Singapore – the end of Asia
(James) All too quickly our time in Australia had come to an end. We’d been busy throughout our stay but our list of jobs – top of which had been to get the blog up to date – was now even longer than before. We said a sad goodbye to Sal and Meg and then drove down to Melbourne airport with my dad. It’s always hard to say goodbye to family when you live so far apart as you all know that the distance is so great, and the cost of flights so prohibitive, that in all likelihood you won’t see them for another couple of years. We dealt with this as men normally do, by just giving a firm handshake and maybe and ‘man hug’ (complete with clenched fist for the obligatory punch to the shoulder) and parted with a ‘look after yourself’. All a bit stiff upper lip, but then, hey we’re British!
As sad as it was to leave, we were both excited as we knew that we were heading, in a roundabout way, towards our bikes and the next part of our trip. At least we hoped that was what was happening; our attempts to use the tracking tool on the website of the company that owned the ship our bikes were on had proved futile as the system hadn’t been working. Still, we were slightly nervous verging on optimistic, but we didn’t want to tempt fate so wouldn’t dare say anything too positive or hopeful to each other.
Our flight was fairly uneventful (there are only so many ‘events’ that can happen on a flight and none of them are good, so I’m not entirely sure why I said that) – so, nothing of note happened and we landed at a lovely, steamy Singapore airport at around 5pm. We were staying with an old teaching friend of Em’s called Laura, who had been working at an international school for the previous four years and had a nice two bedroom apartment in the city as part of her contract. We’d told her to expect us at 6pm but by the time we’d got through the airport, made our way to the area she lived in and then found her apartment block amongst the thousands of other identical blocks, it was gone 8pm. (Em: we didn’t have a phone so poor Laura was starting to worry that something had happened to us!) We popped out for a bite to eat at the local Indian and Laura bought us a couple of beers (just as well as Singapore, it turned out, was bloody expensive!) before we called it a day – it was still a school night after all.
Given that we only had one day in Singapore, we weren’t exactly up at first light to see the sights. In fact it was gone 11am and a very humid 100 degrees by the time we emerged out into the street. We took a bus down into the city which, as one might expect in Singapore, was simple, clean and efficient. The demographic of our fellow passengers was just what we’d expected of the city too – a healthy mix of Indians, Chinese, Malays and, of course, western ex-pats. The bus took us down immaculate tree lined avenues, all perfectly manicured and with old English names. In many ways it was as if nothing had changed since the days of Empire, except that in Singapore, such is the rate of change that virtually any building over twenty years old seems to get demolished and replaced with a new one – which means the city’s skyline is in a constant state of flux. Some buildings don’t change, however, and one of these was the first stop on our little tour.
The Raffles Hotel is without doubt the most famous building in Singapore and one of the most famous hotels in the world. Famed not just for its colonial era opulence but for its Long Bar where, in 1910, the Singapore Sling cocktail was invented. It’s still possible for non-guests to go to the bar and order the famous cocktail but at $20 a pop it was a little out of our budget, and frankly had we had one, given the combination of the hour, the temperature and our now pathetic tolerance for alcohol, we’d have spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping on a bench somewhere. Instead we wandered around the bits that non-guests could access and imagined what stories those walls could tell. Apparently the hotel had been in danger of being closed down in recent years but such is the affection the locals seem to have for it that funding was found to renovate the building, restoring it to its former glory. It’s a funny thing, as there are now plenty more expensive flashy hotels in Singapore, and every building around absolutely towers over it, but somehow Raffles seems classier for it. No 80 floor glass tower with roof top infinity pool here, just a nice old white stone building with grand but modestly tasteful lush gardens and shaded sitting areas. It’s just cooler – James Bond would stay here (in his usual suite of course).
Having survived the temptation of an early (expensive) cocktail we popped over the road to the Swiss Hotel, from which, we’d been assured by Laura, we could get a great view of the city for free. All we had to do was take the lift to the 69th floor. We wandered in, trying and failing to look like we belonged, and made it to the elevator. Arriving on the 69th floor we stepped out to find a function taking place (and one we couldn’t have less appropriately dressed to blend into) so we dived back in before the doors shut on us and continued up to the restaurant above. In the end we decided we might as well be honest about our intentions (there was no way we looked like we were here to dine!) and asked the maitre de if we could take a few photos of the view, which of course, they were only too happy for us to do! It gave us a great view of the city and the surrounding waters which were full of thousands of container ships and oil tankers as far as the eye could see (Singapore is the world’s busiest port). As we looked down on the city, we were still able to pick out the odd building that had somehow defied the wrecking balls – St Andrews, the city’s cathedral, amongst them. Seeing the streets from such a height also allowed us to plan our next move as our view was effectively the same as looking at a map – although any map here that’s more than a year or so old can be utterly out of date, and so it proved for us. Land reclamation and new buildings meant that the road we wanted didn’t technically exist and should have been in the harbour!
We continued our tour through downtown Singapore and couldn’t help but feel a bit scruffy. Whilst we’re quite used to feeling ‘under dressed’ in our travel clothes, we felt more conspicuous than usual as people in Singapore dress incredibly formally. Whilst the men wear the usual shirt and tie, the women wear really flash outfits. Standard dress seems to include high heels and the kind of outfit one might expect at Ascot, a cocktail party or a movie premiere! It just seems to be expected here – part of a culture that ‘wants’ everything smart and immaculately clean. (Em: as you can imagine, I looked really classy in my ripped cut off shorts, adapted from the trousers I’d been wearing when I’d had my accident in Istanbul!) We continued our little tour round town, walking through the slightly touristy but undeniably cute Boat Quay, a collection of old colourful two-storey wooden shuttered buildings, all restaurants, that sit beneath the towering glass and steel skyscrapers of the financial district – another example of old and new existing in perfect harmony. We also had a walk around Little India which, like Boat Quay, was charming and colourful (Em: and immaculately clean… so not really like India then!!)
We had agreed to meet Laura and Caitlin, an old friend and workmate of mine from back in London who was now living and working in town, later that evening. We still had time to kill before our rendezvous so spent the rest of the day wandering around and reading about our surroundings. Singapore, despite its small size (its population is just over 5 million) is the world’s fourth leading financial centre. Although officially a democracy and with a good reputation, it not quite as open and free as one might expect. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has been in government since independence in 1959 and although there are democratic elections every four years, there are very strict controls over what any opposition can say or do. When elections do come about, every four or five years, PAP offers ‘rewards’ for those who vote for them (such as shares that can be converted into cash) or threats (i.e. their buildings won’t be maintained therefore turning them into slums). There is no electoral commission to oversee events, only nine days are allowed for campaigning and the (re-drawn) constituent boundaries are only announced the day before the election. Critics and opposition leaders are often taken to court to face a variety of charges in financially debilitating cases – the government has never lost a case. There is strict censorship of media, all of which are government owned (the foreign press is controlled by either being continually sued or having its circulation curtailed).
Singapore is famed for its criminal system under which extremely tough sentences are applied to even minor crimes (the death penalty, caning and public humiliation are all used). Certainly the system acts as great deterrent (which, I guess, is the point of any crime prevention scheme) and as a result Singapore has an incredibly low crime rate – lone women can pretty much walk the streets at night without any fear. More disturbing, Singapore has the ‘Internal Security Act’ (ISA) to fall back on which allows the government to arrest anyone without trial – 23 years is the longest I’m aware of (trial by jury has long since been abolished)! There’s no sign that things will change soon in Singapore. Western countries turn a blind eye to it as always because Singapore is good to do business with and it doesn’t rock the boat. The Prime Minister is Lee Hsien Loong (his father was previously PM ruling from 1959 until 1990),meanwhile Loong’s wife controls one of the biggest Government owned companies, and his brother controls the government-run Singapore Telecom. Nepotism at its finest!
Singapore still has many old British traits from colonial days including a speaker’s corner. For those who don’t know, Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde park is famous for people going there to stand on a box and speak on any issue of their choosing. People go down to listen, heckle and argue and it all makes for good viewing. Censorship in Singapore, however, means that its own Speakers Corner has certain limitations. Religion, politics and government cannot be discussed – I can’t help but think that having banned the juiciest subjects from the soap box must make it all a bit less interesting! Things aren’t helped by the fact that gatherings of five or more people for ‘political purposes’ counts as illegal assembly. Unsurprisingly, Singapore’s system of ‘democracy’ – a capitalist system with strict controls but the façade of openness and freedom – is attracting admirers; both China and Thailand are amongst those are looking at it as a potential model to base their own systems on. So, things aren’t always as great as they seem.
As the working day came to end we made our way to Robinson Quay to meet Caitlin (Em: unfortunately Laura had to pass; she’d lost her voice – a common teacher’s affliction – and needed an early night). It was great to see Caitlin again and a surprise to see her so formally dressed (apparently it was ‘dress-down Friday’ so god knows what she normally has to wear! ) Unlike most people, Caitlin doesn’t require a couple of glasses of wine to be excitable and bubbly – she’s from Vancouver so it just comes naturally! And like everyone else we know from Vancouver, she’s also incredibly outgoing and has a positive view on things. We had a great evening catching up over a few glasses of wine but all too soon our evening came to an end and we had to say goodbye, but not before Caitlin had decided she was going to take her motorcycle test (Em: awesome, there aren’t enough female bikers out there!) Caitlin? This is your official reminder to get on the case! We walked back along the old canal past the hundreds of bars and restaurants, now packed with those welcoming in the weekend, and a group of people flying silent remote controlled kites (no strings!) fitted with LED lights and lasers and looking like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind! Awesome! (Em: Gadget Geek Boy was in his element!)
The following morning we were up early for our flight to Vancouver via Manila. Laura was still feeling rough but got up to give us a lift to the airport, bless her (Em: thanks so much for everything, Laura, good luck with the move back to London and we’ll see you there soon!) It was a genuinely sad moment for us. We’d spent the last twelve months in Asia and had ridden from one side to the other. It really felt like the end of an era for us, as if the ‘adventure’ part of our trip was over. North America would surely be routine, after all as Brits we’d be totally familiar with everything, right? We spent the next few hours reminiscing about Asia and recalling some of the incredible places, people and experiences we’d been so lucky to encounter. We had one final hitch at the check-in desk when we were told we wouldn’t be allowed to board the plane as we didn’t have an onward ticket from Canada. We tried to explain that we were exiting Canada overland into the USA, showed them our US visas and told them our bikes were already in Canada but, of course, the rule book didn’t mention anything about land crossings, only onward flights. A few phone calls were made and still nothing. We explained that Vancouver was right next to the US border so many people crossed overland but the computer just wouldn’t except that as an option. Eventually we had our problem sent upstairs to the management (along with one of our business cards so they could go online to our website to verify that we would actually be moving on from Canada overland). After a slightly nervous 15 minutes they came back saying they’d let us through but we might get the same treatment when we transferred in the Philippines and that Canadian immigration might require us to buy an onward ticket on arrival! (Em: And we’d thought our border crossings would be easier in the west without the bikes!)
As our plane took off, we watched Asia recede beneath us and spoke about our crossing of the Khunjerab Pass between China and Pakistan which, at 4750 metres (approximately 15,000 feet) had been our highest point. We watched the in-flight monitors as they displayed our speed and altitude and at the right moment looked out of the window at the sea, coral atolls and clouds below. It was quite a shock; next time you’re on a flight, look out the window as the plane passes through 15,000 feet – it’s hard to believe that there are roads at that altitude! With that, we sat back with a smile and a small sense of satisfaction at what we achieved, and a growing sense of excitement at what lay ahead of us….