“Think about it: in this digital age where blogging and updating statuses are pretty much all that anyone does anymore, old school notions of cool have been rebooted. No longer the laughingstock, geeks are now inheriting the Earth. With Singapore’s absurdly computer-literate population, Singapore is geek central and its people can therefore claim their rightful place as avatars of modern cool.”
Singapore,..the little red dot.
A country so small that it is possible to go round it in a day or so; if only you can wake up early, brave the humidity and make full use of the great subway network. This past year, I had to attend a conference in Kuala Lumpur. It is right next to Singapore, and I heard that there are trains and buses running regularly between the two countries. I had a flash that it would be great to visit Singapore then travel on land to Kuala Lumpur. I felt scared and begun to have cold feet as the date of my flight approached. I am a black African, and this was Asia. I had never travelled to any continent outside of Europe, North America and Africa. I wasn’t clear on what to expect. From my research and questions on social media sites, I found that both countries had a good safety record, and both had great hospitals offering excellent medical care in case of an emergency. People assured me that I would be okay and it would be a great experience. I was excited to go to Singapore especially. Everything I read about the country seemed to be uttered with gushing adulation. Efficient governance, quality public housing, clean water, proper sanitation services and other top-notch public health-care needs. It is one of the great Asian tigers. It has a successful rags to riches history that often breathes the name of their revered father of the nation Lee Kuan Yew; their former Prime Minister who is attributed to leading the country to the place it finds itself today. It has one of the world’s highest concentration of billionaires. I took the flight.
Getting down to the arrival lounge, I quickly realized that I was a lone black woman in a swath of Asians. They stared, they gawked and gaped. I felt conspicuous, more than I have ever felt in my life. I am a laid back person who is most comfortable disappearing into crowds. Here I was very visible. This happened time and again, and throughout my stay in Singapore. Wherever I went, everywhere I turned, there seemed to be someone staring. The good transportation system meant that I used the subway mostly, quickly learning to avoid expensive cabs, and only using them when there was a place that was unreachable otherwise. The subways were mostly crowded, and again if I turned a few people would be staring. I tried to read their faces; some gave a blank stare, others had a question mark on their faces but I had a hard time deciphering what they would be asking. Others fully examined me, taking in the sight from head to toe like I was some kind of specimen, a few having their gazes firmly transfixed upon my shoes. In the few days I spent in Singapore, I didn’t meet many blacks, so I tried to console myself by understanding that for many, it was probably the first time to see someone with the complexion of dark chocolate, a vastly different skin colour than their own.
The laws were clearly evident even before setting foot on Singapore soil. While we hovered over Singaporean airspace, embarkation cards were handed out to us, the words Death for Drug traffickers under Singapore Law outlined ominously in bright red. Next to it was the wording “Welcome to Singapore.”
Two days later while blindly crossing the road, a uniformed officer met me on the other side, with an announcement, “Madam, I will fine you 190 dollars! No jaywalking, this is Singapore you know!”
She did this while pointing out to me a sign on the side of the road that I had until that time not seen. I quickly explained to her that I was new there, and did not know. She let me off with a warning. I was a little paranoid after that; making sure I crossed roads at the zebra crossings, and strictly observing the traffic lights. I was in awe of the traffic lights that had a count down, so that one could know exactly how many seconds you had before the walk sign turned red, and the cars were free to ride on.
Singapore seems to be a place that has it all together, everything works like clockwork. In the subways, I saw many cartoons I found funny; having a strong message, encouraging people to make way for those alighting or to give seats to the weak, sick and elderly. The place seems to be a hub of common courtesy by all respects; with the government rolling out national campaigns to raise public awareness on issues like drug abuse, or speaking good English. I heard that there is even a recent campaign to remind Singaporeans to finish the food on their plates…like really?
The staring was consequently a big surprise for me. I frankly did not expect it in Singapore, maybe in some unenlightened country hidden in the backwaters of some remote place. I find myself hoping that this touristic Mecca can be more warm, more hospitable to strangers. One answer to my questions very often was, “I don’t know,” then hurried shuffling away. The one expression that takes the cake is that from a young man who walked into the lift I was exiting. He leapt back and exclaimed, “Jesus!” Clearly, my presence had frightened him and he acted out. I wonder if he thought I was some sort of animal jumping him. I will never know.
There is a subliminal hostility I felt, like they were protective of their country, lacking in warmth unless selling you something or asking you to fill out forms approving the service they have just offered you. Even that is mechanical and as artificial as the super trees in the botanic gardens. Singaporeans prefer to stare quietly, observe you keenly, like you are a moving exhibit. Singapore cool? Perhaps yes, very cool in a hot humid country.