06 Nov “Synthetic” Singapore
Prior to leaving for the trip, we were shopping for last minute gear at the greatest store on Earth (REI), and struck up a conversation with an employee about our upcoming travels. He was a nice guy that loved his job so much and was beyond helpful to us. He and his partner had just finished a month-long trip around Southeast Asia and had an abundance of useful info to share. Although we were rushing to buy a few things before the store closed, our conversation with him in men’s apparel carried on for the better part of an hour. During this conversation, he shared his thoughts on the different countries they visited, remarking that Thailand was his favorite and most romantic while Singapore was his least favorite. When I asked why he did not like Singapore (which was not on our agenda at the time), he said it was “The USA of Asia” and felt too “synthetic.” I had no idea what he meant by all of that and thought “synthetic” was a strange word choice in describing a city/country, but I nodded politely as if I understood and proceeded to ask his opinion on which rain jacket he liked better, the North Face or Patagonia (he had impeccable taste and helped me decide on the Patagonia jacket, which has been a solid choice thus far).
A few weeks ago while in Koh Lanta, we were planning to go to Cambodia when we found out it was a national holiday week there and many businesses would be closed. Therefore, we went back to Bangkok to rearrange plans. This worked out for the better because after returning to Bangkok, I got sick with a ridiculously high fever, headache, fatigue, and rash. I did not go to the hospital, although we think it may have been the Dengue fever (PSA: Use bug dope, people! Mosquitos are no joke here!). It is a scary thing to be sick in a foreign country, even with insurance and the high quality health care in Bangkok. We ended up staying almost a week in Bangkok while I recovered, and by the time I felt mostly better, we had 6 days to kill and wanted more time than that in Cambodia. A quick search on skyscanner.com revealed the cheapest international flights were to Singapore, and the next day, we were off!
Knowing very little of Singapore and its recent history, we read up as much as we could while the word “synthetic” bounced around my head. We learned more about City/States, in that Singapore is a single city and a sovereign country, celebrating 50 years of independence from England this year! We also learned that they have an incredible amount of laws which are strictly enforced by a police force typically dressed in civilian clothing, so you never know when a policeman is watching you. If caught, you will be heavily fined for eating or drinking anything on the public transportation including a sip of water, chewing gum and spitting it on the sidewalk (we’ve heard it is the death penalty for that one, although unconfirmed), and jaywalking (although we saw others doing it, we dared not)…
We also learned (the hard way) that Singapore was a very expensive place, with hotels and transportation nearly double that of all the previous locations. We nearly cried when they threw away our peanut butter and Nutella at the airport, as we lived off the stuff for a week in order to save money on food.
Arriving in Singapore, we knew exactly what our REI friend was speaking of–immaculately clean roads, beautifully maintained gardens, and futuristic glass buildings everywhere we looked. We saw no homeless beggars, very little trash, and no rule-breakers. It felt very controlled, manmade, and polished. In better terms, “synthetic.” It truly felt like America with an Asian twist, although we still felt a noticeable lack their own culture or identity. The attractions of the city were Universal Studios, two zoos, the World’s largest aquarium, botanic gardens, and several hawker markets where you can buy food and merchandise from numerous vendors. Perhaps it is due to the recent British influence, but I found myself disappointed that it seemed to lack a vibrant identity, culture, or historical heritage of its own consistent with the neighboring SE Asian countries. With so many expats living there primarily on business and Asia’s richest families moving there, it was a noticeably upperclass society that seemed disjointed from one another. It was apparent: Singapore is a lovely and promising country that is learning, growing, and developing into a vibrant cultural city, but has not yet settled into it.
All that behind, we did enjoy our stay overall. We visited the aquarium, Botanic Gardens by the Bay (including the Cloud Forest and Super Trees), the National Botanical Orchid Garden, and the two zoos (one at day, the other a “night safari”). The Night Safari was a great experience, as it is the only zoo in the world that is dedicated to nocturnal animals. As 80% of tropical animals are nocturnal, it opened up the possibility for visitors to see animals they never would otherwise. It opens at dark and allows visitors to wander through paths seeing animals moving around and active that are typically considered bums in the daytime. They also take a shuttle through the park for an impressive “safari” through the open-field-plan zoo.
However, our favorite part of our trip was getting to hear the Singapore Symphony Orchestra! We found out they were playing scores from Hollywood movies, including two of our favorites from James Horner, “Titanic Suite” from Titanic and “The Ludlows” from Legends of the Fall, the latter of which we used in our wedding! It was a fun, gorgeous, and memorable night!
Overall, the trip was fun and entertaining, even if more in the “Disneyland” fashion than a culturally experiential one. The modern architecture and attractions truly looked like the Jetson’s world, and while impressive visually, it lacked in cultural depth too much for me to really enjoy it. Would we go back? Probably not. Am I glad to have that stamp in my passport and those experiences in my memory bank? Absolutely. “Synthetic Singapore” was a good leg of our trip–quite beautiful in a manmade sense–yet overall unfulfilling culturally.