the water was clear and lay in stark contrast to the murky, litter-strewn waters off Indonesia. Transparent water, chewing gum not permitted, everybody speaking fluent English... this was not going to be the Asia that Liv and I were used to. What was this place, and how on earth did it get so clean?

Our ferry departed Indonesia at 10:30am, but we arrived at the dock an hour early and got shepherded to all the right places by a friendly member of staff. Leaving Indonesia by boat, even with weighty bicycles, was remarkably easy – we reckon the bikes attract a certain sympathy factor from staff who see two bewildered “touris” standing around with cumbersome bicycles, and rush to our aid. We dropped our bikes outside on the jetty under the watchful eye of a guard, then climbed the steps to the immigration building, queued for 10 seconds, then had a sulky looking immigration officer glance at our passports and stamp them. We celebrated upstairs with a coffee and a pack of Oreos, then our boat arrived, we descended the stairs, and dragged our bikes on board.

The boats that ply the route between Bintan and Singapore are small, rapid vessels. The nautical equivalent of a shuttle bus. We squeezed past the rows of seats inside, and out onto the rear deck where we found space to lean our bikes amongst a few passengers puffing on cigarettes. Going to a new country is always a very exciting time, and we kept watch for the first signs of Singapore on the horizon. Once we had left the shores of Bintan behind, and bounced passed neighbouring Batam island, we noticed that the sea had suddenly gotten very busy. Enormous freighters surged along the water beside us, while other small ferries veered around them like cheeky mice. All around us were these massive ships, some loaded with cargo, others empty, and other great bulky vessels of uncertain purpose. It was as though we had just inadvertently gatecrashed a secret ship party. It was chocker!

Being so small (about 700km2 and just a third of the size of little old Bintan) Singapore naturally needs to ship in certain necessities and luxuries, which accounts for some of the enormous congregation, but Singapore also exports a lot of goods: primarily chemicals, electronics, and refined oil. Strategically placed for trade, offering low tax rates, and with a reputation for being a great business environment, many companies base themselves in Singapore, and so the country brings in lots raw materials, works them, and exports them out again. It is an island positively thriving on this system, and its port is the one of the busiest in the world.

As our little ferry motored closer to land we looked excitedly ahead in the hope of catching a glimpse of this. Unfortunately what we saw wasn't very awe inspiring at all; a small empty jetty with a red roof. More McDonald's drive-thru than the gargantuan hive of transit that we'd been hoping for. Ah well. We disembarked and followed the neat arrows on the path to the arrivals lounge where we were escorted to two immigration officers who took our passports and gave us a form to fill in. Once again, the process was pain free. Being UK citizens meant that we got three months entry for free and didn't have to prepare anything in advance. We just turned up, gave them our passports, and filled in a little form about 5 questions long. Not that Singapore's immigration should be taken lightly though. Overstay your visa and you risk a caning; a process that can, apparently, scar you for life. Our departure card also cheerily warned us that if we smuggled drugs into the country we would be hanged. Perhaps even more shocking than this is the fact that those people who partake in the use of illicit substances can be arrested and charged in Singapore for simply having traces in their system, even if it was taken outside the country weeks before. The Singapore government enforce a strict “No ****ing about” policy when it comes to most things.

We handed our forms back with the question “What address shall you be staying at in Singapore” blank. The immigration officer looked at us, and repeated the question to us aloud.

We two long haired scruffy cyclists ummed for a second, and then said: “The... er... in the parks.”

The guy smiled, and told us he'd handle it. He stamped us in and handed our passports back. “Have a nice time.” he said. We unloaded all our bags and passed them through customs, saddled up again, and pushed them through the immaculate lounge, passed little cafes and kiosks, and out of the glass panelled doors.

It was a dazzlingly bright day. The blue sky swirled with ice-cream clouds and there was a refreshing breeze about. We had arrived at the Tanah Merah ferry terminal on the far eastern edge of the island, but it was hard to imagine that we were within spitting distance of an enormous modern metropolis because as we set off we only saw a dozen cars or so, and were surrounded on both sides by greenery. We weren't exactly sure where we were going, but we headed east, because Rah had told us there was an East Coast Park that we could camp in, but this route led us straight into a naval and airforce base – the island is peppered with them. We turned around, and went back the way we had come until we found a wide cycle path that led us past the airport and to the north east edge of the island, where we found a different park called Changi.

The first thing that strikes you about Singapore, if it isn't a baton wielded by anti-narcotic agents, is how clean everything is. There are no dark smudges of gum on the pavements. There are no carrier bags of litter lying in the bushes. No empty bottles or food wrappers rolling about down the road. With heavy on-the-spot fines for littering people make the effort to dispose of their rubbish properly. But since the government has placed bins everywhere, it isn't hard. And since everybody has to make the effort, if you do rock up and start discarding wrappers like a mad man you will, I am sure, feel the sting of a thousand eyes condemning you, and probably get fined too. And besides, you wouldn't even consider littering this place – why would you? It is wonderful riding around all day and seeing everything so clean. After a few days of this you wonder why on earth the rest of the world isn't following suit.

As we arrived at Changi Park it became apparent that bins, roads and cycle paths weren't the only things the government was providing its citizens. The park ran along a stretch of beach for about 3km, and was dotted with outdoor fitness centres (basically fully equipped gyms), children's play areas, barbecue pits, benches, cycling 'pit stop' shops with drinks, food and spares, as well as the fabled camping grounds. The place buzzed with activity; joggers, people fishing (in the designated fishing area only), families standing around the barbecue, kids playing on the swings. What I mean to say is that it was a bloody excellent park, it was like an advert it was so perfect. We'd not camped in an advert before, and we couldn't wait to get set up.

The only problem was that we needed a permit, and the ASX machine – some kind of government service machine that looks like an ATM – that should have dispensed this to us was out of order - somewhat injuring the notion we had that Singapore might actually be a well lubricated, fully functioning utopia. We didn't fancy getting hit with a juicy fine on our first night so we rode off in search of another machine. It took us a while, but after an hour or so we found a shopping centre with another ASX machine, but then we learnt that we needed a Singapore ID number in order to get a permit. We did not have one of these, and there seemed to be no way of remidying this. So we headed back with some shopping and got to work setting our tent up as the afternoon slipped into the evening.

We were parked right on the beach, under the shade of a small leafy tree. Out on the water huge ships slid by, and beyond them we could see the Malaysian mainland just a few kilometres away. As the night set in the coastline at the other side blossomed with lights, and we made our way over to the BYO barbecue area and sparked up our stove. We ate well, interrupted at regular intervals by the wailing bulks of aeroplanes taking off from the airport just over the road. We thought the noise might keep us up at night, but it didn't, and we both dozed off and slept soundly until the next morning.

The next day Liv was woken by a voice outside the tent. “Excuse me. You are camping in this area without a permit, can you get up and follow me to the station please.”

It was Rah.

We three sat around on a bench and ate some muesli and 'bean puffs' (little pasties containing bean sprouts) and Rah welcomed us to Singapore and gave us some ideas about what there was to do around here before he disappeared off to work. As we were packing our things up a genuine parks officer approached us and requested our permit. We explained the situation, and that we wanted to camp around for the next week or so. Foreigners can camp in Singapore can't they?

“Yes, but you do need a permit.”

“We can't get one out of the machines, we don't have a Singapore ID card.”

Singapore has something of a reputation for being by the book; exactly the kind of place where not having a permit for camping might turn out to be a problem. There was a pause, as his colleague prodded one of our panniers suspiciously, then the officer cleared his throat and assured us that he wasn't going to fine us. Phew. But we had to move on to another park – you can only stay in one park for one night – and we'd need to arrange something with the officers at the other parks as we went. He suggested that we email them each night and tell them where we intended to stay, and then wait for confirmation before setting our tent up, but we told him that wouldn't exactly be practical, and we weren't even to know then how difficult getting internet would turn out to be. So he offered to send an email round to all the park rangers advising that there might be some cyclists camped up in the parks for the next week. How was that? It suited us nicely; and went to show that Singapore, although saturated with regulations, is capable of bending them. Unfortunately, like I say, our experience with internet connections was not so simple, and it became the bane of our existence during our time in Singapore. Before the cockroaches and the ants anyway.

There is free wi-fi across Singapore, but as foreigners it is not possible for us to use it. We have to register to access it using a Singapore telephone number, which, like Singaporean ID cards, we don't have. Since there is free wi-fi everywhere there are hardly any internet cafes, and even the supposed sure-fire bets for getting a connection - Maccy D's and Starbucks – get slack and don't offer their customers their own.

As well as trying to meet up with Rah, we also wanted to meet up with Liv's cousin Will who lived in the city, but every time we tried to get hold of an internet connection it took us well over three hours. It was made all the more frustrating by the fact that we also had to keep packing our tent up and relocating. So our first few days in the city were spent pushing our loaded bikes around housing blocks, roads and shopping centres trying to find a connection to check whether Will or Rah had emailed us. Often they had, but we had missed the rendezvous by that time, so we had to email them back to reschedule, then find a suitable park to pitch our tent and do it all over again the next day. It was less than ideal, and meant that we missed the message from Will saying he was going to Bangkok for the next few days, and then because we wound up so far away from our campsite the next day looking for a connection, we then ended up being late for a rendezvous with Will's flat mate, so we missed out on a night out for Chinese New Year. We both became very tired of it – and for the early part of our stay lived out the lives of addict tramps roaming from park to park, endlessly searching for our next net fix.
The big clean before Chinese New Year.

On the whole though, we enjoyed traipsing around the city and seeing the sights, because Singapore is a very futuristic looking place and it's a wee bit like wandering around a sci-fi movie. After gaining independence somewhat reluctantly in 1965, Singapore's economy has boomed. Everything in the city looks brand new. In fact a good many of the buildings look like they have been transported from about thirty years in the future. Almost all of the housing blocks – huge multi-storied structures to house the 5 million strong population – look like they've been carved out of a luxury space cruiser; with enamel white balconies and smart black window frames (no clothes drying in the windows though, because that is against by-law MT92-b). The transport system is extremely well organised too, with regular buses and plenty of MRT stations – that's Mass Rapid Transit, which is future speak for 'trains' - which run quietly along their tracks that weave up and over and under and round the city.
Scruffy cyclists in spotless Singapore.
We didn't quite fit in here.

The public transport system has to be good though because the government have ensured that running a car here isn't cheap. As a way of keeping congestion down car prices are set very high, and if you do decide to splash out and buy one you also have to apply for a permit to let your car drive on the roads. These are good for ten years and will cost you about $60'000. Once your permit runs out, you have to buy a new one or get your car off the road. As a result there are no cheap bangers driving about - everything on the roads is in keeping with the hyper modern theme – but it also means that even at rush hour the traffic is thin on the ground, certainly compared to any other equivalent sized city, and outside of the city centre the roads are very sparsely populated indeed. Thanks to the quality housing, the regulation on the roads, and a whole lot of other rules and regulations, Singapore appears to tick along very nicely. As we strolled about the quiet parks, watched the trickle of traffic from an overpass, or wandered about a moderately busy shopping mall, we found it very difficult to believe that Singapore is the third most densely populated place on the planet. Honestly, it's a remarkable feat of organisation for the state to make this place seem so sedate.

The population of Singapore is split roughly 75% Chinese, 13% Malay, 10% Indian, with a sprinkling of other nationalities, and every one exerts its influence across the city, perhaps most notably with food. There is excellent food everywhere here; Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Japanese, Italian, French – you name it! And with a bit of careful hunting it was possible for the two of us to share a light and tasty lunch for less than $5, and a decent sized meal for $10. Food hygiene is not an issue either since the keen eye of the government is on the food courts and restaurants too, and they all have to pass regular inspections – so we can scoff whatever we want, even some of the more visceral Chinese dishes, without worrying about them repeating on us. Vomiting up a bowl of half digested pig organ soup would no doubt be a horrifying experience that one would rather avoid.

Holy cow!

Away from the towering peaks of the central financial district - which look like skyscrapers you'd find in any city, albeit fresh out of the packet - these cultures have made their mark in the bricks too. Riding around the city we are occasionally surprised to see a wonderfully intricate Hindu temple by the side of a highway, with a pyramid roof populated by crafted cows, gods and monsters – a dose of colourful bedlam set against the orderliness. Many streets buzz to life at night with neon displays of lobsters, crabs or frogs to attract patrons. Tall pagodas and white washed churches poke out between office blocks, and just north of the city centre is the wonderful bustle of Little India. There are markets, temples and tailors, with the squeak of Hindi singers and the waft of sandalwood from shop doorways. All of this authentic Indian feel and yet all under the jurisdiction of the Sing rule of law. No littering, no spitting. It's like Mumbai, but spotless.

Our days spent roaming the streets like lost spirits trying to check our emails did pay off eventually, because on our third night in town we got to meet up with the cyclists from Bintan again for a night ride. Shireen led a little group of us around riverside paths, and out towards the marina in town, and then around some side streets and finally to a back alley Chinese restaurant where we all sat around guzzling food from the numerous bowls scattered around our table. Pork floss, pan fried carrot cake, pig's trotters, dim sum, noodles, and many more amazing and surprising dishes. We're not just saying that, even the pigs feet tasted great! We all ate to bursting point, and then cycled across the road to a late night bar where we sat on plastic chairs outside drinking beer until the early hours.

These guys were great. Really good company, and willing to put up with our constant stream of questions about living in Singapore. We probed Yunos about life in this modern metropolis – what was it like having to put up with the risk of so many fines every day?

“This is a great place to grow up and raise a family, it's safe, there are jobs. When you have that you don't care so much about a few rules here and there, it's not really an issue.”

And it's true. The whole place seems impeccably well run, so well run in fact that you expect there to be a massive catch somewhere, but day to day all you see are a few laws signposted about that aren't particularly terrible, and on the whole perfectly justified. Scratch the surface a little though, and you find there there are several suspect aspects to this paternal system of law, and then a few cracks appear, and a distinctly Orwellian aroma spills out. Male homosexuality is illegal (not female homosexuality, apparently), legal hangovers from the days of the war on (communist) terror mean you can be arrested and held without trial here, the newspapers are all state run, Malaysian newspapers are banned, and the severity of some punishments – such as caning and the noose - seem unusually barbaric in a place that otherwise champions the march of progress in the modern world.

We've also been told that there are a few issues encroaching into the day to day of people here. Like the price of housing, which is ballooning and not everyone is in a position to keep up with the costs. While camping in the parks, we occasionally noticed tents that were filled with people who were evidently not there for a picnic. These were people who couldn't afford the housing, and who had to live in the parks in tents. Doing what we were doing basically – packing up each day and moving around – but out of necessity, every day before work, because proper housing was not within their reach.

The healthcare system is also suffering from mounting costs and becoming inaccessible to some people. The rich can afford it, and there are subsidies for the poor, but those in the middle are forced avoid the doctors except in emergencies.

When you're confronted by a place that seems so dauntingly well managed as Singapore it's impossible to resist the temptation to seek out the inevitable problems and make a big show of them. Everywhere has it's issues, and Singapore mercifully has a few too. In 1993 science fiction writer William Gibson wrote a notorious article about Singapore, in which he dismissed the place as a successfully oppressive, creatively stale, technocratic nightmare vision of the future. But with the West now wheezing under the pressure of the global financial crisis – something all of our creative minds seem incapable of overcoming – perhaps we should be less hasty to criticise the tightly run regulations of a city state that has weathered the Asian Slump of the mid-nineties, and through regulation, and adaptation, is continuing to prosper despite the financial storms battering much of the rest of the world.

Even libertarians must admit that the government has been doing a very good job from the word go. Singapore suffered greatly during the second world war, the infrastructure was ruined, food was scarce, and violent crime was rampant. You would not have put money on Singapore becoming a super economy any time soon. If this wasn't all bad enough, tensions between Malaysia and Singapore – that to this day carry on in the form of petty tit for tat diplomacy – meant that only two years after being granted independence and becoming a part of the Malaysian federation; racial tensions, fears about communist plots, and a break down in diplomacy culminated in Singapore being booted out of the federation and becoming, unwillingly, an independent country in 1965. The prime minister appeared to weep on televising during this break up – it was not pretty, and I think it would be fair to say that Singapore was justified in shitting its pants. Here it was; a tiny island without any natural resources, without any fertile land, and generally not looking all that promising as an individual entity, being forced to go it alone.
The Wednesday Night Riders!

We got a taste for what Singapore had been like during this time when we met up with the cyclists again, a few days later, for a morning's ride around the island of Pualu Ubin. People say that this is what Singapore was like in the 1940's, before the boom, and as we got off the little 12 seater boat it certainly felt like we'd entered a different country – gone back to Indonesia perhaps, if not back in time. There were dogs roaming about, the vans were old, and some of the wooden houses had damp nibbling at the corners. Quaint little town though it was, and demonstrative of how far Singapore has come in such a short time, it can only tell us so much about Singapore's past, since there was none of the clan violence, poverty and unemployment that beset Singapore as it recovered from the second world war.

Which was all the better for us, because it meant we enjoyed a thoroughly pleasant morning there. There was just one small town centre, that stood by the dock, and seemed exclusively set up for tourists. Cafes, a few temples, and a few thousand bicycles for rent. The rest of the group were going on some hardcore off road tracks, which we decided to forgo in case we damaged our precious bikes, and instead we set off along the easy trails around the island.

While Singapore has greened 50% of it's land with parks and trees, there is very little original rainforest left, and so we really appreciated the density of the flora, and the abundance of wildlife as we coasted about the jungles of Ubin. We saw a snake, lots of crazy zulu beetles, a wild boar, hermit crabs, huge spiders and lots and lots of mudskippers. Unfortunately there are, apparently, plans to develop Ubin and bring it up to date with the rest of Singapore, which seems like a very foolish thing to do really since it is obvious that people enjoy coming here to get away from the city. While its true to say that the city is impressive, and even well greened, there is no substitute for getting out into nature proper, and seeing wild mud skippers leap nobly about in silt..
Perhaps we cannot remain impartial about Singapore, since after we'd spent a week camping in the parks, not really washing as often as we should have and cooking on a precarious little stove each night, it was easy for us to revere even the most basic aspects of civilisation going on around us. I can well imagine if we had no jobs, had clans out to kill us, and had no food – like the early Singaporeans - we would be eternally grateful to any government who alleviated this situation. And indeed, our sentiment about the effectiveness of the Singaporean government is shared by the majority here, because since their independence in 1965 the People's Action Party has been voted in at every single election to the present day. Let me repeat that: the same party has been in power since 1965. Our immediate response to this was that it must be a brash act of blatant corruption, but looking around at the city you can kind of understand it. As the Singaporeans say with a shrug when you ask them about this; “They're doing a great job.” Look at the city today - with its parks, trains, public gyms, high employment rate, and it's hard to deny it.

Liv could probably get fined for this expression.

In fact, one thing that Singapore apparently is not, is corrupt. Transparency international rates Singapore time and again as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. It seems like it's history as a trading post has moulded its current political philosophy into one that is business focussed, but (most of the time) not at the expense of its population. Crime, drugs, and corruption simply aren't tolerated because they are bad for business. The population is schooled in English (the language of commerce) and a majority of the population move into the service based roles that arrive with the billion dollar multi-national businesses that come and set up shop here. Businesses are attracted to Singapore, they get good employees, the population get good jobs, and the taxes generated go straight back in to making the city a better place for its citizens to live in.

But all is not quite as it seems. The government are apparently incorruptible because they are paid an absolutely whopping salary – the President taking in an annual salary of around $3'000'000 (USD). And while the government have been voted in a landslide in every election, this system of democracy is not much like anything we're used to. Criticising the government is a crime, and party political films are banned. Laws which make the role of the opposition difficult and dangerous. Anybody who treads on too many toes soon find themselves sued into oblivion for defamation. It's clear just how obliging the voting system is to the status quo when you consider that although 33% of the population voted for the opposition in 2006, 82 out of the 84 seats in parliament went to the People's Action Party.

We asked Yunos if he could really live freely here. Wasn't he, just a little bit, oppressed? He sat back in his chair with a beer in his hand, “No” he said, and grinned. And it's hard to say that the system here is having any negative effect on Yunos, or the rest of the people we have met. Everyone we have met has been extremely friendly, very cheerful, and unencumbered by propaganda. If this is an authoritarian regime, it's not an authoritarian regime as we know it – it seems genuinely concerned about the quality of life of its citizens, and everyone is exceedingly content with it all.

The rulers are paid astronomically high wages, but they are earning it, and it does apparently make them immune to corporate bribes. Perhaps it is far more despicable having publicly run banks paying their CEOs millions of pounds in bonuses each year, and only paying our Prime Minister a measly hundred and fifty grand? Shouldn't the government, the people we elect to run our country, be paid more than the heads of businesses that operate there? Or have we entrusted so much faith in the hand of the market that our political leaders are just plopped there to shout at when things go awry? Is it any wonder people in the UK see politicians as weak, corrupt, and really rather useless?

When it comes to the illegality of criticising the government of Singapore their justification runs along the lines that having to sit around responding to allegations, or debating issues with the opposition would take up valuable time when they could be concentrating on running the country properly instead. As far as excuses go it is a bit feeble, but they do at least appear to be doing their side of the bargain. Despite a few issues, the country as a whole is giving its citizens a high standard of living, and despite some draconian measures in place people otherwise enjoy a large degree of personal freedom. And one is tempted to agree with their explanation, especially when listening to politicians back home bickering over non-issues, preening their public image, and reducing dense, complicated issues into fools scoops of buzz words for headlines.

Our bicycles cogs are like Singapore: They're shiny, they work flawlessly, and they are liable to do you serious physical injury if you live inside them for more than three months.
Singapore is being run very well. Let me repeat that the government didn't just step in and take over a burgeoning economy when they came to power – they took a fragile, unlikely looking island, and fixed it up, got it going again, led it into an economic boom, and did not leave its population behind in the process. It's hard not to be impressed by it all.

 Why then, are they so frightened of criticism?

It's not an easy one to answer, and I think it amounts to one of the fundamental differences between the east and the west at the moment. We value freedom above all else. We see the dictatorships of the twentieth century, the damage they did, and sirens start wailing the moment we hear about individual freedom being curtailed. What is the point in living in a prosperous society, if you cannot live freely in it?

But our veneration of freedom has been at a cost – look at the roots of the current financial crisis, and the ongoing climate crisis that we seem incapable of tackling.

In Singapore the restriction of people's freedom to criticise the government, be gay, or let off fireworks over the New Year is seen as a reasonable price to pay for such a high standard of living. What is the point in being free, if you do not live in a prosperous society? Unrestricted freedom threatens stability, and instability results finally in even greater restrictions on freedom.

Certainly, wandering around the city on a day to day basis the niggly little rules around jay-walking, littering or chewing gum seem perfectly reasonable pay offs for the neat orderliness of everything. It has a certain nanny state feel, or “Disney land with the death penalty” as William Gibson puts it, but having fines hanging over you for dropping a crisp packet is a small price to pay for a pleasant place to live in, isn't it?

But is freedom of expression ever a fair price?

As it stands now people rightly ask what there is to criticise the government for. It has built a capitalist society geared to work for its citizens – which is not something you see every day. And although recent history has taught us to be wary of any system that makes its rulers unaccountable, that gives them the room to move as they fancy, and obliterate any opposition that crops up, it's hard to ignore just how relaxed the Singaporeans' are about it – since there's no evidence that the government plan to suddenly turn on them and snatch back the quality of life they have worked so hard to improve over the years. That would be terrible for business.

Snake up a tree!
Don't be fooled by the threat of capital punishment in Singapore, it is not an Orwellian society ruled by fear. Political opponents are sued or ignored, not executed. People are happy to chat about these kind of things with us without looking nervously over their shoulders. The cranks of this machine are kept turning by a population who are not given anything to complain about. And so the tyranny of contentment reigns, and everything ticks by with a nice, neat, predictability.

After our ride around Ubin with Shireen, Yunos, Adi and the rest of them we settled into a pleasant routine of lying around our campsite each morning, venturing out for lunch in the afternoon and then pedalling to a new spot by the evening. We had given up on trying to check our emails every day, and gaining the hours that internet hunting usually took up allowed us to settle into a nice, sedate routine. Our time in Singapore cannot really be called cycle touring at all. It's turned into something of a training ground to get us used to camping again. But don't laugh! Even clean and orderly Singapore has kept us on our toes. 
Chopping up onions for dinner one night we found that cockroaches were emerging from the ground all around us, so we had to work quickly to rescue all our food, keep it out of their reach, and take our rubbish bag away from the tent. But after all that, our fuel ran out so we couldn't cook our dinner anyway. Two days later I woke up thirsty early one morning, hopped out of the tent, and flung on my trousers only to find that a mass of ants had taken up residence inside them, and were determined to defend their new territory. After I had spent ten minutes hopping about, a half naked silhouette in the early morning light, Liv and I spent the whole morning plucking ants from all our gear. But after the cockroaches a few days before we were used to it, and it de-insecting our belongings became as routine as washing up or packing the tent away. However, it was no small relief when we finally got a message from Will saying that he had returned from Bangkok, and we could come over and stay at him apartment for a few days.

(Left to right) Robin, Ben and Will.

 Will and his flat mate Ben (the guy we missed for New Year) lived on the sixteenth floor of a serviced apartment just up the road from Little India. Wow, it was really something. Swimming pool, AC, hot shower – the works! They took us out to Arab street a few blocks away for a feast of breads, meats and dips, along with a “tower” of beer – a column of the fizzy stuff the height of a young child. Will and Ben were cracking lads to hang out with, and it was actually something of a novelty to hang out with other English people after so long! We sat around and put the world to rights, drank copious amounts of beer and stuffed ourselves silly, then repeated this for the next few nights – visiting hawker centres, sate stalls, or grabbing takeaway Indians and lying horizontally in front of the TV. If hell is anything like having pincer-keen ants in your pants, this was most certainly heaven.

 Freed of the burden of bicycles for these few days, Liv and I could go off and explore the city by foot while Will and Ben went off to work. We got to ride the MRT, explore a vast museum, visit some temples up close, and ramble through the Chinatown night market – it was fantastic, and a wonderful way to finish off our stay in Singapore. After delaying our departure for a day or two, on the 1st of February we finally got our act together and set off towards the north of the island where a causeway links it to the mainland. We'd only been in Singapore for two weeks, but it really made an impression on us – it's smart orderliness in stark contrast to pretty much everything we had seen so far on our bikes, it's political system defying our beliefs, and challenging us to form a coherent opinion of it, despite our own convictions. So what do we think of Singapore, finally?

With the memory of Japanese occupation and the chaos that followed it fresh in the cultural memory, the stability and prosperity that the government has brought here will no doubt remain popular for some time to come. But we can't help but wonder if any population can remain content with a system that regards its people primarily as instruments for business, and prevents critical minds from voicing their concerns - even if everyone in that system is granted a high standard of living. Perhaps it is the individualism embedded in us by our culture that compels us to demand that people should be permitted to rock the boat with everyone in it, because there might be something more appealing to do than just sit there and row. Who can say? Time, and the forces of civilisation may find one ideal better suited for the coming century than the other. In the mean time though it is fairly pleasant to find one of these alternative models being so dam nice to live in. It's just a shame they couldn't manage to sort us out with a decent wi-fi connection.

Raffles Hotel. They didn't like the look of us.


  1. I enjoyed that. It had the 'feel' of a Guardian piece.

  2. Really excellent account. Very interesting and a great read. Looking forward to the next installment.

  3. Dear Sir/Madam,

    On behalf of the National Library Board (NLB), we would like to invite you to pledge your blog to the Singapore Memory Project as part of efforts to collect memories that are already manifested in existing online channels.

    The Singapore Memory Project (SMP) is a national initiative to collect, preserve and provide access to Singapore’s knowledge materials. Spearheaded by NLB, the SMP aims to build a national collection of content in diverse formats (including print, audio and video), to preserve them in digital form, and make them available for discovery and research.

    By pledging your blog to SMP, you are affirming that every memory matters. Whether your posts are an account of your daily life, or an expression of your thoughts, the SMP hopes to find a home for your memories so that it can help build towards an understanding of Singapore. You will also receive a badge that you can display on your blog in recognition of your contributions.

    Contributors to this blog pledging initiative will be listed on Singapore Memory portal’s blog pledging webpage. All blogs pledged to SMP will archived using NLB’s web harvesting software, in addition to images of each blog’s landing page.

    If you are keen to pledge your blog to SMP, simply fill up our response form at this following URL:

    You may find out more about this initiative at

    We are looking forward to your contribution.

    Simulation Software & Technology (S2T) Pte Ltd
    583 Orchard Road #14-02 Forum The Shopping Mall S(238884), Singapore

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