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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.