The Singapore Run

Among Bali expats, the Singapore visa run is a rite of passage: everyone does it sooner or later. This week it was my turn.

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Bali and Singapore are both small islands in the Malay Archipelago, which stretches from the tip of Malaysia to the top of Australia. Their ethnic and linguistic heritages are connected, but today they represent different worlds. Bali is an unindustrialized and culturally homogonous island, one among thousands in a sprawling nation. Singapore is a country about the size of New York City that is packed with glass high-rises, boutique outlets, and a cosmopolitan blend of Chinese, Indian, Malay, and European ancestries. Traveling between them brings out the contrast. I left a country where traffic is a chaotic free-for-all, all transactions are subject to negotiation, and bustling activity is a highly prized cultural aesthetic. I arrived in a place where order and obedience are ingrained at every level of society, a place where chewing gum has been outlawed to keep the subways clean. In Bali most traffic violations can be settled with a well-placed ten-dollar bill. In Singapore, simple transgressions like eating on the bus and biking on the sidewalk carry $500-$1000 fines.

There is of course a connection between the island’s infamous strictness and its equally infamous wealth. Singapore’s shrewd leadership decided from the beginning that to keep their tiny, resource-poor nation afloat, they would make it welcoming to foreign trade and investment. Today it is rated the world’s easiest country for doing business: regulations are minimal, taxes are low, transportation is great, and of course the rule of law is absolute. But what does someone like me do in the world’s most business friendly city? Most of Singapore’s tourist attractions aren’t exactly geared towards budget travelers. The city’s latest development is a fully integrated urban resort, a play land of casinos and celebrity restaurants topped off with a park that spans three skyscrapers.

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I made it as far as the 15th floor before the elevator denied my ascent; turns out you need a hotel keycard to get to the Skypark. Following my knack for going where I am not supposed to, I found my way over a skybridge and across the rooftop garden of the boutique mall before wandering in the back door of the convention center, where everyone had collared shirts and passes around their necks. I pressed on through the clusters of mingling businessmen, resisted the buffet lunch, and wound my way down a concrete access stairwell. With no options left but the “Emergency Exit Alarm Will Sound” door, I stepped back into the oppressive heat with buzzers ringing and quickly made my way back to the esplanade. This was not the place for me.

Luckily Singapore has more to offer than futuristic urban scenery and high-end outlets. Beyond the gleaming edifices to financial capitalism are a number of neighborhoods reflecting the city’s diverse population. In Little India, celebrations were underway for a Tamil harvest festival. Cattle were decorated with bright colors and honored with offerings.

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A few miles away, Chinatown was gearing up for Chinese New Year. Side streets were turned into markets selling special foods and decorations. In the Buddhist temple people came to chant and buy special New Years charms.
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Chinatown can hardly be considered an enclave community today, as almost three quarters of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese. Despite this clear majority, Singapore’s cultural identity remains ambiguous. While Mandarin is commonly spoken at home, English is now the language of government, education, and commerce. The island’s original Malay heritage still has symbolic weight as well. The national anthem is in Malay, despite the fact that only a fraction of the population speaks the language. Adding to the cultural confusion is the fact that 40% of the city’s residents are foreigners, students and workers who gravitate to Singapore from all over the world. It is truly anyone’s city.

The best place to appreciate this cultural mélange is the city’s food centers. The first few times I wandered into one of these sprawling dining areas, I walked around in circles just trying to take in my options. The offerings covered all of Southeast Asia as well as endless variations of Chinese and Indian cuisine. Soon I learned to just go for the first thing that looked intriguing or for whatever vendor had the longest line.

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For me, the food centers capture what is fun and unique about Singapore. The scene is a blend of your typical food court in a western shopping mall and the kind of bustling open-air market you find elsewhere in Asia. The tables are clean and the prices are fixed, but rather than a series of fast food chains, you find tiny food stalls churning out super tasty food at bargain rates. I could picture these same vendors hawking their wares from a street cart or an improvised tin structure, but this being Singapore, they are organized into government-run food centers.

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A model of Singapore at the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority

The image of Singapore as an obsessively organized and strictly managed country may be a little inflated, but things do tend to run pretty smoothly here. The city is like a massive conduit, with people, goods, and money constantly flowing in and out. Who knows how many travelers came and went, how many cargo ships unloaded, or how multi-million dollar financial transactions occurred during my three days in Singapore? I was just another element in flux, dropping off my passport on Monday, picking up my visa on Wednesday, and heading straight for the airport. I landed in Bali in the middle of the night and was surprised to realize that I was coming home. The experience of leaving and coming back solidified for me the fact that I live here. It didn’t feel like arriving in a foreign land. I already had currency in my pocket and a visa in my passport. As soon as the plane landed I could switch on my Indonesian cell phone and call my friends who were waiting to take me home. I guess this is where I live.

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