Getting around Singapore is easy, cheap and efficient, whether by bus or MRT (Mass Rapid Transport).  As well as affordable housing for all (‘HDB’ flats, Housing and Development Board), cheap and tasty food at the Hawker Centres, seemingly round every corner, there are also community centres aplenty and generally people from all walks of life gathering together.

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Quick sketch on MRT, 2 stops!

The Straits Times, said by some to be censored and government controlled (it is the only paper in Singapore), is full of positivity and there is a drive, and action, to improve things.  Last week there was an article (heartening) in the paper headlined: ‘Early action to break cycle of poverty’ (intergenerational) with an initiative by the Government called ‘Kidstart’, regarding ‘…preventative work/…before a social problem gets worse or even starts’ (Garcia Goh, lead social worker, Singapore Children’s Society, Straits Times, 17th July 2017).

There are consequences for your actions, see fines for littering, eating on public transport, (feeding monkeys!) and most severely, imprisonment and strokes of the cane, for more serious offences.  Whether you agree or not with these ‘rules’, or how they are managed, Singapore feels very safe; ‘you can leave your purse and know you will get it back’, as someone remarked to me recently.  You also feel safe to walk around at night.  Convenient (a bus/MRT ride away), safe and efficient, it is ‘easy’ to live in Singapore.

I have also found people to be very friendly, kind and open.  Sketching on the streets,    school kids pass by saying positive things like: ‘that’s beautiful’, ‘amazing’.  A young Indian woman gave me a cuddle on the train saying: ‘so fast’, having watched me try to sketch people within 2 stops on the MRT.  Another guy gave me the thumbs up and a smile when I sat drawing the woman’s hands opposite (asleep, so I hope she did not mind!).

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There are seats allocated for older people, pregnant women, the injured etc on both the MRT and bus and people will automatically offer up their seat (even non-allocated) if someone needs it.  ‘It is easy to be kind when life is easy’ as someone pointed out to me.  There is cheap food (Hawker centres), affordable housing (HDBs) for all Singaporeans (despite private rent generally being very high in Singapore) and help with finding work (I have heard).  Alongside positive news stories (Straits Times) and constructive initiatives, such as building more cycle paths, intervention for children at school, and uplifting signs such as ‘Let’s make Singapore our garden’, it is not difficult to understand how this might permeate into a positive, kind and caring culture.

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On the busy bus – gushing with rain outside.

Last weekend we visited Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and saw a large family of monkeys, a bright and colourful Kingfisher (stunning) and turtles swimming in the reservoir.  You are never too far away from nature.  One of the monkeys, seemingly disinterested at the passersby in the park, leapt out suddenly and chased a young guy, who quickly put away a closed crisp packet he was carrying.  They also showed aggression when a couple got too close to one of the baby monkeys, but otherwise you just have to watch your bag and don’t carry food! (There are signs in the park warning of fines of 1000 Singapore Dollars for feeding the monkeys and warnings to keep 3 feet away as monkeys get nervous).

Having now been here for over 2 months, I feel pretty settled in to the way of life, getting used to the heat (humidity) and how to avoid it (unbearable in the bright sunshine) – shade and aircon!  I was even told recently by an American guy, asking me for information (which I did not know) on the ‘hop-on, hop-off buses’ in Orchard Road, that he thought I was ‘a local’.

It is perhaps worth mentioning about the helper (Chinese) we have recently got, well this is Singapore after all, with a long tradition of helpers/maids! (Despite very affordable housing, food and transport there is still a great divide between the richest and poorest).  Well, I’ll come clean, so to speak.  It is a ‘Mi Robot Vacuum’.  I am yet to decipher the spoken Chinese (having only had 3 lessons so far) but I think it says things like: ‘bag needs emptying’.  I imagine it is the equivalent of what the 1970s ‘Pong’ (the very first PC game) is to Nintendo/PlayStation games now, with regard to AI Robots of the future.  It scouts around, finds the best route and cleans like you wouldn’t believe! (Highly recommended).

Singapore is said to be going through a recession and like England when the chips are down, there is a general backlash against foreigners: ‘there are too many here’ as one woman said to me!  There is a laid back vibe here, with a strong tradition of everyone mixing together happily, but I have heard stories (a small element) of ‘racism’, including where competition is fierce for jobs.  The understanding is that the government wants to be welcoming and open but has listened to these concerns.  A lot of jobs are now for ‘Singaporeans only’ and there are quotas for companies in employing those from outside.

Of those I’ve met, most (like myself) are ‘foreign’ in Singapore, many originally from say India or Malaysia, or the Philippines. Most of the labourers (building work, cutting the branches of trees, gardening) who work hard all day in the blistering sunshine are here from Bangladesh or Malaysia (I have been told) and even my hairdresser commutes back to Malaysia at weekends, where the lifestyle and housing is cheaper (and of course where it is ‘home’ too).  One older man whose family, ‘way back’, were from China, but whose family has lived for generations in Singapore, considers himself ‘global’.  He remembers Singapore before 1965 (year of Independence) after which it was cleaned up.  I think he preferred it more ‘grimy’, less sanitised.  ‘There are not many places like this left’ (in Singapore), said a fellow sketcher who was drawing the rather mouldy walls in a back street! (1920s houses).  Singapore is indeed spotless.

We did venture back in time a bit, however, when we ventured out from the city state of Singapore, paying just 3 Singapore dollars (under £2), to take a boat from Changi Village to the island of Palau Ubin, where I was surprised by the hush that descended, suddenly realising how noisy and busy is life in the city.

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Palau Ubin is ‘how Singapore used to be’ (no Starbucks or MacDonalds therefore!).  We had a coconut ice-cream and fresh coconut juice from one of the huts there and hired a bike to cycle round the island which takes around 3/4 of an hour (with some hills) all told.  We looked out for wild boars (don’t approach and back off slowly) and monkeys (we didnt see any) who are also just looking for food (so keep your bag close, they have been known to run off with them).  The huts round the island are named after Malaysian birds and we saw one tropical bird.  We had more luck with seeing wildlife at Bukit Timah but it was lovely to visit and the journey across the sea (the sea breeze) was relaxing too.

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Looking out to Palau Ubin island from Changi Village

 

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Easy living

img_0350It is a good 6 weeks since my first impressions of Singapore were of ‘a stunning city, even in the dark’ (our taxi ride from the airport to our first place of stay in central Singapore).

My other impressions went as follows:

The next few days were spent marvelling at the beauty of this city, it is perhaps difficult to say a city is beautiful, as in the countryside is beautiful, a town is beautiful, but it really is. It has been designed according to a ‘master plan’ (overheard on a local Asian radio station this week) and has been designed to be visually pleasing, from the greenery that pours forth from a hotel to the design of the high-rise buildings. It is visually stunning and clean! Even where rubbish is piled, it is swept and piled neatly.

It has been quite a difference too stepping outside into oven temperatures, that envelope you, best in shorts and a T-shirt and best to only walk so far in a day. It is true that the locals cope with the heat by staying in the air-con!

And there is always a cooling shopping centre to enter…

We have seen giant snails and black birds with long orange beaks.

An exciting, vibrant city.

You do still see these rather un-shy birds a lot! Since moving to the East and being here a little longer, I have also seen stray cats (they must find it hard to find food where there is not an overspilling of bins) but learned that often in the communities around HDB flats (Housing and Development Board), i.e.: public and affordable housing, many cats are loved and looked after.  This was vouched for by the number of photos of resident cats on the mobile phone of a fellow ‘crazy cat lady’ at one of these HDB blocks.  We met at ‘The Projector’ cinema watching ‘Kedi’ (Turkish for ‘cat’, a documentary about cats in Istanbul).

This leads me on to cinemas in Singapore.  There are quite a few, but really ‘The Projector’ is the only arty one, showing films such as the cat documentary (‘Kedi’) and ‘The Red Turtle’, an engaging animation (Studio Ghibli), and ‘Your Name’ (Anime), which I also went to see. It is open in the day time and nights at weekends, but late nights only in the week, and the films are limited with some re-runs such as ‘Hot Fuzz’ coming up later in July.  However, they do have film festivals, such as the Mexican one recently, and there are other films out there to look out for, The ArtScience Museum had a FREE run of Anime (i.e.: Japanese hand-drawn or computer animation) films recently.

‘The Straits Times’ ran the headline this week about the dropping number of cinema-goers in Singapore.  I enjoy reading The Straits Times, I find it is a cross between National and local news.  As well as main features/headlines on World News, it has positive local news stories and a desire to improve things – the news story today features a move to make designated smoking areas in Orchard Road ‘smoke free’ in future:

“Some people will find it a strong measure, but this shows the commitment of the Government for the nation to adopt a smoke-free lifestyle” (D K Thomas Abraham, Sata CommHealth chief executive and an anti-smoking advocate).

‘Verbal warnings’ will be given for the first 3 months it is implemented and as reported too in the article: ‘Ms Niki Chua, 32, said the ban will mean the shopping belt will look cleaner. “Some people smoke outside and throw (their cigarette butts) on the plants,” she added’.

I enjoy watching Asia News too, with its sunny presenters, which is also a cross between National and local news. This is not surprising, Singapore seems vast, but it takes just 25 minutes to drive from one end to the other (without traffic!), so a taxi driver told me.

The same taxi driver also told me of his friend who received a 300 Singapore dollar fine for littering when he threw rubbish into a bin, ‘but missed’.  If my recall of what he said is right, the next fine is something like 500 Singapore dollars, the third offence, 1000 SD with Community Service.  To paraphrase him, he said: ‘you see them (the offenders) sweeping up with the hi-viz on…to show what hard work it is to clean up in this heat’.

(Incidentally, I was surprised then that I haven’t seen a lot of police around, thinking maybe CCTV played a part?  Apparently, they are more likely to be going past you in Bermuda shorts, than an official uniform).

Well, harsh or not, whatever your take on it, it does seem to be working.  Butt (pardon the pun), as Niki Chua says (see above) you do see cigarette ends gathered around certain areas, only so noticeable in light of the contrasting cleanliness.  The consumption of food or drink on public transport is also strictly forbidden, with voice-overs on the MRT/notices on buses as reminders.

Public transport is therefore super clean, it is also cheap and ultra-efficient, whether that be the modern MRT (underground) or bus service; you just top up a card electronically and use this to go via either mode of transport.  In fact, it is also the best way to escape the heat, as both are air-conditioned.  When it is 33 degrees (‘feels like’ 39 degrees), recommended even for a few stops!

Lastly, Hawker Centres have tasty and very affordable food and are constantly busy with throngs of people from all walks of life  My favourite at the moment has been the Thai food at our local Hawker Centre, Tom Yam Fried Rice (with 3 prawns – I know because I have had it 4 times already!), cooked fresh and delicious, all for 5.5 Singapore dollars (around £3) and as good as any restaurant food, if not better!

The fresh juices in the Hawker Centres are fantastic too, my favourite being apple, orange and ginger but what I got the other day was apple, cucumber and celery.  I do not think that the stall holder’s main language is English but the misunderstanding went something like this: I asked for no. 25, he repeated back the fruits for 34, to which I said yes, apparently.  It was still a nice, cool, refreshing drink.

Most everyone speaks English in Singapore, and those who have grown up in Singapore for sure (having to learn too the language of their ‘official ethnic group’) but there is a mix of languages and cultures, including Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian, what is commonly described on the internet as ‘East meets West’.  There is also pride in speaking ‘Singlish’, of being identifiably Singaporean, to quote the tour guide at The Discovery Centre, where we looked at the history of Singapore.

So then, things I love about Singapore: the food! The efficiency, cleanliness and ample green spaces, a sense of kindness and helpfulness within the culture – there is a friendly, safe vibe here – and the general intent by the government it feels to make things better.  Just before leaving the UK, a shop assistant had enthused about Singapore (he had stayed here with relatives).  I now know what he means when he said: ‘…it just feels like everyone there (Singapore) is part of it/working together’.

 

 

Things I love about Singapore

Today we visited a most joyful, colourful and engaging exhibition at the National Gallery, Singapore.  Under the title of ‘Life is the Heart of a Rainbow’, it showed the bright, dotted and original work of Yayoi Kusama.  I read about her life on the app you can download at the exhibition: she was born in Japan in 1929 and battled against both her family, who expected her to conform and marry, not allowing her to do art as a girl, to eventually moving to a life in New York ‘where she felt she could have more artistic freedom’.  

Flowers and pumpkins, as well as phallic shapes, appear in her paintings and of course the dots! She spent days, sometimes without sleep, on her artworks, using different media, ink, acrylic, screenprint.  We queued for 20 minutes at a time to go into the yellow dotted room and then into a room full of coloured lights where we had 20 seconds (timed) in here to take in the ambience and take photos because of the long queues.  

Yes, things are very organised and clear in Singapore, which is great; as with the stickers of entry to exhibition: ‘put on your left hand side’, said the friendly woman at the ticket kiosk.

I loved the coloured, abstract but detailed acrylic paintings especially, so too the detailed dotted artwork, ‘net paintings’, of her early work in New York.  It was amazing too to be immersed in her art in the individual rooms.  A really joyful experience.

Joyful exhibition

Obikes and oh so hot

I took this picture of an obike for posterity but ended up reporting it to obikes,  and a very friendly and efficient customer service team (email), as broken. It is a great system,  you can get around the city, green and efficiently, the idea being to take short trips (15 minutes).

There has been much discussion and concern over obikes being left in undesignated areas.   A letter from a man in ‘The Straits Times’ discussed the problem and the bikes he’d reported, and ‘still nothing is done’ Others on the obike Facebook page suggest fines, or ‘it will keep happening’ .

However,  having been unsure whether to leave it at the MRT with other similar bikes (the official Parking area was a long way away), I asked the question via email of ‘where it is best to leave them?

The response was that they are looking into more areas for cyclists to park. A great scheme and I hope more areas will be designated soon, otherwise it is difficult to be good and you end up leaving it where you see others have.

One roadsweeper asked: ‘Are you a journalist?’ as he looked disparagingly towards the obike and as I waved my phone around trying to get a signal to unlock a bike parked (‘illegally’)  behind the bus stop.

It was great though when I did find a bike to unlock, by scanning a bar code.  Most seem in good working order and after adjusting the seat,  I cycled in the sunshine round Marina Bay,  stopping to eat at the Golden Shoe hawker centre,  near the business district, with its towering buildings.

Having cycled back and forth and then ‘home’ again,  finding a suitable,  or not so suitable, cycle rack area,  I wandered up the road a bit with the intention of maybe doing some sketching.   Do not underestimate the sapping of energy of the hot sun beating down.   Instead,  I quickly returned to air conditioning and the pool, trying a traditional Malaysian cake, delicious. Living in Singapore.  Not a bad life.

‘GSS’ (The Great Singapore Sale), is here (end May/June), an annual event when shops give promotions.  And here I was on my way to buy some stamps in one of Singapore’ largest shopping centres, a labyrinth of 4 towers/ buildings and 4 levels where you can easily get lost.  On this, my 4th visit, I found my way round a little more easily

However, I am not sure whether it was GSS or looking gullible but I found myself lured first into being offered some free scented soap (‘yes, the lemon one is nicer’, ok, I will wrap it up for you’, ok, thank you) and then into being given a survey of my facial skin: ‘Let me show you this cream..” Having after some time escaped from the friendly, but pushy, saleswoman from the Ukraine (‘for you a special promotion…’), with a cleaner arm (the test proving that the cream, magnesium, opens your pores and then wipes away hidden dirt), I ventured on up escalators and past more shiny cafes and shops, when I was again handed another free sample from a tall, dark, friendly guy.

Where are you from?  Cambridge, UK.  He was from Greece.  ‘For you I have another gift, I don’t always do this…’.  ‘It’s ok, I’m not buying anything’, but again I found myself with an outstretched arm feeling the cream (‘with diamonds in it’) exfoliating my other arm.  As I got up to leave reiterating my: ‘I’m not buying anything at the moment’ he said: ‘It’s ok.  See, not all us salesmen are the same’.

The third person who offered me a sample, on my way to my destination, Singapore Post, I gave a polite ‘no thank you’.,

The ‘Great Singapore Sale’ (GSS’)

This may not be a momentous moment, but this is the first cat I have seen in Singapore.  It was quite unmoved as I went past it.  Much like everyone else, it is far too hot and humid to hurry, fuss or worry, just taking it easy with a nice, slow pace… Apparently it is looked after by the security guard and fed by the groundsman/caretaker – I guess it has landed on its paws.

Ginger cat in Singapore

So far I’ve been to the ‘Sharks & Humanity” exhibition in the Parkview Museum, with images and grand, illuminated shark sculptures and high-ceilinged walls with lettering and pictures describing the need to conserve sharks and the successful campaign to stop people eating shark fin soup, much loved by the Chinese.

The exhibition itself was on the 3rd floor of ‘Parkview Square’, known locally as the ‘Gotham’ building, being reminiscent of ‘Gotham City’ in the Batman films. It is a hugely impressive and towering Art Deco office building, but completed in 2002! The opulence and Art Deco detail in the bar area, called ‘Atlas’, is particularly impressive.  ‘Is it ok to just have a coffee in here’? Apparently ‘everyone asks that’ before entering the grandiose 1920s style lobby and bar (as noted by the friendly waitress from Malaysia).I’ve also been to the Singapore National Museum and saw how Singapore was created, care of the English gentleman and statesman, ‘Stamford Raffles’.  I watched an old film on life in the early 20th century in Singapore and audio clips which concentrated greatly on the liberation and increased freedoms for women in the 1920s and 1930s and views on equality and education for women.  The Chinese ‘Amahs’ were also mentioned, Dressing in black and white with very long plaited pony tails, they took a vow of celibacy and gained a certain amount of independence as domestic workers, often living together outside of the houses they worked in, ‘happy times’, according to one Amah on the audio clip.I guess this is all rather retrospective now but I’ve also been to the Singapore Art Museum, where I saw some abstract and colourful artworks/sculptures and also watched a variety of short films upstairs in the ‘Moving Images Gallery’.  One particular film stood out about a manual worker who finds a wallet in a field and wrestles with his conscience as to whether to return the money to its rightful owner; in the end he does despite his own poverty, a moral and feel-good tale.  These were all part of ‘Imaginarium: To the Ends of the Earth’ exhibition (Children’s Season Special).

We also went to the ArtScience Museum recently to see ‘Human+’, which linked well with an exhibition we saw in London recently, ‘Robots’.  We got to talk with the world’s most realistic humanoid, Nadine, who said ‘it was a real pleasure’ to meet us.  She does show her anger/give the cold shoulder as one schoolboy who was rather rude to her found out!  Artificial intelligence and the future of robots are a feature in a lot of news stories here, as I guess they are throughout the world.  It does feel very hi-tech here and modern with the grand, modern buildings, the glass lifts in the many shiny shopping centres and the technology used in exhibitions and the like.  Even the ‘obike’ shared bike scheme is via an app and unlocked by scanning a bar code (which probably assists in their not getting stolen, but again the crime rate is very low in Singapore).

Galleries of Singapore

 Wonder Woman

Last night we went to see Wonder Woman and bought an ice cream just before, sitting at night near The Fountain of Wealth, said to be the largest fountain in the world I believe.  A drip of ice cream on the floor and I found myself quickly wiping it up!  The streets are immaculate here, if people have a drink in a plastic cup/straw, it is most often in a clear plastic bag.  And no-one wanders along eating.  There are a number of smokers and you do get the odd cigarette butt scattered around in certain places.  But workmen sweep and gather together rubbish, cardboard is folded and stacked neatly near refuse areas.