Southeast Asia Travels #1: Singapore smiles

December 28, 2001


I'm am currently in Bangkok's airport en route to Vientiane, Laos, tapping out
this message on a keyboard with Thai characters in addition to the Arabic ones.
Laos will be likely be more challenging than my wonderful stay in the city-state
of Singapore, where I was cared with generous hospitality by my friend Aji.

Singapore is an easy place to adjust to, coming from the West. It's clean, and
exceedingly well-organized by a government which cares for its population and
quality of life, even if that care sometimes shows up as dramatic fines for
chewing gum or jaywalking. It's a diverse city with people and cuisines who hail
from throughout Asia, the focus in both food and ethnicities being Chinese,
Malay & Indian in that order.

I don't have my thoughts organized well enough to string together very
interesting prose, but I'll share a few observations...

+ City of the Future and Land of the Hand Phone

If, ten years ago, you asked me to picture a city for a science fiction novel,
the images in my head would look a lot like Singapore. A sleek, quiet light rail
system called the MRT connects the city east to west and north to south. Payment
works with plastic cards read on entry and exit similar to the Metro in
Washington DC. Striking architecture in structures like the Singapore Post
building remind me of the Jetsons. Touchscreen computers abound, offering
information, government services, bill-payment, email access, or all of the

Aji studies in a diploma program at Temasek Polytechnic University called
Mechatronics -- a combination of robotics and artificial intelligence.
Singapore's extended him a full scholarship in exchange for a three-year
commitment to work for a Singaporean company.

Cell phones, called "hand phones" here, are everywhere. In the hands of men and
women, children as your as ten, the poor and the rich alike. Friends send each
other text messages via their phones all day long, able to tap out messages with
their thumbs without looking at the screens. Coverage is near complete, not too
difficult for a country whose perimeter you can cover by car in three hours, and
the service is inexpensive. Phones are a fashion statement, with covers, pouches
and accessories de rigeur for Singapore's teens.

+ Daily Life: Food Courts, Singlish, and HDBs

When people are yapping away on their phones on the MRT, as about 25% of a train
car is bound to me at any given point (another 10% is texting!), they're
speaking one of three languages. Chinese (Mandarin, specifically), Malay, or
Singlish. Singlish is the name for English as it's spoken colloquially in
Singapore. Signature Singlish is the tagging a long "lah" onto the end of any
statment. It doesn't particularly mean anything, lah. Just a way to emphasize
your point a bit, lah. It's most evident in the speech of Singapore's youth,
like Ben, one of the star students in Aji's Mechatronics program. (He's
described as a Chinese gangster, or "ah-beng". Besides hip dress and slang-y
speak, the best quality of ah-bengs I could discern was that they like video
games, date ah-liens and are afraid of the Singapore police.) The other most
common Singlish is the use of "can" by itself, or twice... as in: "Is eight
o'clock good for you for dinner?" "Can can." It's weirder to hear your native
tongue spoken so differently around you than it is to be immersed in a
completely foreign one. It's sort of charming, though, and I found myself
experimenting with it within a few days, to the great delight of Aji's friends.

The food scene in Singapore is awesome. At one meal in "Lau Pa Sat" (translated
as "big market"), I had a samosa (Indian), claypot tau-fu (read it as tofu --
it's chinese), and popiah (Singapore-style). The dishes were collected from
three different stalls at the market. In total, there were at least 75 to choose
from. Needless, to say, it took me an hour of wandering just to decide what to

Aji lives with seven other students, six Indians and one from Mauritius, a small
island state that I'd have to look up to tell you where it is. They live in a
flat in HDB housing, like many Singaporean families. HDB stands for Housing
Development Board, and the complexes are easily identified by the characteristic
qualities: a group of 5 to 20 buildings, identically constructed, identically
painted, in a cluster. The have good shared common space (though the spaces are
posted with prohibitions against doing fun stuff like ball-playing,
rollerblading, playing music and bicycle riding) and grocery stores on the
premises, often a store from the government subsidized "Fairprice" chain.

+ Onward, Onward, Guitar in Hand

I've got to run to catch my flight to Laos, now. On my back is a Yamaha guitar,
courtesy of Aji's incredibly generous girlfriend Sheila. I've named it Singapore
Devi, after Sheila's hometown and and last name. I'll play with love and

More soon from another land. Happy to new year to one and all.

All my best,