Singapore – this Heartlander’s Soulful Hometown, An Introduction

After a year and a half, I was finally making a short trip back to spend time with the family, back home, back to where my memories are, back to Singapore.

The touristic side of old Chinatown and the city in the distance
Unlike in previous posts where I was a tourist who was trying to make sense of a place, I actually know what I am talking about when I introduce this city – not just because this is where I come from, but because I spent four years doing research on and blogging about Singapore as a local tourist, posting bi-daily for almost 36 months straight, following the concept of local tourism with a twist (local tourism not of a country but a city).

And yet there is still so much more to know and learn about this place, as there is everywhere, I’m biased to Singapore because it is my crib.

So how do I introduce Singapore?

I could go into the tried and tested tropes. The miracle city that was built up from scratch after 50 years* or the playground for the rich with the fast cars and beautiful bay area. But why would I? Singapore is not a tourist destination for me, that Singapore is flashy but souless, stunning but shallow… I’ve never been drawn to girls like that (not that they would be drawn to me)…

The island is known the world over now for an amazing view of the city from the infinity pool above a Casino, and futuristic metal trees with all sorts of plants in them.

The light show at the Super Tree Grove and the Marina Bay Sands in the background
These things may make you come but they don’t make you stay. I first look at Rima Zeidan (or Janet Hsieh from Fun Taiwan for that matter) because she is stunning but later appreciate her as a celebrity because she has talent, character and authenticity – same point.

So what is Singapore to me then?

Singapore is where a Eurasian kid grows up cussing in a mishmash of Hokkien-Malay while eating south Indian food and discussing the ins and outs of the British Premier League with his friend Chan.

Singapore is where there is barely a whimper on most political hot-button issues but an uproar when MacDonalds decides to stop producing its famed curry dipping sauce.

Singapore is where I wake up ‘safe’ in the knowledge that the local news will usually be blessed with mundane news and not high drama stories, because it is both that safe and there is self censorship from the press.

Singapore is where people learn to be creative in imagining things because the memories of their childhood are continually uprooted in the name of progress and prosperity.

Singapore is where a long National Day weekend is observed by leaving the country for a holiday to a neighbouring one because what better way to celebrate your country than by taking advantage of the exchange rate.

Singapore is where my friends and I are all champion grumblers about every facet of life, but will still choose to plump for this place, because it is what we know, it is us. This is the Singapore I know that has made me invest my heart in, rapidly replaced by a Singapore that I do not know for the rich to invest their wallets in.

I have obviously left out the negatives and controversies to this place such as the political system and the recent tightening of the noose, the dawning reality of Chinese privilege and the resistance to acknowledging it**, social ugliness from some quarters including ill-treatment of foreign workers, disregard for public goods, increasing social inequality and alienation, and the pièce de résistance – the oppressive heat.

Singapore is this and more, it is the worts and all that make her soulful and give her depth. It is a good looking place and one that grows more and more attractive as you look into it because of the stories behind it. This is my Singapore, the country behind the veil of tourism taglines, the soulful place that will leave you wanting more.

This is the Singapore I want to introduce.

I did this in The Heartlander Tourist blog, and since I am now based outside the country, it is not appropriate to tell stories from a distance. Rather I want to take you on a journey with this local as he tries to savour everything this country has to offer in a few days, I become a tourist for a few days and reacquaint myself with the food, the places and the stories.

Soya Sauce Chicken prepared to the instructions of Chan Hon Meng, one of two Singapore-based hawkers to win a Michelin Star, and the cheapest Michelin starrred meal in the world

A street in the back corners of Little India
This means that I will visit the man-made triumphs of a futuristic Singapore – the Marina Bay Sands***, Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Financial Centre because they are highlights in the modern discussion of Singapore. They are however fundamentally the same ingredients that have made this city work for ages.

The Marina Bay Financial Centre
Ages? You frown. Ages, with a capital A.

You might think that the shiny facade shows a city without history or heritage, but that is not true. Singapore is not Chelsea or Manchester City (sorry not sorry 😉 ), it roots stretch centuries. While the founding of modern Singapore began in 1819, the city has a history that goes back in historial annals to the 1200s with the founding of the Kingdom of Singapura and lasted for a century before war with a larger kingdom in present day Indonesia led the last sultan to flee to Malacca where he established the Sultanate of Malacca (from which all Malay royal families spring).

So you could say that Singapore, specifically Kampong Glam and Fort Canning, could be the ancestral home of Malaysian royalty.

There is also less royal heritage, parts of Singapore that are progressively being buried under the rapidly shifting sands of time sped up by the incessant unquestioning desire for progress. Trades like the ice cream vendor, the kacang putih man, the neighbourhood tailor and the roadside mechanic – visible but forgotten, still hang on as last remnants of this place’s recent past.

A old style car mechanic, he doesn’t seem to get much work unfortunately
They go under the radar because they do not hit us where it hurts, their disappearance is simply a sentimental loss of childhood memories to be recreated and romanticised in the future.

Another trade though is thriving and dying in equal brightness, almost like the end of a supernova (I hope not) – the hawker. Some local hawkers have even been listen on the Michelin Guide and two, given stars (some say its gimmicky, others say its good for hawkers to have their day. I fall in the latter camp). But more on food in a later posts, its too important a part of life in this city to not deserve its own post(s).

The fortunes of this island, regardless of political control have waxed and waned with the tides of trade. It expands when the world is open to trade and contracts when the world retreats on itself. Its latest period of growth (from 1819) has coincided with colonialism and globalization. The rise of nationalistic, protectionist mentality especially in the West (including the death of the TPP) should therefore be considered worrying for Singapore, and one can only hope that this is offset by increasing currents of trade within Asia and other parts of the world.

If it was difficult back then and even harder today to define a Singaporean. There is no skin tone that defines one as such, a Caucasian and a African could as possibly be Singaporean as an Arab, Malay, Sri Lankan, Japanese, Eurasian, Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Nepali, Bangladeshi or Chinese. I know fellow Singaporeans of all these latter ancestries and you couldn’t say any was more Singaporean or less. There are therefore many cultural enclaves (usually old shopping malls) that are popular with people of different nationalities and cultural groups. These enclaves skirt the fine line between cultural curiosity and demographic divider but right now still fall on the right side of the imaginary line.

Tanjong Pagar Road, which together with Telok Ayer Road nearby constitute Koreantown in Singapore
There’s a lot to see, a lot to do and I have basically three days to reconnect with my hometown. Let’s see how much I get up to 😉

This post has perhaps gone on for too long, and yet it has barely scratched the surface of Singapore.

Come along and let me, this time, play host.

*this is actually an often used comment that is not true, but was popularised by the autobiography of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew (From Third World to First). Singapore was Asia’s second richest city back in the 1920s when the British were around. It makes no logical sense that the British colonial trading enteprise would hold onto a place (vital to the colonial trading empire) for so long and keep it a slum. The city was however extremely unequal and that was what really changed, extreme poverty was eradicated (not the state of being poor). The expensive, Monaco of the East that Singapore is today is not unlike what Singaporr used to be. Some might say, perhaps unfortunately that we are going back to the past where class reasserts itself and social mobility tightens.

**acknowledgement being the first part of solving any issue.

***to not a few Singaporeans there is something jarring about the Marina Bay Sands (built to house a casino) being the iconic building in the city. A structure that has been made to bear the brunt of “wherefore Singapore” criticisms.

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