Singapore: First Impressions

“Next time, use a blue pen or a black pen.” We’ve already been through five of these checkpoints in as many months and by far the stentorian greeting that awaits me at immigration in Singapore is the least welcoming of any place we’ve been. Far from a warm welcome, I think I’ve just been issued a warning, and a frigid one at that.

“Next time, use a blue pen or a black pen.”

We’ve already been through five of these checkpoints in as many months and by far the stentorian greeting that awaits me at immigration in Singapore is the least welcoming of any place we’ve been. Far from a warm welcome, I think I’ve just been issued a warning, and a frigid one at that.

I can’t honestly say I’m surprised; the solemn reprimand I have received only reinforces many of the stereotypes of Singapore that I’ve brought with me. We’ve all heard the rumors that this place is uptight, prizing a strict adherence to its infamously numerous rules, punishing harshly those that deviate from them. In a place where it’s illegal to purchase chewing gum without a prescription and heterosexual oral sex was only legalized 6 years ago, I was clearly dancing with the devil when I filled out my arrival card in green ink. I should just be relieved that the stony immigration agent has decided to overlook my flagrant flouting of the rules and allowed a risky ne’er-do-well who writes in whatever color ink she cares to into this hallowed nation.

If you want to know the truth, I am perhaps less than enthused to be in Singapore. Having just finished up three weeks in Taiwan, I’m more than a little worried that—adherence to fussy rules aside—Singapore won’t really have much new to offer us as a destination. I have nothing factual to base my fears on, but I have gotten it into my head that Singapore is just going to be treading now familiar ground, that it will essentially be a sterile Hong Kong run with all the inflexibility that was igniting my contrarian streak and turning me pugnacious by the end of our time in Japan. While full-blown chaos is not exactly what I crave, I don’t relish the thought of spending more time in a country where hotels make you sit in the lobby for five minutes because check in is at noon and you have had the gall to arrive at 11:55 am or when you go to send a package home the person manning the desk at the post office refuses to process it until you have enumerated on the customs form exactly how many pieces of candy you are sending to your loved ones.

[Those are real examples of things that actually happened to us while we were in Japan, by the way. I’m not nearly so creative or perverse as to make that kind of stuff up…]

Don’t get me wrong, there are things that I am genuinely excited about for our time in Singapore and we have the best possible reason to be here: Chris, one of my good friends and former lab-mates from graduate school now lives and works here and we’ll be staying with him. Because of Chris, I have always known that we would spend some time in Singapore, but ever since our itinerary broke down two months into this odyssey, I had no idea when exactly that would be. When Singapore proved to be the cheapest destination from Taiwan and with the Christmas holidays on the horizon, which Chris happily informed us he would be celebrating on this side of the globe rather than back home in the States, it was clear where we would be heading next.

So here we are in Singapore, and without having even officially been in the country I’ve already been chastised and I am worried.

As we walk through the airport, I am on high-alert, trying to detect any other stereotypes that will prove true. In particular, I want to see whether all the effusive praise we’ve heard from fellow travelers about the technological wonderland that is the airport is justified. Certainly the building is modern and clean, but I can’t honestly say that it seems any more impressive than the one we have flown out of in Taipei where Tony whiled away our time waiting at the gate by playing a violent first-person shooter game on the complimentary Playstation 3s and I dozed in a reclining lounge chair. Whither art thou free hot showers? And you, massage chairs and personal media devices? Perhaps just the subject of hyperbolic myth? Alas, the water fountains bedecked with signs proudly declaring the water here is potable is as fancy as things get, though after months without being able to drink safely from the tap, that’s probably a more useful perk than a robot butler, but I am still mildly disappointed to not have my mind blown.

My brain gets enough of a work out, however, when it comes time to navigate the labyrinthine terminals (that are largely devoted to shops and restaurants—apparently the airport kind of doubles as a mall and Singaporeans will actually come here even when they aren’t traveling anywhere just to grab a meal and buy some stuff) in search of the mass rapid transit system that will get us into the city proper. In a glaring error, all signs direct us to Terminal 3 in order to catch the train, but naturally one cannot purchase the easylink cards that make riding the trains cheaper at this location. So we retrace our steps and schlep ourselves back over to Terminal 2 before we are finally on our way. I am surprised that a place like Singapore that seems to revel in the details would make it such an ordeal to simply get on the subway, but then I remember: this may be Singapore, but it’s also still Asia.

Having spent this much time in Asia, my hygiene standards have relaxed considerably—generally if I’m not seeing kids squatting in the streets or being held above a garbage can as they void their bowels then I say we’re doing ok. Plus, this is Singapore where the sidewalks are meant to sparkle and just the thought of littering likely comes with a fine, so surely there is nothing to fear. Yet as I take my seat on the MRT and take in the signs emphatically forbidding a variety of activities (eating, smoking, drinking, transporting durian…), I can’t help but notice that this train is far from gleaming. It’s not dirty in any obvious ways—there’s no trash strewn about, nothing is broken—but it definitely feels careworn and rides the edge between unremarkable and disreputable shabbiness. The seat next to me actually has some kind of stain of unidentified origins streaked across it suggesting that a previous passenger has either had an unfortunate accident or has engaged in one of the activities expressly prohibited by the signs posted by every door. In Japan, everything was so perfectly pristine that if someone were to serve you a sushi set off of the floor, you wouldn’t even hesitate before digging in. They never would, of course, since one does not eat on the street or on the go in Japan, but I suppose I was impressed to know that in some hypothetical universe, it was possible. I can’t decide whether I am scandalized, disappointed that Singapore is kind of scuzzy, or slightly relieved that I am not the only one contravening the rules here, but either way, even without the hefty fines, there is no way I’ll be eating anything off of the floor here. What crazy universe have we entered? Nothing in Singapore is going according to plan at all!

A war of ambivalence continues to rage through me as we are shuttled towards our destination. But then the doors slide open, we are standing on the subway station platform, and I spot Chris waiting for us as promised. He turns as we lumber towards him, our bags and “plane brain” imbuing us with all the grace of two elephants doped up on Percocet, but it doesn’t matter. With each step, my grousing fades into white noise and my smile threatens to consume my entire face. As the three of us collapse into the most ungainly group hug, everything clicks into place. Sometimes all it takes is seeing a friend you haven’t seen in far too long to know: I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be and for however long I’m here, it’s going to be fun.

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23 comments Leave a comment

  1. Singapore is not the most exciting city to visit, but it is very pleasant I think. It was a really nice change from the usual Phnom Penh chaos, but to be honest it felt a bit too European for my liking. I am just glad that I didn’t get arrested for anything. They love their rules out there!

    Sep. 12 2013 @ 2:41 am
    1. TammyOnTheMove author

      There is a lot to really enjoy about Singapore and I do think that if we had been coming from somewhere that was a lot more chaotic than Taiwan (such as China or even the Philippines) then I would have initially been more excited. I’ve found that after a few months of roughing it, i am relieved to return to places that are more Westernized as it can be a good change of pace and I really appreciate the creature comforts on offer all the more!

      Sep. 13 2013 @ 2:57 am
  2. We loved Singapore mainly for its architecture (old and new). It does have though that feeling of being ‘too perfect’ almost fake in a way. I don’t think I’d live there (never say never), but I’d definitely go back to see many more crazy buildings and structure we missed at the first round.

    Sep. 12 2013 @ 6:01 am
    1. Franca author

      Oh, I certainly wound up appreciating the diversity of architecture on offer in Singapore, but when we first touched down in the country, I had no idea what to expect, so concocted cities we had already been to like Hong Kong and Taipei. I agree that at times some of the places we visited felt a bit “Disney World” in quality, but it certainly wound up being far more visually interesting than I expected!

      Sep. 13 2013 @ 2:59 am
  3. I love that you’re going to try to peel back the facade of Singapore and find its cracks. Sounds like you might like it after all!

    Sep. 12 2013 @ 6:09 am
    1. Gillian @GlobalBookshelf author

      Sometimes I just get unjustifiably cranky and become certain that a given place will not impress me… usually I get proven completely wrong, which is always a happy surprise! I didn’t honestly think I would dislike Singapore, I was just being grumbly and really wanted it to have to work to wow me! Happily, you’ll see there was a lot we really enjoyed while there!

      Sep. 13 2013 @ 3:03 am
  4. Your dealings with the Singapore easylink brings me back to my trip to Vegas last year. You could buy a bus ticket on the bus. It is either $8/day or $20 for three days. But if you buy a five day bus ticket at the downtown bus station, it is only $20. So three days for $20 or five days for $20. Five day pass, right? But they don’t sell those on buses or at the vending machines on the strip so you need to pay to ride the bus to buy a bus pass.

    They have since overhauled their entire bus pass system and it sucks all the way around. But at least that five day pass no longer alludes me since it no longer exists.

    Sep. 12 2013 @ 9:15 am
    1. jennifer author

      Why do they have to make these things so complicated?!? Your story sounds EXACTLY like our own in Singapore in terms of the nonsensical systems they had in place that suggest the people involved in implementing them have never taken a few minutes to consider how illogical and user-unfriendly they’ve made things. I will say that at least apart from the unnecessarily difficult procurement of our easylink card, public transport in Singapore is really convenient and efficient, which are not the words I would first think of when it comes to Vegas and public transport!

      Sep. 13 2013 @ 3:14 am
      1. Steph

        ” which are not the words I would first think of when it comes to Vegas and public transport!”

        You sure got that right! Let’s see, we have a city where people tend to drink to excess…let’s make it as difficult as possible for them to get around on public transportation!

        Sep. 13 2013 @ 8:16 am
  5. I have to say I absolutely loved Singapore. I thought it was an absolutely stunning city to look at, the modern architecture mixed with some of the older neighbourhoods was beautiful and the street food was phenomenal. After spending quite a lot time in Asia I looked at it with almost relief for a few days, for me it combined all of the great things about Asia whilst omitting the aspects I’d come to dislike.

    Sep. 12 2013 @ 10:00 am
    1. Maddie author

      The more we explored Singapore, the more I discovered just how diverse and multifaceted a place it is. But I didn’t know about any of that when we first arrived and I fully admit, I thought it was just going to be like every other “big city” we had thus far visited in Asia. I think if we had spent the time leading up to our time in Singapore in a more challenging destination than Taiwan I would have looked forward to big city life with more anticipation than I did at the time.

      Sep. 13 2013 @ 3:24 am
  6. I’ve been hearing very mixed reviews of Singapore, so I’m interested in seeing how this unfolds.

    And…CHRISTMAS?? How do you remember all these details 9 months later??

    Sep. 12 2013 @ 1:50 pm
    1. Carmel author

      I keep a personal journal that I update every day with jottings and notes from what transpired/what I’ve been thinking/feeling which has been a godsend! Strangely, I do feel like most of these places and experiences I can still remember quite clearly, but I always consult my notes and try to write these posts from the perspective that I had at the time, only rarely consciously allowing our current experiences to color them. I definitely never anticipated the blog would get as far behind as it has, but by diligently writing in my journal every night (more or less), I haven’t had to abbreviate or skip any of our adventures so far!

      Sep. 13 2013 @ 3:30 am
  7. I totally get what you mean. I was expecting Singapore to be super flashy and modern. Turns out it’s just a reasonably clean Asian city/country. I’m looking forward reading more about your SIngaporean adventures.
    Yesterday I found out I could have been jailed for up to a year. Apparently I smuggled chewing gum in to the country. I was even chewing it on the subway. I just totally forgot we were in Singapore. Oops

    Sep. 12 2013 @ 1:52 pm
    1. Angela author

      Gah! I totally feel like your gum-smuggling is way worse than my green pen usage! We’re lucky that either of us was allowed in! 😉

      Sep. 13 2013 @ 3:31 am
  8. I have a friend who lived in Singapore. HER friend bought a bunch of gum in Malaysia and was put on a “list” when she entered into SNG. Heh. I thought it was funny.

    Singapore has amazing shopping. AMAZING. I was in love. We also liked MacRitchie Reservoir. It’s cool. But, really sweat-inducing. =)

    Sep. 12 2013 @ 10:11 pm
    1. nicole author

      Love that list story—that is so very Singapore!

      I think if we were just visiting Singapore on a regular vacation the shopping may have appealed to me more. But quite honestly, these days I loathe shopping with every fiber of my being since everything I own has to fit into my pack and I have been focusing on buying functional items rather than fun, flirty clothing. I did buy a few things while in Singapore, but much to my chagrin, they all came from H&M!

      Sep. 13 2013 @ 3:34 am
  9. Aw, meeting up with friends overseas (if they are from overseas or not) is probably my favourite thing about travel… or it’s at least pretty dang high on that list!

    Sep. 13 2013 @ 5:55 pm
    1. Colleen Brynn author

      I completely agree—making new friends and catching up with old ones has undoubtedly been the thing that has made us laugh and smile the most on this journey! It’s hard to think of a better reason to travel!

      Sep. 20 2013 @ 10:55 pm
  10. Singapore is one place we haven’t really ever considered visiting while we’re in South East Asia and I’m not sure why; it’s probably partly to do with some of the factors you mention, like the insane rules. Is it also quite expensive there y Asian standards? I hope you had a great time staying with your friend – we’ve learned that a familiar face can make all the difference on the road!

    Sep. 17 2013 @ 1:23 am
    1. Amy author

      Given some of the places you have been in Asia, you will probably find Singapore to be quite expensive, though I’m not sure if you’d find it much worse than Malaysian Borneo when you factor in all the activities. It’s certainly worth a stop if you’ve got the time, and given how much you liked KL, I think you’d probably really enjoy Singapore and its European comforts blended with the diversity of Asia.

      Sep. 20 2013 @ 10:57 pm
  11. We only spent four days in Singapore, but I absolutely loved it! The order and cleanliness were a welcome change from China and even the street food felt luxurious. I was impressed by the ethnic diversity and thoroughly enjoyed wandering from Little India to the Muslim quarter and even Chinatown. I returned to Shanghai refreshed and rejuvenated! I hope you enjoy your time there! I recommend the zoo as a worthy splurge.

    Sep. 20 2013 @ 8:21 pm
    1. Heather author

      Oh, I can only imagine what a relief Singapore most have been after so much time in China, even somewhere as cosmopolitan as Shanghai.

      And don’t you worry, we definitely made time for the zoo while we were there!

      Sep. 20 2013 @ 10:58 pm

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