“Wait, isn’t Singapore the place where you can’t chew gum?”
“Singapore?! You’re moving to Singapore? I heard there’s no freedom of speech there.”
“Singapore is so expensive.”
“Oh my god, isn’t it like 100 degrees there every day?”
“Hope you’re not planning to smoke any pot there — they’ll cane or kill you for it!”
It seems like everybody has an opinion about Singapore, from my cat’s veterinarian, to friends and acquaintances, to people sitting next to me on the plane, and rarely is it a positive one. (Nevermind that most people couldn’t locate it on a map.)
Chalk it up to the infamous caning of American Michael P. Fay in 1994 for his conviction on vandalism and theft charges — four swift lashes to his bare white butt — or to the abhorrable breach of personal freedom that is being unable to walk into a convenience store to buy a pack of gum. Whatever it is, Singapore’s reputation, at least amongst many Americans, is one of a totalitarian police state where its straight-laced citizens go about their days in humorless silence, fearful of incurring Big Brother’s ever-watchful wrath, unable to express themselves, spending around $40 for a bottle of shitty wine. (The latter, at least, is unfortunately true.)
Everybody in the States doesn’t feel that way, of course, particularly the ones who, you know, have actually been to Singapore. Many have congratulated me on The Big Move without attaching unsolicited, passive-aggressive caveats about the well-oiled economic machine I now call home, which isn’t to say I expected congratulations — I definitely did not and do not — or that I only want to hear positive thoughts about the Little Red Dot. (Promise that’ll be the first and only time you ever see me refer to Singapore by its cutesy nickname.) My wife and I, rather, have simply found it somewhat fascinating over the past few months listening to the unexpectedly strong reactions we’ve received to the unloaded statement of “I’m moving to Singapore.”
I don’t know if I’ll like living here. I’m fairly certain I will, but I might not.
Today is the one-week anniversary of my arrival in the middle of the night at otherworldly Singapore Changi Airport. Since then I’ve spent most of my time simply getting acclimated to the time change by waking up at 5am and going to bed at 7:30 or 8pm, eating in fantastic food courts in the basement of labyrinthine megamalls on Orchard Road, and visiting my (poor) cat at the Sembawang Animal Quarantine Station, her temporary home for another 23 days or so. (Give ‘em hell, Taj, give ‘em hell.)
Hawker Centre-Style Fried Black Carrot Cakes
I’ve made a few visits to excellent JiBiru Japanese Craft Beer Bar to help ease symptoms of fancy beer withdrawal with no Brouwerij Lane or Beer Street just down the street anymore. We had some very fine Indian food at Samy’s Curry; we enjoyed fried carrot cakes, laksa, and cold Tiger beers at the Newton Hawker Centre. (While we were there we also shared a bottle of Barron’s, one of the many malt-liquorish “beers” readily available in Singapore, but I’m a little embarassed to admit it. Taste-wise it’s sadly no Ballantines or Colt 45, but it does quickly do its job, that’s for sure.) We’ve hopped from The Elizabeth Hotel to the Quincy Hotel next door, and next week move once more, to the York Hotel, before finally settling into our apartment in mid-August. (These are the three hotels located on Mount Elizabeth, just off Orchard Road — I’ll be back in a few weeks to declare the winner.)
In other words, I haven’t yet properly dug my cleats into Singapore, so I can’t really tell you what everyday life is really like. Before moving here, I’d only spent three days in Singapore, back in April of 2010, and left feeling like, yeah, I could see myself living here for awhile. In the short time I have spent exploring the city, I’ve seen a lot to like: friendly, talkative people. Lush, tropical greenery everywhere. Beautiful parks. Clean streets and clean subways. Futuristic architecture. Unbelievable food. Religious and racial tolerance. This is not even close to a complete list.
I expect that, like anywhere, there’ll be good parts and not-so-good parts about living here. (The insane prices on alcohol, for one, are a tough pill to swallow, but happy hours do seem to be a way of life here — and often last until at least 9pm — and from what I’ve gathered you can somewhat lessen the kick in the financial balls by watching and acting on grocery store sales like a hawk.)
For now, I can safely say that most knee-jerk cliches about Singapore, while based on some version of reality, are just that: cliches, or at least broad generalizations. No, I won’t be chewing much gum or doing any drugs or hawking loogies on the street, and my winter coat is going to collect a little more annual dust than it did back in Brooklyn, but something tells me I’m going to be okay. Singapore is no Bangkok, but it’s very much Southeast Asia, and that’s very much a good thing.
Cab drivers in Singapore are generally a chatty bunch. The other day, on my way to The Riverwalk to take care of some residency errands, my driver asked where I was from and we got to talking a little about the United States. He’d last been there about 40 years ago, working on some sort of commercial sea vessel, and had largely positive things to say about his experience. He was also the first Singaporean I’ve talked to thus far that offered an opinion about the United States:
“You see this shooting in the movie theater? Crazy, crazy… crazy that you can just walk into a store and buy guns like that.”
He chuckled when I told him how many people in the US still talked about Singapore’s ban on chewing gum.