A four year old kid sits in the back of a taxi in Singapore.
He is blonde, blue eyed, and it’s his first time in Asia.
The streets are packed, crowded, alive. The flashing neon signs scream out strange symbols. Everything is different and exciting.
20 years later, I again find myself cruising through Singapore. It is night, and the streets are quiet.
This time my points of reference have changed. After over a year in China, what is confronting about Singapore isn’t the chaos, but the control.
In China the streets are crowded with motorbikes piled 12 foot high with chairs, trash and chickens. Here people wait for the green light before crossing the roads. Although you’re in Asia, it feels like affluent, Western suburbia.
At a conference of Singapore’s entrepreneurial community, enthusiastic 20 something speakers talk about their dreams. The most successful among them is a handsome, polished Sri Lankan man who runs a postcard delivery business. His wife, also in her twenties, is dressed immaculately in traditional attire, and gazes admiringly at him from the audience.
For Singaporeans, entrepreneurship isn’t about innovation, it’s about security. They used the term ‘freedom,’ but defined this as buying a house for their parents and sending their kids to a good school.
My ear wasn’t tuned in to the local version of English – known as Singlish – so understanding many of the speakers was its own battle. They were no doubt sincere, but tended to veer off into the ‘motivational speech’ category, putting a Singaporean spin on American self help cliches. School grades weighed heavily on the mind, with most speakers mentioning what they got in their high school exams.
An expat friend and I escaped after a couple of hours, and caught an Uber (the official Singaporean means of transport) to the local football field. Fifteen years ago this was a horse racing track, today well to do expats showed up in sports gear to compete with the locals in touch rugby.
Over the anxious protests of my friend, his team tossed me a uniform and invited me to join in the game. It was on. We were a mixture of Kiwis, Aussies and English, but this week were also joined by a handful of lean, athletic locals.
The state TV crew was filming a segment about the Kiwi expat community, and the narrative was all about expat – local connection. There wasn’t a lot of expat – local connection in this particular team, so we’d recruited some extras for the occasion.
We were playing against Singapore Polytechnic, and we lost. It probably wasn’t entirely my fault.
The star of the state TV propaganda segment, a Kiwi man in his 40s who looked like a farmer but was probably an insurance salesman, was dragged away by the TV crew alongside his Singaporean ringers, and forced to perform a Haka, the New Zealand Maori war dance made famous by the All Blacks.
They went around the corner to film the performance, and he returned looking sheepish
– ‘It was terrible. People were heckling. One guy shouted ‘Worst Haka ever. I bet you’re a fucking Aussie!’ That hurt.’
The sour faced camera crew were waiting impatiently for him as he told the lads his story. The finals of the touch tournament were playing and middle aged expats from New Zealand and South Africa took turns commentating on the game. People were queueing for bread and sausages – Thai chicken or pork and fennel, mind you – and the propaganda star wanted to join in. But the camera crew wouldn’t let him.
– ‘we go city centre. you tell camera your favorite Singapore restaurant. Good TV.’
-‘but I wanna sausage!’
The sausages were tempting, but the call of fame was louder. He turned around, and sadly trudged away.
That evening we took the 8th Uber of the trip. The driver was a businessman with his fingers in a few pies around Asia. His latest project was a billiards room in the Philippines. We asked him about the entrepreneurial scene in Singapore.
A few hours later we were outside a bar, and a couple of people were smoking. An anxious waiter hurried over.
-‘you can’t smoke there, you have to move 2 meters that way.’
‘sorry, you cannot have your drinks so far away from bar.’
We moved back.
‘sorry, you cannot smoke there.’
A certain member of our party pointed out that these regulations were a bit bonkers. The waiter turned pale.
-‘please sir. There are microphones here. They are listening.’
On the way home, my friend left his mobile phone in the taxi. It was later than any decent person has a right to be out, and were we in China or even most places in Europe I would have given the phone up for lost, but my friend new better.
– ‘nah mate, this is Singapore.’
I climbed the stairs, more or less steadily, and went to sleep. My friend waited patiently downstairs, full of faith in the integrity of Singapore’s taxi drivers.
Sure enough, 40 minutes later the same cabbie showed up and handed over the phone with profuse apologies. He refused to accept a tip.
The next morning didn’t happen. In the afternoon we piled onto a motorbike, and hooned – if one can hoon that is whilst strictly abiding by the speed limit – around the city state.
We past Little India, with clothes billowing out of windows, and zipped underneath enormous sky scrapers, colonial hotels and old ‘black and white’ houses. It was Sunday, the cleaners day off, so the streets were packed with ladies from across the border.
As we drove by mosques and temples, I remembered back to that first time in Singapore, 20 years ago. We’d wandered into a temple and seen the floor covered with barefoot locals, sleeping away their lunch hour.
– ‘why are they sleeping here, are they homeless?’
– ‘they’re just resting.’ I was told. ‘There are no homeless people in Singapore.’
That may not have been true in the ’90s, and it isn’t true today, but it was the memory of Singapore that I carried with me for two decades. A clean, exotic place where people followed the rules and everyone has a home. That still more or less sums it up.