Three Days in Singapore

I write this as our bus from Singapore makes its way back to Kuala Lumpur on one of Malaysia’s fine highways. I have no way of telling how close we are to the city, as we learned early on that most of Malaysia’s most accessible areas were rainforests not all that long ago and have been near universally converted into plantations of rubber or palm oil trees. The particular stretch we’re on at the moment features rubber to the left, palm to the right. I really need to learn more about the ecology of these crops, but I think it’s fair to say that monoculture (the growing of a single crop on vast parcels of land) anywhere is probably not a sound nor sustainable practice. This aspect of peninsular Malaysia’s greenery is pleasant only in the same way a golf course is. These farms are the tropical equivalent of an American corn field and not all that different from a putting green .

We leave Singapore after spending three hours in front of the TV watching the inauguration from Washington. We were the only Americans in the room, but I got the sense that all those who were paying attention felt like President Obama had something to say to them. CeCe noted the nations represented included the Philippines, Hungry, Australia, England, and Norway. Judging from the number of immigration officials, restaurant employees and taxi drivers who wanted to talk with us about the world’s new leader a day later, there were a fair number of Malaysians watching as well.

In fact, we’ve met very few Americans recently, aside from a voluble African-American fellow we spoke with at the Singapore Zoo after noticing his Obama t-shirt. Our conversation served as a welcome reminder of home and the profound impact this election has had on Americans. But mostly, as lone American travelers, I think we have witnessed a not-so-subtle shift in perceptions of our country since the election and its aftermath. Maybe I’m projecting my hopes onto others, but it’s hard not to argue that the groans that arose every time Bush’s name arose have changed into cautious optimism when Obama’s is mentioned. At the very least this aspect of the change has been a beneficial one.

Our visit to Singapore was a pleasant one. We saw little evidence of the heavy hand of a government that once outlawed chewing gum, aside from the posted threat of fines for things like littering or riding your bike in the wrong place. The levy on those who don’t flush the toilet was a non-issue, as all the public toilets took care of the critical deed for you. Rather, it just seemed to be a well-run city.

Our activities during the three days ran the gamut. We visited gorgeous places of worship for each of the five major religions: we saw one beautiful synagogue to go along with the usual mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and the occasional church. Not in our guidebooks having only recently been completed was the massive Buddha Tooth Shrine Temple and Museum, a goliath four story structure built in high Chinese style and decorated with copious amounts of red lacquer and a Fort Knox’s worth of gold leaf. Here, more than anywhere, perhaps aside from the monumental skyscrapers that littered the skyline, was the prime evidence of Singapore’s immense wealth. If it ever was a squalid little port town, those days are long, long gone. The temple offered wealthy devotees sponsorship opportunities of every shape in size, from $300 to sponsor one of the 2,000 gold Buddhas inlayed in the walls, to $30,000 to “adopt” an artifact (pilfered?) from holy sites around Asia. A quick tally and you realize the vast sums being raised. No real explanation was given as to where the money went. We much preferred our visits to the Hindu temples where there was always some colorful and impenetrable ritual being performed and someone always seemed to want to talk to us.

At the other end of the spectrum, and right up our alley, was our visit on Inauguration Day to Haw Par Villa a delightfully wonderful theme park built by the Chinese man who grew wealthy selling the world Tiger Balm. Add the love of kitsch to the list of shared affinities between Americans and people from this part of the world. On the side of the hill Mr. Tiger Balm constructed a pleasure arcade chock full of tacky concrete statues of zoo animals, lots of fat Buddahs, and dozens of scenes from Chinese folklore. The Chinese seem to love concrete statues as much as we Americans love our lawns. (In Pangkar, we visited a large beachfront shrine guarded but the imposing presence of Donald Duck.) If I didn’t know better, I would have thought Haw Par Villa was just another stop on our American road trip in 2003, a logical stopover between visits to the world’s largest ball of twine, THE THING?!?!, and South of the Border.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our full day at the Singapore Zoo. I had a fun time watching CeCe sprint from exhibit to exhibit, elbowing school children out of prime viewing spots. Highlights include a photo with orangutans (the shared resemblance with my father-in-law is certain), loads of primates, two separate groupings of pygmy hippos, christened the “underwater ballerinas of the Nile” by some zoo staffers with two left feet or a sense of humor, and a breeding colony of proboscis monkeys. Aside from some of the large cats and the snakes, all exhibits were cage-free. We used to disdain zoos, but recognizing their vital importance to conservation efforts, we’ve come around. Singapore Zoo definitely has its act together.

We upload this from Brunei, country #19. We’ll be here for a few days, chilling with the Sultan, before resuming our explorations of Malaysia and its least developed province, Sabah. Our next destination after that is still uncertain with Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand/Myanmar among the top choices. Any recommendations?


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