“My friend describes Singapore as a reverse San Francisco,” Chor teased at lunch. He’s a strategist in the Policy Strategies Office of the Public Service Commission. His job is to look ahead and create stores of the future that can guide policy so he is thinking big picture. “San Francisco is mostly Caucasian and a large Asian minority; Singapore is most Asian with a large Caucasian minority. San Francisco is liberal; Singapore is conservative. San Francisco is hilly; Singapore is flat.”
It was an admittedly simplistic, for-fun comparison, but it got me to thinking about how we know things, by seeing through our own experiences into new ones. Being here in Singapore for two weeks I’m have an interesting time trying to see through mine to what is really here. That’s what I want to explore in this post.
I came into town on a road that is on the other side of this new construction that is rising along the waterfront (here shown with the Merlion, symbol of Singapore). The city is building a huge casino, one of two "Integrated Resorts" being built currently. This entrance into the city wasn't glamorous, and underlined the chaos large construction creates. After shiny new Hong Kong I was surprised. The shiny side of Singapore became clear later.
Behind the construction was a city of tall, modern towers, clearly built in the last 10 years. In my daily Skype calls to Susan, she said a friend who loves to visit Singapore, but not stay, says it is known as “the city of rules.” This city is run by the book it seems, drawing from long years of British rule. When we had a little recording practice in the Principles of Graphic Facilitation workshop I was teaching at the Civil Service College, we had “characteristics of Singapore” as one of the topics. All 15 of the attendees were natives; a requirement to work in the ministries it turns out, so I trusted what they said.
“Singapore is paranoid,” Chor led off again. “What do you mean?” I asked. “It’s an island and has no resources and is constantly watching for trouble.” They went on to say Singapore was actually one of the only countries that was created because it was kicked out of another – in this case Malaysia in 1965, years after British rule ended. Later, when Amelia and Sharon took me out to dinner in the “real Singapore” out in the suburb of Tao Payoh, she explained that the Malay’s had a law giving Malay’s preference in society. The large number of Chinese in Singapore wouldn’t accept this. Founder Lee Kuan Yew, the legendary Mr. Mentor and still a strong behind-the-scenes leader, somehow negotiated a separation. They have worked ever since to secure their existence, sandwiched between Malaysia and Indonesia, and not wanting to be identified with China (hence English as the official language). Some 50% of the residents are Chinese, with Indians, Malaysians, and European’s the next big minorities. Many other cultures are also represented in a very diverse population. In this way it is very much like San Francisco.
“I don’t think Singapore is paranoid,” Amelia said later. She spent several years in the International Department just working to introduce foreigners to Singapore. I felt very lucky have her showing me around on Friday night after the workshop. “I think it’s more competitive.”
“On all levels?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “We compete in schools in business, everywhere.” The workshop group singled out “intellectual” as another characteristic. In Singapore every person is required to “save” 25% of their income in a special account that is then spent on education, health care, and public services. “Isn’t this a tax?” I asked. “No, because you choose where to spend it.” It results in a lot of education. Half the group I was training had studied in the UK, Stanford, and other places abroad.
Everyone agreed that Singapore is a VERY controlled environment – not socialist – but more corporate benevolence with very strict rules about public meetings, congregating, and such. On our way out to Tao Payoh Hub, the big shopping, eating and public gathering space at the center of the Tao Payoh area, Amelia said that 85% of all Singaporeans live in public housing, which they own! “The government felt people would take better care of the places if they owned them, and go to great lengths to make the buildings as nice as the private ones.” Singaporeans can apply to buy the apartments, at affordable rates. I could see what she meant as we approached. Inside this rounded Hub, the headquarters of the all-powerful HDB, the Housing Development Board, people can find all the services they need. It was buzzing with life, and none of it was tourists. Amelia was intent on having me experience the real Singapore.
Durian and Yu Sheng
“Have you ever eaten durian?” Amelia asked. “It’s the spiky green fruit you see.” I hadn’t. So she headed toward one of the many fruit stands and proceeded to order durian (pictured here), jack fruit, water apple, and sugar cane juice. Singapore is just a bit north of the equator and is completely tropical. It rains and shines and that is about it for weather. It feels a lot like Chicago in its scale and modern buildings, but is embedded in a green carpet of palms, fruit trees, flowers, and ubiquitous angsana trees that fan over the roadways, all trimmed immaculately. “We say the park people know every plant in Singapore,” Amelia said. “They plant and care for all of them.” I couldn’t help but think of this as a metaphor.
The durian was a new experience. It’s very pungent, like a mash-up between mango and Roquefort cheese, and very soft, like ice cream. It’s contained inside a bright green pod that is in the heart of the fruit, surrounding a big seed. “A lot of westerners don’t like it,” Amelia said as she eagerly ate hers. I tried one, and must admit it was an assault on my senses. I could see how one could acquire the taste. “Don’t ever leave this in the refrigerator or the whole place will smell,” she cautioned. I could taste and smell it for hours after!
Down in the bottom floor level we went into some long passages with dozens of food courts. Here we are studying the pictorial menu. Amelia was intent on having me experience the real deal, and invited me to order what attracted me. I’ve eaten Chinese food in San Francisco but this was different and I wanted to try new things. I ordered Superior “Xian Cai” a vegetable and egg mixture, which has five spices 100-year (black) eggs for good luck. They order spicy sambol prawns, emperor chicken (steamed tender in an aluminum foil nest), and a real Singapore dish that is ubiquitous during Chinese New Year – Yu Sheng.
This latter dish is delivered on a large platter when you go out at the required family gathering that precedes the New Year. It has a dozen salad/curry-type ingredients, shown here in the petite, portable food court version. Central are some small crackers and fresh fish. The latter symbolizes good health in the New Year. Each person around the table then helps mix all these ingredients, tossing them into the air as high as possible with chopsticks. With a large platter this is quite something, but we had to be content with just tossing like a salad. As the crackers are spread around you are supposed to say something like “I spread these gold coins so that we may all prosper.”
I got the sense, as with our Christmas, that there are layers and layers of custom and meaning. My hotel is a small boutique-style place within a half block of Chinatown. The night before visiting Tao Payoh I had dared to plunge into the crowds. Every street in the four by six block area is packed with stalls and shops, all providing all the eats, clothes, and other things that attend Chinese new years. As a visual person it was a feast of colors and textures, which these photos only barely suggest.
Closer up were trays on trays of
sweets and eats, most of which I had never really seen before, and thousands of statuettes, envelopes, hangings, clothes and toys celebrating the year of the ox. The bazaar wove in and around the standard shops, which sold most everything you could imagine, all tucked into old buildings that have restored in this part of town
The crowd was mostly Chinese, but many Europeans, Indians, and others. I wandered for hours. It seemed like it just got going around 8:00 and reached a crescendo in the late evening. Now on the weekend before the official New Year, cars can barely move in this part of the city. Chinese New Year is a big deal in San Francisco, but this is on a scale I hadn’t experienced before. Here is a picture of the Food Street that captures a bit of the rich feel.
What strikes me now about Singapore is the contrast between this vital, tropical people, that live and eat in the open air, laughing and working hard, and the immense towers and immaculate streets and plazas. It’s a dry year, and I haven’t seen rain yet, but there has been wind, and I can see evidence of the heat (see the air conditioners here). I did get to wander around in the more common tourist spots on Saturday, and experienced an urban Disneyland, designed to attract visually and provide lots of attractions for sightseers. But it turned real again as I walked by the Parliament building, looking back past a field of football players—playing Australian football toward downtown. Saturday in Singapore. Must be time for ball!! The government and companies can plan, but people will play.
The Singapore River snakes in front of these downtown buildings and is crusted with eateries and river tours, as this picture along Boat Quay shows. Further on near Clarke Quay, a popular river site, an extreme swing rockets people into the air on bungee chords. Stores, or course, are everywhere. If Singapore is competing with anyone it’s Hong Kong, and shopping there, and here, is king—at least for the tourists.
I finally found a high place when two Indian fellows with big cameras pointed me to the 70 story Novotel Tower north of the civic center and said there was a bar there that had a near 360 degree view. I took a lot of pictures when I finally got there, but this picture looking north toward Tao Payoh says better than any words about the texture of this planned community. These are the public housing projects—at a scale I’d never imagined before. This is the texture of the peoples’ Singapore.
I’ve started wondering what will happen to these people as the economy drops, as it is quite precipitously. Singapore is very exposed to European and US trade, and harbor traffic is off 20% from last year. Singapore is the first to announce a formal recession. They hope it will rebound in a few years, but the “paranoid” orientation shows in the Straight Times with stories on stories about the economy and business, and predictions show a 3-5% contraction. For a country used to double-digit growth this is huge.
I head into another week of leading the Principles of Graphic Facilitation, this time for planners at the National Security Coordination Center. These are the people who visited The Grove in San Francisco last year at Paul Saffo’s suggestion, and became captivated by our graphic approach. Judging from the reception of the smart young people in the PGF at the Civil Service College that just finished, it will be a stimulating experience. And I expect my sense of this interesting city of 4.5 million will deepen.