The Mystery of Singapore


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The Mystery of Singapore

If lions don’t live in tropical countries, why is Singapore called the Lion City?

Sasayo and I sat in our seats on Singapore Airlines flight SQ228 from Melbourne to Singapore, admiring the shapely figure of the air hostess serving drinks in the cabin.  Well, I can’t actually speak for my wife, Sasayo, but that’s what I was doing.  I was trying to be discreet; if Sasayo caught me I could expect a sharp elbow to the ribs.  To distract myself, I began making a mental catalogue of everything I knew about Singapore, the country that was about to become our new home.

It wasn’t much of a catalogue.  I knew that Singapore was a small island in South-East Asia that had been the site of fierce fighting between Japanese and Australian troops during WWII.  The Japanese had prevailed, and many Australian soldiers were held as prisoners of war in wretched conditions at a site called Changi, presumably not far from the Changi Airport where we would soon land.  I could only hope that the treatment of Australians at Changi had improved since those days.

I knew that following World War II, Singapore had gained independence from Britain under the leadership of its Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew.  Mr. Lee had then proceeded to perform what is often called an economic miracle, transforming Singapore into the “Lion City”, a prosperous modern metropolis.  Exactly how he had achieved this was not clear to me.  All I knew of Lee Kuan Yew was that he was a man prepared to speak his mind; had once warned Australians that they were in danger of becoming “the poor white trash of Asia.”  I had to admire that sort of spirit.  Singapore’s total land area is 699 square kilometers.  One of my uncles in Australia owns a farm that is larger.  When the leader of a country the size of a modest rural property is prepared to make such comments about large and affluent neighboring countries then he is clearly a person to be reckoned with.

I knew that Singapore would be hot.  This was not a great intellectual leap; the line marking the equator in the atlas on my lap dissected the middle of Singapore.  I suspected that there would probably be no real seasons, perhaps only “wet’ and “dry” periods.  It occurred to me that Singapore might experience monsoon storms, like those in India and Bangladesh that cause such terrible floods.  I made a mental note to ensure that we chose an apartment on a high floor.

I knew that Singapore was famous for a fanatical adherence to law and order, and that it was renowned as a spotlessly clean city.  I had heard reports of some odd-sounding laws that fined people for seemingly minor wrongs, like gathering in groups of more than three without a permit, or chewing gum.  Dancing in public was also banned, so “Footloose” was clearly not the Singapore authorities’ favorite movie.  To be fair, it wasn’t my favorite movie either.

I knew beyond any possible doubt that Singapore imposed the death penalty on drug dealers.  This message was, in fact, emblazoned in bold type across the immigration card that I had just completed.  I didn’t really need any reminder.  Just a few months earlier, a twenty-five year old Australian named Van Nguyen had been executed in Singapore for attempting to smuggle heroin through Changi Airport.  It seems that Nguyen claimed he was smuggling the drugs to help his brother pay off legal costs incurred whilst defending other drug-related charges in Australia.  This meant that Nguyen had become involved in drugs to raise money to help prove that his brother was not involved in drugs.  This did not strike me as the workings of a criminal mastermind, so it was always likely that something would go wrong.  Sure enough, Nguyen triggered a metal detector at Changi Airport and during a subsequent physical search the drugs were found strapped to his body.  I have no personal experience in drug smuggling, but I would have thought that people walking around airports wearing drugs in place of undergarments would be well advised to leave all metal objects at home.

The trial and subsequent execution of Nguyen received wide and hysterical media coverage in Australia.  However, the level of television coverage that an event receives in my country does not necessarily reflect its importance in Australian life.  (If it did, one could conclude that the most important issue facing Australians at present is winning “Australian Idol”).  Around half of all Australians support the death penalty for perpetrators of violent crimes such as murder, but not for drug smuggling.    This happens to reflect my own view.  As much as I despise the drug trade I suspect that many of the couriers like Nguyen are just vulnerable pawns.  I am not convinced that executing such people is any kind of solution.  However, I also accept that foreign countries are entitled to make and uphold their own laws.  Singapore makes no secret of its stance on drug trafficking, so those caught on the wrong side of such laws have only themselves to blame.

I was reasonably sure that catching one Australian drug smuggler would not prompt the Singapore authorities to treat every arrival from Australia with suspicion.  However, I couldn’t help being just a little uneasy.  Not long before Van Nguyen was executed, a young Australian woman by the name of Schappelle Corby had been arrested at an airport in Indonesia for possession of a large amount of cannabis.  Her defence team claimed that the drugs had been planted in her luggage by baggage handlers at Brisbane Airport.  I had no idea if this was true or not, but that sort of claim rather unsettles travelers heading to countries that impose the death penalty.   Before we checked our luggage in at Melbourne Airport, then, I had it shrink-wrapped in clear plastic.  I would shortly arrive in Singapore trailing something that closely resembled a giant picnic lunch.


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The Mystery of Changi Airport

How do they catch drug smugglers at Changi Airport without checking anyone’s luggage?

Seven hours after we left Melbourne, a cabin announcement asked us to stow tray tables in the upright position, raise the window shades (I have never understood why) and fasten our seatbelts for arrival into Singapore.  A few minutes later we touched down smoothly onto the tarmac, taxied to the terminal, and disembarked.  Changi Airport was impressive; we walked along broad, well-lit corridors running from the gates to a huge central hall where I found myself staring in disbelief at a beautiful orchid garden.  I had never seen anything like this; an airport with decorative features.  Most of the other airports I had visited around the world looked like they were used as the set for “Blade Runner”.

The arrival hall at Changi included the usual collection of luxury brand duty-free stores, but there were a few surprises as well.  I was particularly impressed by a traditional Chinese medicine shop that had shelves stacked with hundreds of glass jars, not one of which contained anything I could identify.  There were powders and dried plants, and vials of liquid with strange things floating in them.  I did spot what I thought was a piece of ginger in a little glass case, until I noticed the price tag of S$4,000.  Whatever I was going to eat in Singapore, it clearly wasn’t going to be ginger-flavored.  It was actually a little hard for me to believe that a shop like this could exist at an airport at all.  Carrying any one of those jars through Customs at an Australian airport would almost guarantee an invitation into one of those back rooms where everybody wears rubber gloves.

Next to the Chinese medicine shop was a store selling, among other souvenirs, the uniforms worn by the Singapore Girl air hostesses.  Why, I thought to myself, would anyone other than an air hostess want to wear an air hostess outfit?  The only theory I could come up with was that some consenting adults, in the privacy of their own homes, might like to act out certain high-altitude fantasies.  As I contemplated this, the changing room door opened and a heavily overweight American lady emerged, stuffed into a Singapore Girl outfit that was straining at every seam.  Suddenly, the flaw in my fantasy idea was evident.  There is a big difference between owning a Singapore Girl outfit and owning the figure that fits into one.

As I moved away from the shops I noticed two airport security guards walking in my direction, wearing dark blue uniforms and grim expressions.  They appeared to be very young, no more than teenagers, and had the slim build typical of many Asians.  I wondered how these two lightweights could possibly expect to subdue anyone who caused a disturbance.   As they moved closer the answer became apparent; they were both carrying machine guns.   I could hardly believe my eyes.  When I was their age no one would have trusted me with a can opener, let alone an automatic weapon.

Prompted by the presence of adolescents with firearms, I grabbed Sasayo’s arm and moved rather hurriedly to the escalators where we descended to the passport control hall and Customs counter.  After a refreshingly brief wait while our passports were stamped, we reached the baggage carousel to discover that our shrink-wrapped suitcases were already circulating like snacks at a sushi train restaurant.  We collected our cases and headed toward the Customs counter, which was tantalizingly located right next to the exit doors.  Unlike any other airport I have ever visited, there was only a glass wall separating us from the outside world.  This meant that the crowds of people gathered waiting outside could actually view the Customs inspection process.   I suspected that the people waiting outside had come there just for the fun of watching nervous new arrivals to Singapore being forced to unpack and display their underwear for the scrutiny of the Customs officers.

As we neared the Customs counter, however, I noticed two things.  The first was that the green line (Nothing to Declare) led straight to the glass exit doors.  The second was that the officers manning the Customs counter were completely ignoring us.  Surely we were not going to pass through Customs without even a query on our bizarre picnic lunch luggage?  But so it was, and the glass doors slid open quietly to admit Sasayo and I to our new life in Singapore.


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The Mystery of Hougang

Why is there no graffiti in the public housing estates of Singapore?

My new employer had arranged for us to spend the first month in Singapore at a serviced apartment.  We had brought our dog, Pinot, with us from Melbourne and so the human resources manager advised that our only option was an apartment in a suburb with the alarming name of “Our Gun”.  As we rode in a taxi from Changi Airport, I couldn’t help but notice that Our Gun (actually spelt Hougang) didn’t look much like the photos of Singapore in the tourist brochures.   We drove along streets that were lined with row after row of identical high-rise apartment blocks stretching as far as I could see in every direction.  According to our taxi driver these were called Housing Development Board (HDB) apartments, and were part of the large-scale public housing program set up by the Singapore Government to provide basic, affordable apartments to all Singaporeans.

I made a mental note to scream at the human resources manager for housing us in a ghetto.  I had some experience of Government apartments in Melbourne.   In the 1960’s and early 1970’s the Australian Government demolished whole blocks of run-down houses in poor neighborhoods and replaced them with high-rise Housing Commission apartments.  The concept was simple; replace the slums with subsidized accommodation in a modern, high-rise building.  All that was achieved, however, was to turn a horizontal slum into a vertical one.   Melbourne’s Housing Commission apartments are grim, forbidding places where few people live by choice.  Every brave attempt to decorate or improve the grounds and facilities of the apartments is quickly vandalized by the local drug dealers, whose business interests are best served by maintaining a prevailing environment of despair.  The streets around Housing Commission flats are some of the most dangerous places in Melbourne.

Driving into a large HDB development then, my first thought was that Sasayo and I were probably in danger.  Once we got out of the taxi, a Westerner would stand out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood and it would be only a matter of time before I was mugged.  I knew that Singapore was supposed to be committed to law and order, but I couldn’t see any police on hand to protect us.   What I could see were lots of people; the streets were thronged with a cosmopolitan mix of Chinese and Indian people.  In fact, I saw people of almost every imaginable background except my own.  Wherever the Westerners in Singapore were living, it definitely was not Hougang.  

As we drove along, it slowly dawned on me that while Hougang certainly felt strange, it did not actually feel threatening.  The identical buildings looming around me bore the unmistakable stamp of public housing, but they were neatly maintained and brightly lit.    There were security grills on the windows, but most people appeared to have left their front doors open.  I could see long stretches of white walls with not a scratch of graffiti on them, and groups of residents chatting in the stairwells.   When we reached our serviced apartment and got out of the taxi a few people did stare at us, but their eyes held vague curiosity rather than hostility.   I still tried to be inconspicuous, but an Australian, a Japanese, a small brown dog and a collection of shrink-wrapped luggage doesn’t really blend in to any landscape.  All was well, however, and we managed to make it safely from our taxi into the foyer of the Central Place Apartments.


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