For all its crampedness and excesses, simplicity is the guiding ethos to Singapore’s progress. However, this meant sacrifices had to be made along the way.
Old Havelock Road’s Teochew Porridge restaurant looked as ancient as kingdom come. That should be no surprise because it was embedded there decades ago, the plastered walls failing to hide its age.
Yet despite looking worse for wear, it’s a popular choice among tourists who happen to wander on this side of town. I could have gone there too, but I was craving something tourists like me could easily associate with Singaporean cuisine. So off I went to a hawker food center, where I’d have more options.
Like other hawker food centers in the Singapore capital, it was located in what appears to be a huge warehouse. Plastic dining tables and chairs are at the heart of the food center, bounded by a row of stalls. It was utilitarian and squeaky-clean (it went through a billion dollar face-lift in 2007). Folks cleaned up after themselves.
I settled with a Hainanese chicken rice and chomped down on a moist, pale strip. Singaporeans take so much pride in making Hainanese Chicken Rice, I discovered, and any diversion is considered a violation of tradition. Apparently, the dish can only be considered authentic when “kampong” chicken, or wild, backyard chicken is used. This variety does not have a lot of meat on its bones, but is marked by a stronger “chickeny” flavor.
I barely talked to my friend as I stuffed my mouth with the local dish and washed it all down with bandung. I was tending to a bad hangover from the previous night, which I was hoping that some filling meal could remedy. A stubby, chinky-eyed man hawking a pack of towels approached us to sell us one. I politely declined. He turned his back on us and ambled away.
I finally turned to my friend and thanked her showing me around. I was impressed with Singapore as a whole, though saying that I was “impressed” was an understatement. I thought this was a natural reaction, when you come from a third-world country.
The topic of Singapore’s advancement naturally came up in the conversation. She asked me: “Have you ever thought about why Singapore is so advanced and successful?”
“That’s because everything here is simple.”
“What do you mean, ‘simple’?”
“Look at the people around us,” she said. “Aren’t they simple?”
I scanned the food stall owner who sold us our Hainanese chicken rice. He was donning a white shirt, slacks, and an apron. His clothes were very lived in, as if, like us, he had just gotten out of bed. My gaze wandered to the table next to ours where a mother and her child were enjoying their bowl of noodles. Simple food, simple clothes, simple wants. “Sure,” I told my friend.
“Remember establishments we passed by yesterday? This place is called a food center. The name of the sex toy shop we passed by along the main road is Sex Toy Shop. They don’t overthink things–that’s because they know they don’t have to,” she said.
“Singapore’s laws are pretty straightforward. ‘Don’t smoke—it’s punishable by the law.’ That’s it. And the citizens–they do what they are told.”
“In our country, everyone’s approval is needed. Everyone’s so argumentative and arrogant. Everyone’s so fucking smart. Everyone has something to say and won’t back down. And yet, at the end of the day, we accomplish nothing,” she said.
IT’S SOMEWHAT TRUE. However, her opinion reflects the naivety of someone who’s uninformed of Singapore’s past.
The beloved Lee Kuan Yew no doubt transformed the nation from the rubbles of war into one of the richest nations the world know. The strongman had no tolerance for dissent, and “insisted that strict limits on speech and public protest were necessary to maintain stability in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country,” as The Guardian noted in an obituary for the late leader.
One may argue that it was all a necessary evil, as the stern measures were not in vain. Singapore tourism has been a key contributor to the country’s $296.8 billion economy in 2016.
In silent acquiescence, Singaporeans observed every law, every sign post. For us tourists, this meant walking a half-kilometre to cross over to the bus stop from Old Havelock, instead of crossing the closest road haphazardly.
For a taxi driver, this meant turning the car around to retrace our route because we had missed a sign. The same driver spoke of the very low crime rate in Singapore: “If we saw someone getting mugged, we’ll go after the hold-up man and beat him senseless.”
Disobedience was met not just with criminal offense, but also being treated as a pariah. A pub owner said he sleeps in his bistro because he didn’t want to drive home when he had one too many. “I’ll go to jail, and it’s no good for business,” he told me.
“I know a businesswoman who went to jail for DUI charges. It was like she had never existed when she got out of prison. Her friends did not return her calls, her business partners did not want to associate themselves with her. It was fucking humiliating.”
MY FRIEND AND I GOT UP FROM OUR TABLE. We walked past the food stall owner and his lived in shirt and apron. We walked past the table next to us, and the empty bowl of noodles.
Indeed, it was a different world out there in Singapore. If only I can just pack up and leave everything in exchange for a life there. Then, I thought, isn’t it the feeling that you always get when you travel to a place you have never been to before? You almost always never want to go back home, but you always do.
As with many paradoxes in life, it’s one I should learn to embrace.