I won an all expenses paid trip to Singapore. That’s how I’ve been positioning it to myself when it became clear a few weeks ago that I would definitely need to fly out to Singapore for a big presentation I’d been working on. It’s really hard to figure out how long is the right amount of time to go for a work trip like this. On the one hand, it’s 50 hours of travel (a full work week’s worth!) to get here! On the other hand, I only have like a day or two of stuff I need to do here. I settled on pretty much a week – landing in the weekend to get acclimated.
So far I’ve had that weekend part, wandering the city and trying taking a million pictures. I’ve come up with a few observations.
If you’re unfamiliar with Singapore, a quick background might be useful. It’s a former British colony that gained independence in the 60s. It’s a city state – only a few square miles – at the tip of Malaysia. It’s home to about 6 million people, roughly 3 million of whom were born elsewhere. It’s extremely diverse, with key populations coming from China, Malaysia, India & England.
1) The entire city was built for selfies
You know the Sydney Opera House? The Singapore equivalent was built to look like Durian fruit. You can see it across the man-made bay, right next to the iconic Mer-lion. And floating soccer field. But right before the 40 story, three pillared ship-building that hosts the casino. Everywhere you look has beautifully composed views of the city with fascinating architecture. And people have definitely gotten the message, also everywhere you look are hordes of people all taking pictures – mostly selfies. I saw probably 20 people today who’d even hired professional photographers (or had friends with fancy cameras) to follow them through their touristy stuff and take pictures of it. It’s wild.
2) Singapore is basically a spaceship
Imagine if you have a ton of people in a very small, closed environment from many backgrounds. You need to keep them healthy, clothed, fed, exercised and doing the work you need them to do. You also need to give them that human psychological need for greenery, space and outdoors. Well, Singapore is already working under many of those constraints.
They call it the City in a Garden, and they’re not wrong. Every space that can have greenery crammed in has greenery crammed in. There are trees, vines and flowers at every single opportunity. I spend my day at the Gardens By the Bay which are so clearly nature for people who haven’t ever actually seen nature. As I went from “The world of palms” to the desert cactus exhibit it dawned on me that one of the many kids growing up entirely in Singapore… well, this is what they’d know of nature. All prettiness and near infinite variety, carefully planned and executed. No randomness. No repetition. Entirely unnatural.
They also use every inch. On my drive from the airport my exceptionally informative taxi driver told me that there was a defense troop nearby and that they could clear every single plant off the road in less than 45 minutes to convert it to an emergency runway. Here in Singapore space needs to have one or two or three uses – just like it would on a colony ship. This also might explain why the rules and regulations here are so strict. If you’re going to cram this many people into this little space you need very clear rules governing behavior and interactions, or pandemonium might ensue!
3) People dress to match each other
They’ll all wear the same color (like 6 people!) or the same dress (2 or 3 people). Some of them wear the same dress in complimentary colors (black and white). And it’s not just like bridal parties or something – it was all sorts of people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. I was talking to a native Singaporean colleague about it (she’s spent several years in the US) and she had no idea what I was talking about until we started walking around and she saw it for herself.
4) Jaywalking rules explained
So the typical statement about law abidingness in Singapore is that they’ll ticket you for jaywalking, which sounds ridiculous. In reality, the way the streets are set up it’s both very tempting to jaywalk and rather dangerous to do so. That’s because pedestrians really navigate the city in a series of subterranean mall-tunnel (and sky bridges). So you’ll be on a major thoroughfare with a broad sidewalk that just …. stops right when you get to a big road. If you know what you’re doing, the underground entrance is right behind you, but that’s not intuitive. So you jaywalk, which is bad and unexpected.
Not that the rules aren’t actually pretty strict! I had a “Singapore Moment” shopping in a gift store at a museum. They had tshirts and I wanted to get one for my kids so I picked one up and shook it out to look at it. It wasn’t the right size so I carefully refolded it (the display was extremely neat) and picked up another one. A tap on my shoulder “there are sample t-shirts you can view on that rack”. No picking up tshirts. Got it. This is why the very cute adorable outfit I bought for myself does not fit. Siiiiigh. In the same gift shop I’d gathered a number of things and was clearly making the staff uncomfortable. I thought they were too large to fit into the teeny tiny shopping baskets they had – which was true. But they squirmed and finally came up to me and “offered” a basket and crammed all the stuff in somehow. There is definitely a right way to do things, and woe betide the ignorant!
I’ve put together an album of my hijinks so far here. Tomorrow I have to “go to work” or something, so that’s probably the bulk of my touristing on this trip! The folks in the photos with me are coworkers.