Sunday, February 25, 2007

Singapore, Introduction To Asia

Singapore, Introduction To Asia
by: Gareth Powell

To understand Singapore you need to realize that it is the extension of one man's intelligence, dream and drive. And that man is Lee Kuan Yew, the original prime minister of the Republic of Singapore. Yes, it is true he was aided in his task by the people of Singapore. It is interesting to ponder on what would have happened to Singapore if Lee Kuan Yew, one of the remarkable men of his century, had not been present.

Lee Kuan Yew is a nonya. That is he can claim both Malay and Chinese heritage. He was born in 1923 and was prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. And during his rule, as a simple statement of fact, Singapore went from being something of a backwater to becoming the most prosperous nation in Southeast Asia.

Lee Kuan Yew went to Cambridge University where he got a double starred first which is not something that is given out with the rations. He became a lawyer and was admitted to the English bar but returned to Singapore to work, as a committed socialist, with the unions.

In 1963 Lee took Singapore into the newly created Federation of Malaysia.

This created all sorts of problems. In Singapore 75 percent of the members of the PAP were Chinese and there was much tension between Chinese and Malays. There was communal rioting in Singapore and in 1965 Lee Kuan Yew was told by his Malaysian colleagues in the federal government that Singapore must leave the federation.

Singapore had to secede and it then became a sovereign state with Lee Kuan Yew as its first prime minister.

It is fair to say that in return for a mildly authoritarian style of government that sometimes infringed on civil liberties Lee Kuan Yew brought Singapore honest and efficient administration and spectacular prosperity.

Lee Kuan Yew resigned the office of prime minister in November 1990.

It is, perhaps, sad that such a great man who did not believe in inherited power has appointed his children in just such a manner. Does not affect the tourist. Possibly affects the future of Singapore.

Singapore is not a big place. It sits at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula 137 km north of the Equator. The main part is Singapore Island and there are also about 60 very small islands.

The main island is connected to Peninsular Malaysia by a road and rail causeway which bridges the Johor Strait.

Singapore does not depend on tourism for a living. It is the largest port in Southeast Asia and one of the busiest in the world.

Singapore is not just a small island. It is also a very flat island. Most of it is less than 15m above sea level and its highest point is Timah Hill which soars to 162m.


Singapore is near the equator and in the monsoon region. The average monthly temperature varies from about 27 degrees C in June to 25 degrees C in January and the difference is not noticeable. The wettest time of the year is November-March and the period with the least amount is May to September. Not that it makes very much difference.

Rain falls somewhere on the island every day of the year. Which is why it is very green. Do not let the rain worry you. In the constant warm temperature you very quickly dry out.

There is not much left of the original Singapore. There is a fragment of evergreen rain forest preserved around catchment areas and some mangrove vegetation survives in the Kranji area on the northwest side of the island but otherwise it is all cultivated in one way or another.

The city is in the south of the island but, in truth, most of the island of Singapore has now been built up and over. At one time it looked as though every old building in Singapore would be knocked down and replaced with a new and shining skyscraper. Eventually the penny dropped and the government decided that refurbishing rather than demolishing the once-common Chinese shop-house would not be a bad idea. And keeping the Raffles hotel operating in its old premises but with a new style was part of the campaign.

Nevertheless the Housing and Development Board (HDB) has changed forever the face of Singapore and has housed a staggering four-fifths of the population high-rise HDB flats located in housing estates and new towns.


About three quarters of the population of Singapore is Chinese with Malays next and Indians the third.

But it does not break down as easily as that. Nearly half of the Chinese originate from Fukien province and speak Amoy; a third is from Swatow and speaks Teochew and most of the rest are Cantonese. That is three different dialects which are not understandable by all although, of course, written Chinese is a unifying force.

The Malays are pretty much one group although some of them speak Indonesian dialects which although very similar to Malay have some vocabulary differences. The Indians are the biggest mixture of them all. The majority are Tamils but there are also Malayalis and Sikhs as well as Pakistanis and Sinhalese.

There are four official languages - English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. And there is a fifth which although not recognized officially, is distinct enough to be the subject of several learned papers. This is Singaporean which is Singapore's very own version of the English language.

It contains words and grammatical from all the languages of Singapore. Therefore "Must be, lah" is an affirmative declaration while, "What to do now, lah?" is an expression of helplessness in the face of fate. It is a lovely and expressive language based totally on English. If you speak English you will never have language problems in Singapore.

Singapore is a singularly pleasant place to visit. It is the ideal destination for someone making their first foray into Asia.

The chances of your being robbed in Singapore are pretty close to nil. And if you are, the local constabulary will move heaven and earth to fang the wretched miscreant and return your goods.

The roads are spotlessly clean - drop a bus ticket and you will very probably be fined. The road crossings are safe - go jaywalking and once again your wallet will be lightened. The roadside food stalls are the cleanest in the world. No one gets gippy tummy in Singapore.

The developers are something else again. Sadly, like developers all over the world their motto is 'nothing exceeds like excess'. Almost everything that was old and worthwhile and interesting came under the wrecker's ball.

Singapore eventually saw the folly of this and you can still find parts of the old Singapore.

The Tourist Promotion Board maintains a flood, a deluge, an inundation of brochures telling of the wonders of the city state. But it bridles madly at the sign of any criticism.

Despite this nonsense Singapore is a most attractive place to visit - for one reason. The people. Singaporeans are joyous, intelligent, friendly. In the restaurants you are served with pleasure.

Singapore need never run a politeness campaign. Its people are the politest and the warmest in Asia. Partially this has something to do with the racial mix. Within Singapore, Malays, Chinese of several varieties, Tamils and Europeans get on in the most amazing racial harmony.

This harmony spills over to the visitor. In Singapore, I promise you, the people positively love having you as an honored guest.

Pretty much all of the attractions in Singapore are man-made and of relatively recent origin. It is astounding that on this flat little island so much has been created to keep the visitor entertained.

What are the main attractions of Singapore? This is my list. Yours will almost certainly be very different.

Food. You can eat yourself silly with 100 different cuisines and still not have scratched the surface in Singapore.

My own view, formed after spending a lifetime in the area, is that the food in Singapore – because of its wide range of styles - is arguably the best in Asia.

You can eat very cheaply by sticking to the open air restaurants that abound. They are all squeaky clean and serve ambrosia at discount prices. The first place to try is the Satay Club on Elizabeth Walk and then make your own discoveries.

The Jurong Bird Park. When I have business in Singapore I make it a point to keep half a day clear to go and sit on my own in the Jurong Bird Park. This has the largest aviary in the world. What they have done is net off a valley so that there is a waterfall inside the aviary. It brings balm to the soul.

Visit The Off-Shore Islands. It is easy to think that Singapore is just one diamond shaped island for that is the way that it appears on most maps. In fact there are several smaller islands that you can visit.

Boats can be hired from Clifford Pier which is just across the road from Change Alley. On the islands you will find an older, more peaceful Singapore. One where Stamford Raffles - the man who founded the place - would feel very much at home.

Visit The Tiger Balm Gardens. This place is truly a nonsense - but a most enjoyable nonsense. Full of statues and grottoes and buildings all garishly painted. They are, as I understand it, intended to give you an idea how heaven and hell look in the Taoist religion. Incidentally, Tiger Balm ointment, which provided the funds to build this place, does cure what ails you.

Wallow In The Luxury Of An Up-Market Hotel. My theory is that the local towkays - the millionaires - have all tried to one-up each other in the construction of hotels. The result is that in Singapore you can stay in a hotel with appointments and service you could simply not afford anywhere else in the world.

Spend Time In One Of The Many Gardens. My favorite is the Japanese Garden, again in Jurong. A well-designed Japanese garden always gives me a special sense of peace. This is almost certainly the best Japanese garden outside Japan.

And so it goes. The average visitor spends 3.7 days in Singapore which is enough time to get the feel of the place, to go shopping, to eat yourself stupid and to make instant but lasting friendships with the local Singaporeans.

Then you can nip across the causeway to Malaysia. This is where the real Asia begins. Singapore is but a foretaste. For the first time visitor it is difficult to think of a better introduction.

About The Author

Gareth Powell

This article is by Gareth Powell who runs It can be edited, cut, localized, and given a different heading. Just keep the link to the site intact. Gareth Powell has been travel editor of two metropolitan newspapers, has written (and had published) eleven books and has published many travel magazines.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Singapore Taxi

The Singapore Taxi
by: Ieuan Dolby

Fast, easy and efficient could describe life in Singapore. You don’t stroll along the streets in a world of your own with time to spare and you definitely do not walk when a taxi is waiting nearby. Life in Singapore is geared towards the making of money and any spare moment given is put to that task. So if one should need to get to work or get to the office, go shopping or attend the cinema (because the children insist on it) then transport is essential.

Private cars are good and super efficient. The MRT or underground system is also a perfect feat of Engineering: fast, clean and cheap for the average punter, but life also seems to include an inordinate number of taxis. They seem to be required and used whether one owns a car not and even when one is standing right next to the entrance to an MRT station. In an average week one can use a taxi about seven times and that in anybody’s books is a lot.

Three companies tend to run the Cab business and all are large and modern, consisting of the latest cars with satellite navigation and instant booking services by a frightening voice box and pushbutton accept system that flashes possible messages at the driver: as if he is not confused enough with the fast flowing and interchanging traffic that is going on around him. Singapore is not a place where once you get into lane you are okay for half an hour so. This is a place where once you have settled into your lane – it is time to change to another, time to enter the tunnel or cross a bridge, go round a roundabout or exit up the ramp. A plate of Spaghetti has nothing on the road system here but it does flow smoothly, it is extremely well designed and it is safe – if drivers do not talk too much and check their flashing job screen every other minute!

To catch a cab one can do a variety of things. The usual one of going outside and flagging one down, another of calling one up on the booking service or joining a long queue at a taxi rank. The first one is the most amazing and also one of the most frustrating methods of trying to catch one: not that there are none available but the drivers have a strange way of picking up punters. There you are outside your apartment and this blue cab with its light on comes floating towards you. Stopping beside the pavement the driver will lower his window and ask you where you are going.

And the strangest thing is that if you are not going in his direction or to where he wants to go, then he will not pick you up. Amazing but true! Taxi drivers are very obstinate and although Singaporeans like to make money above all else the taxis do not follow that rule. For them food and sleep is more important and so if they are coming towards the end of their shift or feel like dinner then they will not pick you up unless you want to go where they are going. It is quite possible to stop five or more cabs in a run only for the drivers to shake their heads and zoom off leaving you stranded and confused. A very frustrating time indeed!

The other method of calling a taxi is probably the most efficient and stable one. Simply by calling up the company a taxi can be on its way to you in a matter of minutes and mostly all works well. The third method can also be extremely annoying and frustrating as one usually has to stand for about twenty minutes in a long queue whilst suffering from the heat of the day. But by using a taxi rank you are assured of being picked up – by law the driver cannot refuse to take you wherever you want to go if the pick-up point is at a taxi rank.

Life though is more interesting than trying to catch a taxi. Life gets more active when one is inside and on the way to their destination. The average driver in Singapore is good. The average taxi driver in Singapore is definitely in need of help. Psychological help in some cases and others just need some basic lessons in driving. The roads in Singapore can be awkward as the forward momentum of the vehicle is constantly disrupted as another stop sign looms up, as another intersection needs to be navigated or another accident causes the whole system to falter. But the taxi drivers even with a smooth road ahead of them constantly apply the break and then the gas causing the passengers heads to hit the seat in front of them and then to be thrown backwards against the rear window.

This action on the part of seventy percent of the drivers may not be totally due to bad driving. An unusually high proportion of drivers suffer from sleep deprivation! They will tell you that this is because of the extra long hours that they have to work (to get a tip from you) but many do certainly nod off whilst you are sitting behind them. In one taxi I was sort of trying to read my newspaper with my head waggling backwards and forwards when all of a sudden I noticed that I could read my newspaper. I mean that all of a sudden I was not being thrown around as the driver applied the gas and break in rapid succession. This was weird and unusual but I accepted it as another quirk of the industry.

It was when we where zooming along at way past the speed limit, that I looked closer at my driver. He was asleep and soundly so and we where heading straight for the oncoming lane. I acted instinctively and jumped across my prospective killer and adjusted the wheel and thus the cars’ direction to suit an accident free journey. Whilst doing that I jabbed my elbow into his shoulder (well, it turned out to be his face) to wake him up. A lucky save and if I had not been aware or had fallen asleep …… pancake time. I never fall asleep in a taxi after that experience.

Signs of the driver falling asleep are quite noticeable should one look for them. The constant opening and shutting of the window and the drivers’ constant changing of the air conditioning settings is a good one. Another is the drivers’ desperate scramble for the plastic bottles that he has stashed under his seat. I would question the manufacturers of these drugs as however many a driver takes they never seem to aid him in keeping awake. Oh and the most important thing to watch out for is when your head no longer jerks back and forth – this means that the driver has fallen asleep and his foot is still.

I normally hate making small talk. I would rather read a newspaper or stare out of the window. But in Singapore Taxis I prefer to keep the driver in conversation as this undoubtedly and without fail will keep him wide-awake. To start off the conversation just say something stupid like, “hot day today” as if Singapore is any different from one day to the next. He will invariably turn the conversation around to asking where you are from and then talking about football and Liverpool or he will turn to the state of the economy. “No profit in taxi driving anymore, no customers and cars cost more to buy than ever before”. This should keep him going for a half an hour or so, more than enough for the trip.

I think these drugs may have alternative side effects. I have noticed on some occasions that drivers are a bit high spirited. Now whether this an effect of the drugs that kicks in a couple of hours later or due to something that is completely removed I know not. I am just trying to make a connection as when the drivers take their “keep awake pills” nothing happens. Anyway, I have often climbed into a taxi and been surprised at the activity of my driver. One memorable trip started off okay until he found out that I was from Scotland. I spent the next twenty minutes of the journey listening to bagpipes and a donkey heehawing whilst being thrown violently against the drivers seat and the rear window in turn. No, it was not music or anything like that but the driver whilst jumping up and down in his seat, imitated the bagpipes and in between breaths became a horse. He used to say “Scotland” at frequent intervals as if to reassure me that he knew where I came from.

Weird! I had another bad occurrence in a taxi when he started to get aggressive against a football team and he spent more time trying to clamber over the rear of his seat, to reinforce his opinion than looking where he was going. I got extremely worried about him and decided that I should leave his taxi as quickly as possible. I jumped out at an intersection and decided that I would not pay for such a ride. I could hear him shouting as I ran away down the hard shoulder – but I don’t want to pay to be harassed!

Apart from all of the above the typical taxi journey passes without note. Some of the drivers will seriously annoy you or make you feel sick when they open their door and spit a big gob of mucus onto the road side. But this is the way that they do it. I have asked one driver not to do that again – and he didn’t. But generally just try and ignore that. They also tend to get a bit vocal inside of the car if involved in a near miss with another car or have to sit for any length of time due to an accident up ahead. This is due to the fact that if a driver gets out of his car and shouts at another driver then he can quickly and without question be hauled off to jail. The government does not tolerate drivers making a scene in public and so drivers just do not do it, ever. This is all-and-well, unless you happen to be the poor passenger that has to take the brunt of his “road rage” whilst pretending that you are not sitting in the back seat of that particular cab.

Sorry, I seem to be putting them down. The taxi system and the drivers are quite excellent and safe in Singapore and no less than any other town or city the world over. When hiring a taxi in Singapore you are ensured of a rapid and free journey to your destination and the cost is not prohibitive, you are safe and looked after at all times. One thing does puzzle me though, that of why the drivers constantly ask the passengers which way they would like to go. Having just arrived in Singapore I pick up a taxi at the rank just outside the airport. I give him the name of the hotel and off he sets. After five-minutes this driver will invariably turn around and ask me whether I would like to go by the PIE or by the East Coast Road. Stupid question really as the average person arriving at Singapore Airport and especially one who is going to a hotel would not have a clue about the transport system in Singapore.

I used to think that the drivers where testing their passengers as to their knowledge of Singapore and that if they showed ignorance then they would be carted off on a tour of the city without knowing any difference. But this has not been the case as I have often put it to the test. The driver has asked me and I have given him no inkling as to my knowledge of the city – and he has taken me the quickest route! Such is life!

Listen everybody: the Taxi Drivers in Singapore are of excellent quality and any prospective passenger is assured of an easy, safe and smooth-drive to their destination – don’t listen to me.

Just keep your eyes open and the drivers as well if you can!

About The Author

Ieuan Dolby, from Scotland is an Engineering Officer in the Merchant Navy. He has been travelling the world for 15yrs on an endless tour of cultural diversification. Currently based in Singapore he writes various articles for magazines and newspapers and is working on a marine glossary.