Blessed to be a witness

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Tuesday, April 26th

Paradise lost

The toothache only got worse, and had started throbbing, and I couldn't bite down on it, and when I did it felt like the tooth was out of place. Our next-door chalet neighbour, Johnson from Singapore, kindly gave me some Listerine, but to no avail. So we had to make a snap decision to go to nearby Singapore where the dental treatment is the best in Asia, and we took our leave of beautiful Tioman in the morning. The ferry got us back to Mersing by 1, where unfortunately we had to wait around until 5.30 for a bus. Thankfully the bloodthirsty Muslims that our "special forces" friend said were waiting to slit our throats seemed not to be in evidence, but instead the Muslim ladies we met served us up some tasty nasi goreng. Again the coach trip was comfortable and cool, but there was a guy behind me coughing all over me the whole time. I hoped that the cold that he had was of the same variety that the taxi driver had given me in KL, so I'd be immune. Alas it turned out not to be so. A second bus from Johor Bahru on the southern Malaysian tip took us very slowly across the sweaty immigration controls and the 1 kilometre-long causeway into the city-state. We got to the hotel at about 10.30.

I first came to Singapore in 1993 on a business trip, and really liked the place. A lot of tourists who come here despise its supposed sterility, but I think the pros outweigh the cons. What exactly do people hate? Do they hate the fact that the buildings are clean and not falling down? That there's no graffiti all over the walls? That you're in almost no danger of getting mugged, even in the middle of the night? People say there's no culture; I think that there's a hell of a lot - Chinese, Indian, Malay, Arab - it's just that the place is not monocultural. The only thing I can possibly think of to criticise, for tourists, is the lack of wilderness or fallow urban land. The high-rise housing estates are a bit soulless, but they are in every Asian city, not just Singapore. Here they're just a little cleaner. A lot cleaner, actually.

For residents, rather than tourists, the story is a little different. The achievement of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's leader for decades following independence (now retired, his son Lee Hsien Loong is running the show) is nothing short of staggering. He dragged a chaotic, post-colonial third-world nation with no natural resources right into the first world. Singapore has superb educational resources, great healthcare, the best public transport infrastructure in the world, the highest rate of home-ownership in the world - a staggering 80%. But to achieve this, the government of Singapore has been, and continues to be, both patronising and autocratic, with only scant acceptance of political opposition, and persecution for certain forms of dissent.

Singapore today is green, efficent, modern, and full of regulations backed up with heavy penalties. Most of these laws I agree with, even though many appear rather petty: you can be fined for not flushing a public toilet - not a huge issue, really, but fair enough. You can be fined heavily for littering - good, I say. You can be fined for jaywalking - a trifle pedantic but not unique to Singapore. Given that Singapore's population is 67% Chinese, and that gobbing everywhere is acceptable in most Chinese cultures, I think it's a great idea to ban the practice, which they have done. I do suspect that the phenomenal success of the country could have been achieved without quite such a harsh judiciary and so many petty regulations, but others may disagree.

Alas, by extension, the seemingly amusing laws listed above extend beyond the petty into the severest punishments for some transgressions. I don't want to go into too many details, but the last time I was here I stayed with some expatriate friends of mine, a couple, and we were meant to stay with them again. Alas, they recently got entangled with Singapore's laws, and one of them had to flee the country, while the other ended up doing a three-week jail term, and was deported. They had lived here for twelve years, and owned their own business, as well as an art show, all of which is now lost. Even worse, they had been contributing to Singapore's "provident fund" for all this time - a compulsory savings scheme of 20% of earnings, backed up by 20% from the employer, that can be applied for to contribute to housing, education, health, etc. but is given as a lump-sum to departing expats - and they lost the lot. A tragic tale of the strictness of the law here, that has upset me greatly, though the alleged transgressions indicates a certain recklesness, or naïveté, on their part.

The day after we arrived, we caught the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit), which beats Hong Kong's superb MTR hands-down in speed, frequency, cleanliness and quality (sorry Hongkers mon amour) to Sentosa, the quirky little island resort to the south of Singapore island. Singapore is safe, and Sentosa is even safer. It's my impression that Singaporeans desire safety above all else - we were talking about house prices to a couple of Singaporeans, and I asked how much an apartment would be in a bad area. As one, they both said "there are no bad areas". This is laudable, but also leads to slight unworldliness. Sentosa looks like it's run by the Disney corporation, and in some places the beaches are composed of sand imported from Indonesia - and sterilised first.

There in Sentosa we visited the aquarium, which is very interesting indeed, and includes a travelator ride down a glass tunnel through the shark tank. Our ticket included a dolphin show, featuring the endangered Asian pink river dolphins, which was unutterably cheesy, and we were even more cheesy, and paid S$10 (€5) to do this:

We then went to the utterly charming Boat Quay, which in my opinion should be forced on all town planners during their training - 'How to Utilise Urban Waterscapes 101' - it's a long strip of bars and restaurants, pedestrianised, with chairs and tables right on the water's edge. Adjacent Clarke Quay is of the same nature, though slightly more developed, with strange seating pods in which to sit while dining or drinking. There our obsession with pool took us into a Boat Quay pool-and-karaoke bar, where we met Muthu, who turned out to be a tremendously fascinating man, of whom I shall write more.

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