With the death of Lee Kuan Yew yesterday, my thoughts turned to the many visits I’ve made to Singapore. The city has changed since my first visit nigh on thirty years ago, and in one very important respect: it is a city to walk in. The following is from the handwritten travel diary I kept for my year of backpacking and which I’ve now posted online.
Bencoolen Street Apartments
Friday 8th November 1985
Singapore is a business city – big business. For me, the purchase of a recording Walkman, telephoto lens and attempting to reschedule my round-the-world ticket is big business.
I have seen little to make me a tourist. Before I finally leave, perhaps on my return, I will have a gin sling at Raffles Hotel. I may not like it, the drink or the experience, but as with viewing the Taj Mahal, an Englishman must relive part of his colonial past. It’s all in my genes – which reminds me to dress up, whenever.
Meantimes, high living is restricted to high rises; condominiums. hotels, shopping centres and car parks. Everything planned, but not by, or seemingly for, the people.
Although buses are frequent and generally with seats available, a mass rapid transit system, a train network, is under construction. Somehow I doubt that the roads will be emptier of traffic. Such measures as a surcharge on cars, including taxis, which carry fewer than four people during business hours in the business sector may well have diminished the volume of Japanese technology going from A to B. Still doesn’t make it easier to be a pedestrian though. Parking on yellow lines, storm drains and the lack of sidewalks mitigates against us.
Which is a shame. Trying to visit a streetside business – tailor, café or bookshop – becomes an Indiana Jones expedition. Whereas in India a similar exercise involves avoiding people, the danger here is being avoided by the traffic. With penalties of S$500 (then c.£166) for jaywalking everyone gets channelled into multi-storey shopping centres, which the dispossessed small traders can ill-afford to move into. Small businessmen become small employees and this mitigates against choice and creativity.
Everything is organised and channelled. Where patterns of behaviour run counter to the planners’ conceptions, the penalties are either severe, including behaviour modification and the death penalty, or new plans are formulated. A bureaucrat’s delight; social planners are rarely socially beneficial, except on their terms.
Food is artificially pure, transnationals sell identical units and concepts to citizens a thousand miles apart. Travel is easy. Computerisation smooths transactions and my Mastercard is valid everywhere.
Tomorrow is here today. ‘TOTAL DEFENCE – PSYCHOLOGICAL, SOCIAL, MILITARY, ECONOMICAL and CIVIL’ is a bus hoarding. At the foot of the glass and concrete banks lies a layer of cardboard boxes advertising Sony and Nipponese. Beds for those the system forgot. The penalty for littering is $500. When the litter is literally your litter (excuse the alliteration) the penalty could be jail if you cannot pay the fine. That means a bed.
And that’s fine.
– Catch a bumboat to Sentosa Island
– T-shirt: Kickapoo – Joy Juice
————It’s Out Of This World