Years ago when I was an English teacher, there was an activity I'd occasionally do with students to practise conditional forms. They'd have to complete sentences beginning: “If I were a colour/fruit/day, I'd be a...” Speaking personally,, I'd obviously be a red bunch of grapes, on a Saturday, but that's not really my point. The thing is, If I were asked which country I'd be, the answer, for a long time, would have been: “Singapore”.
There's just something about the place which appeals to me. Could it be the orderliness, the gleaming efficiency, the disciplined traffic, the impeccable service, the cultural and culinary diversity? The way that if you put on a white shirt one morning, you actually feel cleaner when you return home at the end of the day than when you set out? The blessed hornlessness of the traffic jams? The way men and women hang out together perfectly casually in a way which you only see here in the Independent Republic of Coffeeworld? All these factors conspire to provide a tonic which is occasionally just what a weary Dhakaite needs...
Such are the thoughts passing through my mind just after my arrival on a recent trip, on being picked up by the hotel's limousine, (a fine black Mercedes I'll never be rich enough to own, but let me pretend just for 20 minutes), and whisked under bougainvillea-laden bridges along streets with markings like a child's toy town, into the high-rise space-age city centre. Out of the window groups of elderly citizens, in identical yellow t-shirts, going through the slow balletic motions of tai-chi. Young people with weird haircuts and ultramodern mobile phones. Speed, style, success. The hum of a place which works, and knows it.
Nevertheless, a tiny chink in the otherwise immaculate aura of perfection had appeared when the driver due to pick me up at the airport was actually 10 minutes late. I looked enviously up and down the signboards of the waiting chauffeurs: Mr Peter Lamsdorff, Monsieur Eugene Verome, Mr Kitoshina. For an impatient moment I was tempted to pretend to be one of these lucky passengers and get into his car. What sort of adventures lay ahead? I could find myself chairing a top-level hedge fund meeting. Or taken to the national museum to deliver a lecture on something I know nothing about, such as the history of the ping-pong ball. But then again, it could turn out badly: I could equally end up being kidnapped by an international vegetable-smuggling gang and force-fed korrolla. So I wait rather gloomily instead. My chap, somewhat oddly named Byron, finds me in the end. The hotel, it turns out, is so distressed by the ten minutes they made me wait that the manager is actually standing outside to greet me, apologising profusely and guaranteeing me a complimentary cocktail that evening. Damn, I wish the delay had been 30 minutes instead. I could have asked for a suite.
Much refreshed after a nap, I later head into the city. On your first visit, you can't avoid the bustling and exhausting main shopping streets. Equally hard to escape are the much-hyped Sentosa, the Night Safari and other similar tourist destinations: all wonderfully executed but rather synthetic. Still, that's only the surface. Singapore works best when you leave the main sights and go looking for touches of authenticity. Tucked away in the side streets, off the trail, there are pockets of charm and quietude. The refined elegance of the old colonial districts, the stillness of St Andrew's Cathedral, the nostalgic echoes of the Empire Tearoom and Raffles Hotel.
Little glimpses of a deeper, older reality pop up throughout the day: the tiny elderly women in their silk suits on the doorsteps of their brightly-painted shop houses in Chinatown, their grey hair tied back in a tight bun. The hectic Chinese food markets, alive with colour, where businessmen in sharp suits, in pursuit of good food rather than fashion or image, sit at cheap plastic tables, tossing chicken bones to the floor. The wizened men on their haunches smoking in the steamy afternoon, or asleep on pavement chairs in the amber light of the sinking sun. The red glow of lanterns outside the incense-filled temples as darkness falls.
Over in the Arab quarter there are the silhouettes of mosques, the exquisite calligraphy over the doors, and the shisha pipes in the restaurants. Meanwhile, a mere five-minute walk away is Little India, whose turbulent streets and clamorous markets offer a glimpse of what awaits me on my return. Later at night it's easy to flee the crowds and head for the contemporary restaurants and smart bars back in the old Chinese quarter where statues of Buddha blend easily with the cool blue lighting, long drinks and edgy music.
But even in the face of all this colour and interest there's a nagging sense that something's lacking. The place is often accused of being a little sterile, and unexciting. And this is perhaps its Achilles Heel. Squeaky clean, modern and tolerantly multilingual, for sure, prosperous and highly-educated, yes, but Singapore, whose name means Lion City, also seems somewhat toothless and tame, apart perhaps from its rather draconian laws, such as fines for chewing gum, the death penalty for carrying drugs. Or is it the other way round?
Can't quite put my finger on this missing element, till the last morning. As seems to happen to me whenever I am there, Bangladesh pops up before I've even begun my return. I have an errand to run, delivering a few goodies to Adnan, the Singapore-based brother of a friend. Naturally we choose to meet up in Little India, off Serangoon St. Lunch is paper masala dosa, but not before we have completed a bit of household shopping in Mustafa's: the famous department store which seems to act as a honeypot for the entire South Asian community in the city. Already around lunchtime the crowds of families and shoppers between the high shelves are beginning to gather. Adnan assures me that by evening it will be impossibly crowded and that you could disappear for ever among the throngs of shoppers stuffing their baskets with shampoo, sweets, coriander and rice.
It's a whole different world in this part of town, and a fitting context in which to ask Adnan for his views on the differences between his homeland and his newly adopted country. He reflects for a while, and then says: “I prefer Bangladesh, of course, because it's much quieter”. Astonished, I press him for clarification. I mean there are many wonderful adjectives to describe Bangladesh, but “quiet” isn't normally one I'd reach for. He laughs while I gather up my eyes, which seem to have popped out and rolled under the table. “No, what I mean is, here it's all pressure, work targets, long days, productivity. At home there's family, the chance to sit around, to talk, to be. Bangladesh is simply more life-centric.”
And there perhaps, expressed in a nutshell, is what I'd been looking for. There's a world of difference between an efficiency-centric place and a life-centric one. Which is why I'd probably now qualify my answer: if I were a country, my mind still would be Singapore perhaps, but as for my heart, I'm no longer so sure...
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