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From Singapore

By Sahand Rabbani

from Singapore

Dear Friends,

Following some business in Hong Kong, I took a late-night four-hour flight on Friday into Singapore, landing just past midnight and arriving at the hotel around one AM. I had expected volatile weather during my weekend visit, but as my luck had it, the thunderstorms occurred only at night giving way for wet mornings and sunny afternoons.

I intended to accomplish a lot this weekend. While Singapore is a small country, it is still in a different class than Monaco and even Malta, for example, for the drive from one end to the other could take an hour, and the taxi ride from the airport was probably around a half hour in the absence of any traffic. The island's modal terrain is actually green park, but I did not explore any of it. Instead, I stuck to the streets and the city.

I woke up early on Saturday morning after little sleep and set out in search of breakfast. I found a small hawker center next to the hotel and pointed at a chicken curry dish and some fried okra. The food was delicious. Singapore is famous for its hawker centers, which are formal consolidations of street food vendors into outdoor food courts.

Following this spicy breakfast, I embarked on a long walk in the heat and humidity, traversing the miles of shopping malls along Orchard Road and finally breaking out into the city. I made my first destination Little India, a colorful set of blocks north of the downtown area. It seemed to consist mostly of souvenir shops and restaurants, made up all nice and pretty to look, I imagine, like a cleaner, tidier version of what I suppose one might find somewhere in India.

I was mostly interested in paying a visit to the famous Mustafa Center at the northern edge of the village, a grungy (by Singaporean standards) twenty-four-hour multi-storey department store selling electronics, foreign currency, and just about anything else that fits on a shelf and some things that do not. The store had an interesting system where vendors would write up a ticket and send the customer to the cashier to pay before handing over the merchandise in a zip-tied plastic bag. I suppose this was all to avoid shoplifting. (At the end I was not able to determine whether the prices in the store were negotiable, but I suspect they were since I witnessed the cashier use the "price override" feature when ringing up a few of my items.)

After Mustafa's, I walked along Race Course Road, notable for its density of Indian restaurants, and enjoyed a delicious lunch of fish head curry at the Banana Leaf Apolo. Fish head curry is a classic Singaporean dish with Indian and Chinese versions. I tried only the former. The smallest serving was suitable for two and featured an enormous fish head bathed in a delicious spicy yellow curry. The fish head had a surprising amount of meat inside it. I excavated it thoroughly, leaving behind only the eyes and spine just like in the cat cartoons. The restaurant itself was somewhat odd. Each table had an iPad (or at least an iPad-looking tablet) with full menu and ordering capabilities, but it was not used in practice. I was amused that the restaurant also charged for literally anything that was consumed on the table, including tap water and wet napkins.

Afterwards, I was ready for a nap. I took the MRT, Singapore's subway system, back to the hotel and slept through the hottest hours of the day. In the early afternoon, I explored the iconic Riverwalk, again done up all nice with restaurants and shops, and saw the water-spouting Merlion, a mythical fish-lion creature that is Singapore's national symbol. I snaked around the tall, often cacophonous skyscrapers of the Central Business District and ended up in Chinatown, a patchwork of malls, souvenir shops, and hawker centers.

For dinner, I had secured a coveted reservation at Jumbo Seafood, one of the two most highly regarded outlets for Singapore's famous chili crab. While a reservation at any of the downtown locations of Jumbo Seafood was laughably out of the question this late in the game, I managed to get a table for one at eight thirty at the original location in the East Coast Seafood Center, a remote beachside row of restaurants halfway to the airport. I happily waited an hour for my crab to arrive at my table. The rich chili sauce was spectacular. I really engaged the crab fingers deep, sending sauce flying all over my clothes and face and catching only some on the recalcitrant restaurant-provided bib that fluttered in the breeze. The chili numbed my hands and my mouth in an oddly pleasing way. I found this Singaporean chili crab far better than the Hong Kong dish by the same name, a grossly impractical dish that offers very little crab and very much inedible dried chilies.

The following morning, I tried a different chicken curry from a different vendor at the hawker center near the hotel and then set off for a second look at Mustafa's and a first look at Arab Street. I was not really sure what I would find there and was ultimately not too pleased. It was a dense row of low-quality fabric vendors, including a few Persian carpet dealers. I engaged one in conversation, a decision I would soon regret. He subjected me to Quranic stories and his disdain for the West and for Singapore (while hypocritically taking residence there and benefiting from its economy). Luckily, I had to urinate and so found a natural reason to break away.

I killed some more time here before my lunch reservation at the fancy Sky on 57 restaurant atop the SkyPark in the Marina Sands "Integrated Resort." I made this reservation the day before upon witnessing the horrific line to buy tickets for the SkyPark proper. Instead, I learned that at only a marginal cost, one could enjoy a meal at the restaurant, avoid a line, and experience the same views. After my foie gras bao and halibut, I walked around the terraces and saw the views of the city to the west, the crowded ships by the harbor to the east, and allegedly the world's largest infinity pool just adjacent to the restaurant. All in all, I would not rank the view among the world-class ones like Chicago's Signature Lounge atop the John Hancock building or Hong Kong's Ozone Bar atop the International Commerce Center.

I set out to take the MRT back to the hotel. My patience for the MRT had grown thin by this point. Due to the layout of the lines, it was often necessary to transfer at least once, and often twice, to get from one point to another. These transfers were not the convenient platform-crossing types such as in Hong Kong, which I have described previously. Rather, they involve lengthy journeys up and down stairs and escalators and through hallways, congested by slow-moving crowds and spotty observation of escalator etiquette.

As soon as the train departed for this MRT ride, I noticed a crescendoing noxious smell. Within seconds, the smell, as if burning rubber, became so strong and intolerable that all the passengers on the train stood up in panic and flocked to the doors to bust out as soon as the car pulled up to the next station. I reported the problem to the staff here and then teamed up with another local passenger who was making her way across town as well. What should have been four more stops became seventeen stops and two transfers, extending my journey by no less than forty minutes.

During this time, I got to know Florence, a native Singaporean. She told me about life in Singapore, explained that all signage was in English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil, accommodating the four ethnic groups that comprise the island's population, the Eurasians, Malaysians, Chinese, and south Indians. I learned about the education system, the compulsory military service, about naturalization and citizenship, and various other interesting facts.

Back at the hotel, I relaxed a bit, cooled down, dried off, and prepared for my final foray into the heat. I set out to explore the two-mile stretch of Geylang Road, which had promised to be the bustling center of the local Islamic Malay community, perfect for my kebab craving. I discovered the grittier side of Singapore here, albeit in relative terms. I did not, however, find any Malay outlets. Perhaps I did not know where to look, but it seemed to me that the vast majority of the stalls along Geylang Road were actually Chinese with an occasional north Indian diner. So I took the MRT back into town for the more tourist-oriented Lau Pa Sat hawker center where I polished off some of their famous satays.

It was now dark. I walked down the waterfront along the glittery backdrop of the skyscrapers and descended into an MRT station to head back to the hotel for the last time. I awoke just shy of three AM the next morning to catch an early flight, concluding a satisfying weekend in the small Southeast Asian republic.

While Singapore may have a reputation for being artificial and at times superficial, I must give it credit for its respectable society that impressively integrates many diverse cultures, none of them any more native than the other, into a peaceful and dependable island nation. Combining elements from around the region, Singapore creates something that is uniquely its own, represented in a small scale by its cuisine like the fish head curry and chili crab, and on a large scale in the form of a prosperous and clean state amid the relative poverty of its neighbors.

And a few points surprised me. Considering the hefty fines for littering and a highly punitive criminal code (the landing card warns, "death for drug trafficking"), I noticed a paucity of police on patrol (probably a good sign) but more than a few cigarette butts on the ground. I was also perplexed by the apparent lack of sidewalks and crosswalks in some areas. But then again, I have never seen such excellent availability of clean, free public toilets, a department in which the U.S. and especially Europe have room for improvement.


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