I love Malaysia. It’s a truly integrated culture of traditional pirates, fishermen, farmers (a few headhunters) and now respectful hardworking people from around the world, who actually get along with each other very, very well considering the grand divides of religion and language that they face. I’ve never been anywhere where people know as much about other people living in their community who are “different.”
I love smoking hookahs in Kuala Lumpur with crazy chattering Arabs. I love the mélange of Chinese, Indian and Malay. I love Penang. I love the jungles of Borneo with a thunderstorm coming up over the mountains (even though a spider bite I sustained there got so infected I nearly lost an arm). I love sea kayaking and parasailing in the South China Sea. I love the respect a Buddhist monk gets walking in the warm leaden rain past a mosque.
But I also love neighboring Singapore, which while technically separate, has much in common with complex Malaysia (which we must remember also includes the strange realm of Brunei, another world yet again).
I get annoyed when people often diss Singapore as not “exotic” enough. What they mean is code. Things are too clean and well managed. The situation is too livable. I say if you want grit, Bangkok, Hanoi and even Hong Kong are good places to start in Asia. You can certainly find some hassle now in Thailand. And if you want danger, I recommend Manila. Take but one step off the tourist routes in Cambodia and Laos and odd things can happen. But Singapore is just fun and welcoming-and after a police incident in Shandong and animal cruelty in South Korea, maybe a Singapore Sling and a Singapore fling is just what’s needed.
Singapore has long been a crossroads maritime center and its founding origins reflect the diversity of cultures that have played a role. Until very recently (when it was overtaken by Shanghai), it was the most active seaport in the world. Located strategically relative to the Straits of Malacca, it was from early days a hub in the trade of blue and white porcelain, rosewood, fish, tea, hemp…the list goes on.
Sir Stamford Raffles, who gives the name to the famous colonial style hotel that people like Somerset Maugham celebrated, put the British Empire stamp on the region, and that colonial flavor lives on in much of the architecture still.
But Singapore has had to work hard to preserve its history because new buildings are forever on the rise. Its central location makes it a natural business center in global terms, and it’s quite remarkable the number of places that two hours in the air will take you to from there.
Today, the city boasts an impressive skyline for the size of the population, and one of the most modern working wharf facilities anywhere. The days of the great shopping bargains may be over. The depressed world economy has meant a slowdown even here, and the cost of living is high. But this hasn’t stopped a large number of students from foreign countries enrolling in universities here, and the luxury apartment complexes for cashed up retirees from Dubai to Sydney keep going up. I can see a lot of excellent reasons for that. Here now are the five special things I love most about Singapore.
The first thing is the stark contrasts…between the super clean modern buildings and the mysterious laneways in Chinatown and Little India…the rumble and groan down on the wharves, and the quiet of the lush gardens and parks…the mix of Hindu temple, Buddhist shrine and mosque. There’s always some sharp juxtaposition, if you keep your eyes open. Stern, no fooling policing…and yet an air of freedom and spontaneity in the people. Just when you think you’ve made your mind up about the place, something you hadn’t seen before appears.
I like to start my visits down on Clarke Quay on the Singapore River. While there’s something to be said for having a Singapore Sling at the famous Raffles Hotel on Orchard Road, you really only do that once. Clarke Quay is much more inviting, with a range of great restaurants and bars, and an atmosphere that’s both festive and relaxed. (In fact, on weekends, the partying goes on until dawn.)
I was once innocently sitting at a Vietnamese-French fusion restaurant at Clarke Quay, with the Brandy & Benedictine on the rocks (with a sprig of mint) kicking in, my svelte Malaysian host looking ravishing in a plungeline coral shaded linen dress and a teardrop shaped pink Argyle diamond descending down her bosom, when I chanced to spot these amazing things flying around in the park across the water. And that, as they say, was that. Remote control kites with lights. You can take the drugs out of the boy, but you can’t…
I had to have one. The folks who launched this enterprise are all young student types, and they are absolute kite flying masters. Check them out. Kite flying is a great tradition in Singapore and Malaysia, both an art form and a kind of ceremonial combat. But these young people have done something really inventive and inspired with it. And I think of this as a symbol of the Singaporean mindset overall.
The eating in Singapore is superb, with its wide range of influences: Malaysian, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Thai and Middle Eastern. Because Hindus don’t eat beef and Muslims don’t eat pork, there are many quality vegetarian places. Seafood is exceptional, with the famous dish being barbecued stingray, char grilled in rich sambal sauce. But what I enjoy the most is the simplicity of satay sticks in the night markets with a Tiger beer (you’ll find the street peddlers wander through selling Kleenex and napkins for a reason-you never have enough napkins with good satay).
There are several markets lined with hawker stalls, but better still is to follow the students, the golden rule when eating in Singapore. Go where the young Singaporeans go. You’ll steer clear of the older tourists, and more importantly find good food that’s cheap, with some lively company that may introduce you to some dishes you’ve never tried before. The relentless fusion of culture and cuisine means there’s always something new happening, even at the hawker stall level. You can eat fabulously in Singapore without spending a lot of money.
Wherever I go, I always need to have a little perverse fun (to enhance my sense of belonging you understand) and when it comes to the markets, particularly on especially hot, humid days (and bear in mind the humidity is pretty constantly at damp shower curtain level), I like to get a Thai coconut in one of the open markets (and the Chinatown markets are especially good for this). Thai coconuts are particularly sweet and refreshing, and short of hot tea are far better actual thirst quenchers in the heat than anything else. Then, while sipping casually from my coconut with a straw, I like to waylay British tourists, the most disoriented and pasty skinned group I can find (or, failing that, any group complaining in French). I wait for that immediately recognized tribe, who are so fundamentally middleclass of heart they’re never happy anywhere and always getting sunburned while you watch them. I then sell in the delicious and reinvigorating benefits of Thai coconut juice like you wouldn’t believe, and send them on the most complicated route I can devise through the swarming thick of the most congested parts of the market, where the odors of food and sweat, the pushing and the jostling are all at peak levels, and of course as far from refreshment as I can arrange. Cruel? Yes, but enjoyable. And I always savor it most when the interaction occurs right in front of where I’ve bought my coconut, because it’s so clear that these people aren’t looking around in the least. They gullibly follow a white person’s advice, when their own eyes would tell them what they wanted to know, and they’re so distraught by the wafting scents of tamarind and ghee, they don’t realize others are noting the polyester perspiration that arises from them.
Even higher on my list of twisted amusements however, is haggling with and hoodwinking Indian tailors. They’re everywhere, and they’re intense. They stand in front of their shops and will literally grab you and drag you inside for measurements. There’s no casual fondling of fabrics with these gentlemen. The sales job is so aggressive, coconuts and tea don’t work after, if you manage to escape. Only alcohol and Malaysian chili crab will do, followed by a water pipe on Arab Street, and in extreme instances, a dalliance with a Singaporean call girl (who range from exquisite to just very nice and make the service seem professional and even dignified, especially when you tip them and have a cocktail by the pool with them afterward, instead of beating them up like some Indian men do).
I was terribly in love with an Indian woman once. Two of the smartest men I’ve known were Indians. I remain good friends with a young Indian I wrote a recommendation for years ago. The maze of Indian culture, music, food, religion and stories amazes me.
But I’m the sworn secret enemy of Indian tailors. After about three of their manhandlings, I thought fuck this. I went to one of the many copy centers and had some fake business cards made up, using one of the many local answering services as my office number. There are a lot of people swinging into Singapore who get business cards made up fast. And you can get some slick ones very quickly.
I then have two different strategies. First, I seek out the real offenders, the hardcores. Once I’ve got my targets in mind, in one instance I go out dressed as fashionably as I can afford. Fancy brand label stuff. I flash a wad of money and my best-looking credit card. I offer my new business card straight up. I insist on taking their attention away from other customers. I want a fitting. I want a whole new wardrobe in fact. I want a classical look in the finest fabrics. I don’t want their two suits and some extra trousers offer, I want ten suits, ten other trousers, and a whole casual ensemble to match, plus ten of their most beautiful shirts. And I want it all ready within a week.
Of course, you’re thinking they’re going to want a deposit, right? That’s when my drink gets delivered. A young Chinese lad comes in on the pre-arranged cell phone text message beep, and I have some French champagne delivered, to toast my new tailor friend and to nurse me through the grueling ordeal of the fittings. They’re not expecting that, and they’re all so competitive, you can run this little scam and not have any of them confess to anyone else that they’ve been done.
When they do ask for a deposit, I say simply, “That’s not the way I do business. Have the suits ready within a week or not. Or I’ll go across the street.”
They’ve now invested time in the procedure. They’ve seen an act they’re not sure about. And it’s not like I’m walking out of the shop with anything. It’s what I’ve left behind. Gnawing doubt. Their whole hassle-you-into-buying deal has been turned around on them. It’s suddenly their risk, not yours. I leave them with the bottle of champagne and move on, strongly suspecting that those suits will be made. Maybe they can sell them later. I’m an average sized guy after all.
Then I seek out one of those tailors who’s actually making headway with a group of numb, sun-reddened, panting Brits (the very sort of people I sent looking for coconut juice down the organ end of the market, where the smells get rich). I wait until he’s just about closed the sale and some real money is about to be put down. Then I come in fuming (and I do good fume). I come in SCREAMING actually. No one is ever prepared for that. I bellow and rant about shoddy workmanship. Nothing fits. I’ve been taken. I’m going to call the police, the government, and the media. This is outrageous! You yell that loud enough and people listen. But you have to be cranked up for it. Suddenly, these hard ass, cutthroat, do-anything-for-a-sale guys give it up. That look in the eyes. That’s worth the whole exercise right there.
“Oh, I’m very sorry,” I say suddenly. “I think I’m at the wrong address. I had your shop confused. Carry on.” Of course the Brits have bolted by then.
The final thing on my list of favorites is something I think is very underrated. The beaches. There are quite a few of them close by, and if you’re renting a car, the possibilities open up still further. It’s true that there are a lot of freighters always lying offshore, but that’s where the energy of the area comes from. To me they add to the atmosphere and not detract. This is a bustling center of international culture with one of the finest major arts festivals in the world. This ain’t no tropical island. It’s one of those places that reveals more the more closely you look.