In January of 2008, I went on a study-abroad trip to Southeast Asia, part of my Master’s degree program in International Commerce & Policy at George Mason University. Singapore was our first stop. After about 5 days in Singapore, we went to Phuket, Thailand for a weekend and then on to Bangkok.
When I returned from our trip, we had to write a paper about our impressions of Singapore and another on impressions of Thailand. It was a good thing I was assigned to write this paper, otherwise I wouldn’t remember anything. I didn’t keep a journal but only took notes during our lectures. I apologize in advance for these horrible photos. I wasn’t much into photography in these early days of my travel. 🙂
I arrived a couple of days early, a Saturday, to explore Singapore. My classmate Juliana also arrived early, and on an open air Hippo bus tour, we saw Little India, Little China, and Arab St. After we finished, we figured we’d seen all of Singapore. What was next?
Outdoor cafes were steamy and uninviting in the soggy heat. There appeared to be no relief from the damp warmth, as eateries were in short supply. At the ultra-modern Meze lounge, described on the window-front as “Asian tapas,” we paid 15 Singapore dollars ($12.13) for a Tiger beer. We shared a plate of delicious Dim Sum dumplings. Hordes of young people walked the streets, but what were they doing? There seemed absolutely nothing to do but shop!
On Sunday, the day before our study abroad program was to start, Juliana and I found in our explorations a pristine, characterless faux-Western city filled with waves of young Asian faces. At the time, it was what I imagined Hong Kong must be like, but later I discovered Hong Kong has much more character. The city abounded with high-priced multinational businesses in one connected, shopping-mall-like maze of designer clothing stores, Starbucks coffee shops, 7-Elevens, five-star hotels, Hard Rock Cafés, and home furnishing shops. It was a melting pot of different nationalities, yet everyone spoke English. There were way too many American businesses to suit me. I frankly didn’t see the appeal.
The positives to the city were its lack of traffic congestion, its ethnic neighborhoods of Chinatown, Little India, and the Arab Quarter, its middle-class-looking housing projects, and its well-manicured green spaces brimming with bright flowers and textured leaves. At the ports of the city hundreds of red and yellow steel cranes tended to their offspring: huge shipping containers from all over the world. High-rise construction projects were in progress throughout the city. The skyline extended in every direction.
The humidity was oppressive in Singapore and it rained for some part of every day. It reminded me of Florida weather, which I hate. As Juliana and I ate an uncomfortable breakfast in the outdoor seating at the Coffee Club, two young women dressed in skimpy mini-skirts and glittery tops stumbled past, one holding up the other. Apparently they had just returned from a night-long clubbing excursion and were miserably drunk.
Little India, an ethnic neighborhood in Singapore, had Tamil and other cultural elements. The modest but colorful area of wall-to-wall shops, pungent aromas and Hindi film music was a relief from the prim and proper modernity of other parts of the city.
We passed the Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, founded in 1827, with its colorful gopuram or tower with its wild plaster work images of bizarre Hindu deities, other figures and ornamental decorations. The tower tapered up towards to a molded ornamental ridge. Each level of tiers was slightly smaller than the tiers below, creating an illusion of height. Across from the temple were street vendors selling fragrant flowers that worshipers could buy as offerings to the gods.
Feeling hot and thirsty, Juliana decided she wanted a mango lassi, so we walked randomly into an Indian restaurant. A handsome young Indian man, The Straits Times spread out before him, asked us to sit at his table while someone made the drinks. He pointed to his name on the restaurant sign over his head: Madan’s.
When I asked him if he went to the Hindu temple we just passed on the street, he replied that no, he was Catholic. He asked what I was; I said a fallen-away Catholic, then an Episcopalian, and now nothing. Except that I found Buddhism appealing. He responded that he found Christianity the most moderate religion in that it accepts other religions. He believed Buddhism was too extreme; one can’t in reality give up the things of this world, such as eating and drinking. He thought Muslims were too extreme and they were taught to be intolerant and violent.
I asked him how old he was and he replied that he was 24. I said, “Juliana is 23!” Looking at me, he asked, “How old are you?” Juliana said, “Guess.” He said, “40?” I put my thumb up. He guessed again, “45?” I put my thumb up again and then said, “That’s okay, we’ll stop right there.” He said, “What is the secret of you looking so young? I hope I can look that young when I’m your age.” I thanked him and said I didn’t have any secrets.
As we drank our mango lassis, Madan told us he was Tamil. His father owned a spice factory and helped him open two restaurants. He was working on a business degree online through a London school. He told us his older brother got married in an arranged marriage. His older sister did too, to her mother’s brother (her uncle)! Madan was emphatic that he did not want an arranged marriage. He didn’t want to be married at all because he didn’t want someone to control him. At that moment, he said, a wife would be calling him and asking him where he was.
He said sometimes he went to church and saw a girl he was attracted to. It added excitement to his life because he looked forward to seeing her in church every Sunday.
He asked us if we feared for our lives because Americans carried guns and, in the news, Americans were always killing each other. He talked about Columbine and how students in American schools brought guns to school and shot each other. He thought it odd Americans should be allowed to have guns. I explained to him that we were a country of immigrants who came to America to escape oppressive governments and persecution. Americans distrusted government by nature and wanted to limit the power it had. We believe in the right to bear arms – it is a right conferred to us in our Constitution – in case we need to defend ourselves against a government gone awry.
Madan said he loved American movies, especially violent ones like The Terminator. He loved Arnold Schwarzenegger. He asked how Arnold was doing. I said I guessed he was doing fine, but that I didn’t keep up much with California politics. He discussed other American adventure/thriller/action movies.
He told us Asians in Singapore were always seeking to marry a lighter skinned Asian than they were themselves. It was considered a move up the social ladder. I asked him if he felt that way. He said he thought he would want to marry someone lighter skinned than he was, so his children would be lighter skinned.
We asked him if there were any fun things to do in Singapore and he suggested the bars and restaurants along Boat Quay. He couldn’t recommend a particular one because he neither went to bars nor drank. He handed me his business card, with “Madan Restaurant” on the front, along with his cell phone number. Then he asked for our emails, which we gave him. He said, “I want them in case I ever want to come to America.” As we got up to leave, he encouraged us to come back for lunch.
At a lovely teak-walled Indian restaurant where we ultimately stopped for lunch, the waiter brought out a bowl of rice, some large chips and a large rectangular banana leaf onto which he scooped three types of vegetables. He brought us towelettes to wipe our hands. We felt this all to be quite generous, until we got our bill. Whereas extra, unasked-for things would be complimentary in the U.S., everything was itemized and charged to us!
We returned to the hotel for a rest before our group meeting that evening. On the elevator at 4:00, I encountered a scene I saw quite frequently in Singapore. A frumpy middle-aged American man was rubbing the long slender arm of a wispy, gorgeous Asian woman. He asked her, “What are you going to do now?” She rolled her eyes, looking bored. “Going home to sleep,” she answered. He looked so needy: “Love me! Love me!” his eyes seemed to say. I noticed this phenomenon throughout Singapore: frumpy middle-aged American or Australian men with beautiful, wispy Asian women.
In the evening, the other students from the study abroad program arrived and we attended a welcome dinner at the hotel.
Singapore: The Study Abroad Program, Singapore Press Holdings, Mount Faber Park, Masjid Sultan Mosque, Chinatown, Marina Bay and Merlions
On Monday, our study abroad program began in earnest under the tutelage of Associate Professor Ramkishen S. Rajan of George Mason University’s School of Public Policy in Arlington, Virginia.
The overview of our program was thus:
The School of Public Policy (SPP) Southeast Asia Study Abroad program focuses on two of the more developed Southeast Asian countries: Singapore and Thailand. Both are highly open economies which have been very successful in developing and growing rapidly by attracting large-scale foreign direct inflows and becoming significant global exporters in electronics and other areas. Both countries are also major tourist destinations. Both countries also experienced sharp slowdowns following the regional financial crisis of 1997-98 but have recovered since then and regained their economic vibrancy.
The focus of the program is to understand the trade and development experiences, paying attention to the key economic and political economy policy challenges facing these two countries and the larger Southeast Asian region in the 21st century.
At Singapore Press Holdings, Southeast Asia’s leading media organization incorporated in 1984, we learned from the Deputy Editor and Foreign Editor of The Straits Times that self-censorship was common among journalists as a result of government pressure. At the time, all newspapers, radio stations and television channels were owned by government-linked companies. The Sedition Act, in effect since British colonial rule, outlawed seditious speech, the distribution of seditious materials, and acts with “seditious tendency.”
After our lecture, we went for views of Singapore from 116m-high Mount Faber Park, one of the oldest parks in Singapore. It was covered by a secondary rain forest with arenga palms, rhododendrons, bougainvillea, and Red Flame, Cassia fistula and Alstonia trees. Red-brick paths snaked through manicured gardens, pavilions, and look-out points with fantastic views over the Singapore Strait and onward to the Indonesian Riau Islands.
A mural wall depicting scenes of local history could be seen at Upper Faber Point, the highest point in the park, where a tree was planted during the first Tree Planting Day.
We found a three-meter-tall polymarble Merlion statue on Mount Faber’s Faber Point. The Merlion is a half-lion half-mermaid figure that is a well-known symbol of Singapore. Its name comes from the merging of the words “lion” and “mermaid.” The mermaid hearkens back to Singapore’s fishing heritage.
We visited Masjid Sultan Mosque, considered one of the oldest and most important mosques in Singapore. It was located in the Malay-Muslim Quarter of town. Its two-story high massive interior could accommodate about 5,000 faithful Muslims, with separate conference rooms and auditoriums to seat many more. It was decorated with handcrafted motifs, golden floral patterns and calligraphy. Several racist riots took place here in the 1950s.
We then ventured to Chinatown to see the Thian Hock Keng Temple, erected in 1821 by Chinese seamen grateful for safe passage; it stood where Singapore’s waterfront used to be, before the land was reclaimed.
Our group then headed to Merlion Park, a basin surrounded by Singaporean buildings and restaurants at Marina Bay, where we took a boat ride.
The original Merlion was first built in 1972 as an 8-meter tall sculpture at the mouth of Singapore river. The body was made up of cement, eyes from small red teacups and skin from porcelain plates. It was relocated later.
A day of lectures at Singapore Management University & the IMF-Singapore Regional Training Institute
On Tuesday, we attended lectures with a Director and Senior Lecturer of Finance at Singapore Management University and three speakers at the IMF-Singapore Regional Training Institute Office.
According to the university’s website, Singapore Management University (SMU) was internationally recognized for its world-class research and distinguished teaching. Established in 2000, SMU’s mission is to generate leading edge research with global impact and produce broad-based, creative and entrepreneurial leaders for the knowledge-based economy. The lecture took place in the Lee Kong Chian School of Business.
In the early afternoon, we listened to three speakers from the IMF-Singapore Regional Training Institute office, which served as the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) regional training center for the Asia-Pacific region. It provided training on macroeconomic and financial management, and related legal and statistical issues, to government officials from 37 countries.
In the afternoon, we took a boat ride to Indonesia, but I don’t remember which island it was. We saw views of Singapore from the water, and then walked around the very poor Indonesian island.
In the evening a group of us went out and had our first experience of an Asian nightclub: the Ministry of Sound at Clarke Quay. It had a rotating dance floor and smoke rising from floor vents. The waiter kept intruding by sticking coasters under our drinks, on a glass table!
A Day at the Monetary Authority of Singapore, a Stop in Little India & a Night Safari
On Wednesday morning, we attended lectures at Singapore’s central bank, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). It promoted sustained, non-inflationary economic growth through appropriate monetary policy formulation and close macroeconomic surveillance of emerging trends and potential vulnerabilities. It managed Singapore’s exchange rate, foreign reserves and liquidity in the banking sector.
My classmate Ryan, who became a close friend of mine during our Mexico Study Abroad trip in May of 2007, had arrived a couple of days late to Singapore. He hadn’t had a chance to explore the city outside of our lectures. Since we finished early today, the two of us headed to Little India and Clarke Quay to explore.
We sat outside at Clarke Quay to have a drink. Lying near the mouth of the Singapore River, the site of Clarke Quay was the center of commerce during the late 19th century. Today, Clarke Quay is still buzzing with life and activity, including a kaleidoscope of restaurants, wine bars, entertainment spots and retail shops.
In the evening, our group went on the Night Safari. We took a tram ride around the park and then walked along three trails in the forested park past 120 different spot-lit nocturnal species.
Singapore: Lectures at ISEAS & a Dolphin Lagoon at Underwater World
On Thursday morning, we attended lectures with officials at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), dedicated to the study of social, political and economic trends in the region. The aim of the Institute was to nurture a scholarly community interested in the region and to engage in research within the fields of sociology, anthropology, political science, history and economics.
The intention was not only to stimulate research and debate within scholarly circles, but also to enhance public awareness and facilitate the search for viable solutions to the varied challenges confronting the region.
After our lectures, we took the Singapore Cable Car from Mount Faber to Sentosa Island, which called itself “Asia’s Favorite Playground.” It had such attractions as Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom, beaches, nature walks, spas and resorts, and Siloso Point.
At Siloso Point, we visited Underwater World and its Dolphin Lagoon, where we watched a dolphin show.
After the show we explored the rest of Underwater World, walking among leafy sea dragons and Medusa jellyfish. Stingrays and 10-foot-long sharks swam around us as the travellator took us through the Ocean Colony’s submerged glass tubes.
In the evening, we had a dinner meeting with the group.
On Friday morning, I looked at Singapore out our hotel window for the last time ever, and we prepared to fly to Phuket, Thailand.
I couldn’t wait to leave Singapore, and looking back on all 32 countries and the numerous U.S. states where I’ve traveled, I’d say Singapore ranks at the very bottom.
*January 5-10, 2008*
“ON RETURNING HOME” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about returning home from one particular destination or, alternately, from a long journey encompassing many stops. How do you linger over your wanderings and create something from them? How have you changed? Did the place live up to its hype, or was it disappointing? Feel free to address any aspect of your journey and how it influences you upon your return. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.
For some ideas on this, you can check out the original post about this subject: on returning home.
Include the link in the comments below by Sunday, April 5 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Monday, April 6, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation on the first Monday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time.