The Tidiest City in the World

Dear Reader,

I bet my post title is enough for you to identify the city-state I am referring to, but in case you’re lost, here come more prompts – “Asia’s greatest emporium”, “a city organised like a department store”, “the handiest city ever”, “a city established by a nation of shopkeepers”, “the melting pot of the East”, or if you prefer, “the abode of Chinks, drinks, and stinks”, where “natives of half a dozen nationalities” are “bound hand and foot by the absorbing interests of commerce.”*

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Dear Reader, I give you Singapore, the mythical Lion City, which is what its name means in Sanskrit.

Singapore, where I spent three days in early June, is a high-rise settlement where land is in short supply. Hence, all open-air fields not covered by skyscrapers are either heritage or parks specially designed for the public weal. The former is the case of The Padang, where our hotel was located.  

That’s the view on the Padang from our room at The Residence at Singapore Recreation Club Hotel:

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Here are more views of the Padang from the rooftop terrace of the National Gallery: 

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Comparing Singapore to the other places that I’ve recently visited – Penang and Kuala Lumpur in neighbouring Malaysia – Singapore is a gentle introduction to the region of Southeast Asia indeed. It offers one a genuine representation of the climate, the ethnic and language mix, and the huge temperature divide between air conditioned interiors and the humid hotness outside, but is too sterile for the southeast Asian je-ne-sais-quoi in traditional hawker stall food retail. Making up for this, the city-state offers a too concentrated sample of some of the region’s peculiar public order imperatives announced on ubiquitous signs and admonishments. 

Take for example this, from the National Gallery. FYI, No Food and Drinks also means no bottled water from your appropriately sized backpack. If you need to hydrate, there are drinking water fountains provided outside the toilets. Needless to say, both fountains and toilers are spotlessly clean, and that not only in the Gallery, but throughout Singapore.

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The below picture is from the city’s MRT (Mass Rapid Transit or subway), excellently and very intelligibly organised, even to my disoriented self. Tourist day passes are available, but a deposit is required alongside the pass price. The deposit is returned upon return of the plastic pass card, which can be done at any MRT ticket office, or at the airport.  The “Show you Care” sign at the bottom of the picture was from a call on passengers to offer their seats to women with children, pregnant women, and the elderly. “No Durians” has to do with the pungent smell of this “King of Fruits” which I will follow up on later…:)

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A heritage sign from downtown Singapore.

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Our first impact with the public space organisation of the city state after we left the beautiful Changi Airport, was the existence, totally unknown to me and the spouse, of designated pick-up and drop-off points which are either separate road lanes or, in the case of the airport, locations at completely different ground levels.

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It works like this, if you want to take a taxi to the hotel, you follow the taxi signs and get on the first car in the row. You pay what the meter shows and don’t tip, which is against the law. However, if you want to hail an Uber car from your mobile phone, which we did, you have to locate yourself at a specific pick-up point where the Uber car will come. If you’re not there, the driver cancels the trip and charges you with a compensation fee for having called him in vain. If your relatives or friends have come to pick you up, they would have to drive through the same pick-up point.

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My Bulgarian mind found this quite hard to fathom, given that in my country, pick-up and drop-off points are just about anywhere the driver fancies stopping. As you can well imagine, pick-up and drop-off points in Singapore come with a stern sign reading “No Waiting.” 

Because of the heat and the frequent rains – we’re in the tropics after all – many sidewalks have roofs or run along arcaded paths that are parts of the buildings themselves. In the latter case flaneurs – or pedestrians sauntering around and observing society – are faced with a friendly sign reading “No Loitering.”

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Similarly, the Teka Market in Little India, the largest wet market in Singapore, as well as a popular food court in Chinatown boasted large signs reading “No Touting.”

Except for the pick-up and drop-off point issue, which I have not seen explained anywhere, in Singapore one can’t ever be at a loss about how to follow the rules, as everything is so nicely and thoughtfully explained. Here, take a look at the sign attached to the traffic light button at virtually every pedestrian crossing:

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I have already mentioned toilets, the availability and cleanliness of which I consider an essential marker of civilisation. This view comes perhaps from my reading too many books, as it is in stark contrast with the ideas of Bulgarian authorities which, alas, do not make great efforts to ensure availability or cleanliness of public toilets in our cities. In Bulgaria, toilets are either “staff only,” “reserved only to patrons,” “out of order,” paid, or in such a state that you wouldn’t dare enter, let alone use them.

However, to make the above statement more objective and less emotional, I’d have to point out that many public and private buildings in use in Bulgaria date back to the late 19th and the early 20th century, and were planned according to the then European ideas of the space reserved for the toilet, both for public and private use, which was much different compared to what it is today. Nuances, such as the availability of none too clean squat toilets, were added by Bulgaria’s Ottoman heritage, and more recently, by our 45-year Communist rule, which somehow believed in nationalising nourishment through widespread canteens, while totally disregarding the complementary function of elimination, even at places where people habitually queued  for extended periods of time, such as outpatient healthcare centres or the offices of local authorities.

Be that as it may, in Singapore toilets were ubiquitous, free of charge, and spotlessly clean. In some places, the vessel of elimination was kind of a la carte as well, offering a choice between the following three options:

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This is how, through rules stemming from an objective facing of reality order is maintained to the benefit of all regardless of ethnicity or religion. These values, alongside pragmatism and secularism, seem to be at the root of Singapore’s success, based on government intervention but very different from the one encountered in the average European national state that I know. 

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Zoom screen to read about the background of the above artwork:

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Thus, a very random selection of further reading on Singapore with takeaways of universal importance would have to start with From Third World to the First, a book by Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015), prime minister of Singapore for several decades. More interesting articles here, here, here, here, and a more controversial one here

In my next post, I’ll be showing you the highlights of Singapore’s beautiful National Gallery. Singapore and Malaysia are very much about food as well, but that would have to come in the post on Penang – a colourful island full of quaint early 20th century Chinese shop-houses and great food sold at busy hawker stalls. 

Talk soon,

Boryana

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PS. The quotes appearing in the post’s opening paragraph have been taken from this book.