Wednesday 30 June 2001 – Singapore
Not having any meetings or other plans today, I decided to take Julie’s advice and do some sight seeing, so caught a bus to the East Coast area. The East Coast Park is a narrow strip of grass, trees and narrow, polluted beach that runs from just east of the city to the far corner of Singapore island, near Changi Airport.
I arrived in about the middle of the stretch and hired a bike and road to both the extreme ends of the park. At one end, the track ended under a highway fly-over heading to the city, at the other it ended in the middle of a private golf course under the flight path of the main runway – several jumbos took off whist I was there and I was able to check the tyres as they went over. The ride took almost two hours in all, and the sun came out part way through, so was very thirsty by the end of it. After returning the bike I found a 7-11 store and bought a 1.5 litre bottle of lemonade and drank the lot.
During the ride and later walking around the town, I was struck, not for the first time, at the Singaporeans’ apparent inability or unwillingness to give way or to allow one to pass, even when they are on the wrong side of the footpath or track. Despite all the signs around, on the cycle tracks, footpaths and in MRT stations, they simply don’t seem to see one and will walk into you rather than yield a few inches to allow both people to get where they want to go. Others seem to just wander about not looking where they are going and bumping into anyone or thing that doesn’t get out of their way.
I don’t think that they are being deliberately rude or pushy, but suspect that rather the thought of giving way simply doesn’t occur to them. The phenomena has been written about and even has a name – ‘Kiasu’, literally ‘afraid to lose’- always wanting to be first in the line, at the head of the queue and never to let anyone else get ahead of you. It strikes me as remarkably immature as a national trait, but then immaturity itself seems to me to be also a core part of the national character.
This is a very young nation, gaining independence in 1965. Whilst the older generation has presumably had to work very hard to cement a place in the world for such a small nation on a tiny island, the large numbers of young don’t seem terribly concerned or even mature. Whilst there is little in the way of social security, other than the support of ones family, there is plenty of work and in fact foreign guest workers are imported to undertake much of the work that Singaporeans find to hard, menial or distasteful to do themselves, such as road mending, construction, domestic work and the like.
The young of Singapore have been raised in times of prosperity – they have never been wealthier and their basic needs are taken care of, with housing built and subsidised by the state and little to occupy their spare time than shopping and organised leisure activities (movies, holidays, clubs). On top of this, Singapore could be termed a ‘nanny state’, with its proscriptions on what is good and not good for its population, from its tight censorship, state-controlled media and business enterprises and clumsy (at least to an outsider) attempts at social engineering.
There are signs everywhere exhorting the population to be better citizens – to be polite, to allow disembarking passengers off the train before rushing to board, as well as the famous fines for spitting, jay-walking and the banning of chewing gum. MRT stations are full of grim posters of bodies in gutters with the caption ‘He/she wasn’t born a drug addict’. Another TV campaign shows images of children playing with captions like ‘Doctor or murderer – it’s your choice’, designed to encourage parents to take responsibility for ensuring their offspring grow up to be fine upstanding citizens.
Desmond Morris has written that cats, when they are brought up as pets, remain artificially in a kittenish state of immaturity, being fed and pampered and never having to fend for themselves. I wonder if in its affluence and prosperity and with its (no doubt well-intentioned) public information campaigns, the state of Singapore is keeping its young in a permanent state of adolescence well beneath their years and potential?
Wandered back through the older, Malay/Chinese section of the East Coast (which is fast giving way to high rise condominiums) in search of somewhere cool to have lunch, but could only find street hawker stalls of the non-English speaking and singularly unappetising variety. Still it was an interesting walk, until a massive thunder and lightening storm hit somewhere before the MRT station to which I was headed.
In the end I ran for the train and ended up back at Raffles City (my old favourite haunt) tucking into Korean Barbecue Hotplate Chicken! Had intended going to the gym, but was feeling my exertions by this point and decided that two hours on a pushbike excused me for the day, so went home and started reading ‘Tulipomania’ instead.
Later in the evening another storm passed through with more lightning and lots of rain. The cats seemed a little distressed and concerned with the thunder in particular.