Blessed to be a witness

<= previous | back to index | next =>

Saturday, April 30th

The Singaporean dream


The Night Safari was a much more wholesome entertainment than the nightclub-cum-brothel of the evening before. We were back in the Singapore theme park safe zone, travelling about the dark tropical zoo park in a tram with a guide - please keep arms and legs inside the tram at all times - and the walking trails were policed by uniformed guides. That said, it is a very atmospheric attraction, and some of the animals were spectacular, in particular the tigers, and the leopards, which we were able to stand right next to through the magic technology of glass. Despite the zoo's reputation as a paragon of animal welfare, however, some of the more intelligent animals did seem to be in a state of distress, exhibiting the pacing or nodding behaviour that I have read indicates that long-term confinement, as with prisoners in solitary, has robbed them of their marbles.

The next day we scrubbed up and set off to keep our luncheon appointment with Muthu. We rode the MRT to the northern suburbs, and he picked us up. On the way he told us that he'd only remembered to tell his family he'd invited us the night before, and we cringed slightly at the imposition. His house is a small, but high-ceilinged, semi-detached bungalow, spotlessly clean. His wife Pam, wearing a sari and bindi, greeted us warmly, and we were introduced then to his son, daughter-in-law, daughter, and four grandchildren. His children all wore modern clothing, and the grandchildren even more modern. They all communicate in English at home, and their accents begin at Sri Lankan-English for the older generation, (his wife is also Malay-Sri Lankan, though from the southern state of Johor) to well-educated lawyer's Singaporean for the middle, and the children's voices, when they spoke, while largely south-Asian, bore faint traces of the Chinese-influenced "Singlish" accent, in the clipped-off trailing consonants.

After some small-talk, where we established that Muthu's son Ravi, he and his wife now successful lawyers in intellectual property, had backpacked extensively in his 20s, we were ushered to a trestle table under an awning in the garden, and treated to their traditional Saturday family get-together lunch. And what a spread they had laid on for us. 'Rice hoppers' were the starch basis of the meal - extruded rice noodles that had been squirted round and round into the shape of pancakes, and then boiled. Onto the rice hopper we were enjoined to take: crabs in coconut milk coloured with saffron and chilli; barbecued chicken; rich dark crab sembal curry; dhal; chicken curry; chopped spiced beans. Variously each dish was added to our rice hopper a spoon at a time, and we ate, as they did, with our fingers, grabbing a lump of rice hopper, mixing it with the gravies, vegetables and meats, rolling it into balls and popping it in our mouths. Absolutely delicious, and a staggering amount of food. In true Asian mode, our hosts force-fed us and overfed us, and our protests fell on deaf ears, Pam hovering around the table, not eating with us.

After we'd finally persuaded them that we were full, we retired for coffee into the bright, fan-cooled living room, and Muthu's children left one by one, taking their beautiful and well-behaved children with them. We were concerned that we were outstaying our welcome, particularly as Muthu had hinted at requiring a nap after such a meal. However, as we said we should leave, his eyes twinkled, and he said "first I have some things to show you," and produced photograph albums and newspaper clippings. And yes, everything he'd told us about himself was true. There he was looking smart in faded black-and-white photos in his prison service uniform, and there he was with the former triad junkie who renovated his house for him. There was a letter to the newspaper from a visiting Australian doctor praising his rehabilitation methods for addicts. And very surprisingly there was a picture of him with Roy Keane. And Wayne Rooney. And several other members of the Manchester United team. And him waving a scarf at Old Trafford. And his tickets to the Olympics, and the World Cup (1998 and 2002). And an article from Asiasweek magazine featuring him running the bar, about retired people who want to keep on working despite their age.

We took our leave eventually, he giving me some recent clippings from newspapers with speeches by Lee Kuan Yew. He apologised for not driving us back, since he really did need that nap, so we called for a taxi and took our final leave of a charming, interesting, and very kind man, with a very lovely family. And still I wonder, what motivated him to take two complete strangers under his wing, and invite us into the heart of his family? Yet he did, and his is a memory I shall carry with me for a long time. And looking at this happy man living in a nice house in a nice area, surrounded by a charming, successful family, I understood for a moment perhaps, the 'Singaporean Dream': for law-abiding people who just want to live well and prosper, and who aren't interested in politics or ideology, Singapore can be a paradise.

By complete contrast, I then made a visit to where my friends, who had got on the wrong side of Singapore, had lived. Muthu's house is very near their former house, so I got the driver to divert to their road. They had lived in 1930s former British officers' quarters, in a place where many prisoners had been executed by the Japanese. As a result, the rents were low because the locals, particularly the Chinese, felt the area to be haunted, and refused to live there. Their house was a large bungalow, not air conditioned nor even having glass windows - insect screens and blinds only - but, like Muthu's house, the interior marble, high ceilings and fans, kept the property cool.

I had last been there ten years ago, and at the time the lawns of each house were not delineated: they merged into each other and ran down to the road, creating an open space which gave the residents and their children a feeling of common ownership, conducive to just dropping by, reminding me of the 1970s American suburbia in which I lived for a while as a child. Now, the properties are fenced off, and high shrubs guard the houses from the road. At my friends' house, there were building materials piled outside the fence and gates, and the house was open, gutted. The elegant minimalist decoration of my friends had been stripped out. A sign on the fence warned the builders not to remove the flowerpots as they had been purchased by the new tenant. It was a desolate feeling, looking through the new plants at the place that was once filled with such warmth and friendship, and a small menagerie of pets, vacated so recently. I wondered what on earth had happened to their effects, their pets, and my friend's copious artwork. We returned to the city, me feeling disconsolate.

Changi is Singapore's airport, and bears the same name as the infamous prison in which Muthu worked, and where my friend was imprisoned: the good and the bad of Singapore encapsulated in one place. The next day we departed our pleasant but hideously overpriced hotel in Chinatown, and took the MRT direct to the airport. Changi Airport has been voted "best airport in the world" for a long time, though possibly its status might have changed recently. It's difficult normally to get excited about such a thing, but it really is an amazing place, with vast attention to detail to make the passenger's stay pleasant. Dotted around are chairs that recline fully, so you can actually sleep; little clusters of armchairs clustered around televisions, each tuned to a different channel; free internet terminals; laptop points where you can hook into a broadband network, or you can access the airport-wide free wireless connection; children's playgrounds. The next budget airline to benefit from our custom was Tiger Airways, which again is very pleasant, better than the European equivalents, and in the late afternoon we left Changi for the short flight to the tsunami-hit island of Phuket in Thailand.

<= previous | back to index | next =>

To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at