Zurich on the Equator
SCHOOLED by the prejudices of the late great Bernard Levin, every informed Englishman has learned to hate Singapore. The diminutive Republic is, as everybody knows, boring, sanitized and, worst of all ‘fascist’. It is a place where American teenagers are birched for minor offences and where, worse still, chewing gum is illegal. It was until recently (some say it still is) ruled by Lee Kwan Yew, a politician who (horror of horrors) received the warm approbation of Margaret Thatcher.
So let me defend, for a moment, my home from home.
I will be bold and claim that I know Singapore: not merely the shopping malls of Orchard Road and the plush hotels of the stop-over tourists, but the back streets of Chinatown and Little India, the housing estates of Toa Payoh and Ang Mo Kio, the furthest reaches of Jurong and the mysteries of the Serangoon Road. I do not yet speak Singlish with the fluency I would wish; but I am working on it.
And let me sing the praises of this improbable place in terms which the right-thinking English middle classes (who affect to despise it) might understand.
First, there is the racial and religious tolerance. Singapore is a place where the local Hindu Temple is likely to hang out a banner wishing a Happy Chinese New Year to passers-by and where the chairman of the Joss-house committee takes tea of a morning with the local imam. There is friendly co-operation between the Anglican Cathedral of St Andrew and the Catholic Cathedral of the Good Shepherd across the road. And St Andrew’s warily keeps in with the burgeoning Pentecostal Churches which are rapidly bringing the values of corporate America to Singapore religion. With gusto and with little rancour, Singapore Christianity can offer you anything from fiddle-back chasubles to ranters in Armani suits and large Cadillacs.
Then there is the variety and quality of cultural life. I do not merely mean the recent dramatic developments of Western-style theatre, opera and music in the new venues on the Esplanade – welcome as they are – but also the local manifestations which thrive in and among the tower blocks and housing estates. Where in Peckham or Southall would local community groups exist simply to provide traditional folk drama (in extravagant costume and with a full orchestra) on the street corner? And where in Oldham or Moss-side would a hundred working men gather fortnightly to compare the prowess of their caged song birds? How popular in Walsall are evening classes in calligraphy?
And, of course, there is the food. Three major cuisines vie with each other for attention. First there are the local hawker specialities, marvellous for breakfast downstairs in the wet market below your flat; elegant (grand even) at the Empire Café at Raffles for a lunch with friends. Second, there is Nonya food – the speciality of the Babas or Straits Chinese. A blend of Malay and Chinese cooking, Nonya food is strong on lime juice, tamarind and chilli. There are delicious puddings with more than a little Indian influence, and thirst-quenching drinks of fruit juice and sugar-cane. Third, and foremost, there is Chinese cuisine pure. In Singapore, naturally this is mostly Cantonese in style; but everything is now available in a city which imports the best chefs in the world to titillate its taste-buds. Sichuan and Beijing are proudly represented. At the Reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve this year we ate eleven sumptuous courses from the roast sucking pig to the sweet red bean dessert.
But perhaps the thing which most characterizes the openness and ingenuity of Singaporeans is their language. Singlish merits honourable mention in The Oxford Companion to the English Language. It is there defined as ‘the English language as used in Singapore, a lingua franca influenced by Chinese and Malay that is fast acquiring a large community of local speakers’. And so it is. With a vocabulary based on English and Malay and a grammar and syntax borrowed largely from Cantonese and Teochew, Singlish is capable of subtleties which continually surprise and delight the speaker of received English. Here is an example from a roadside sign.
A man is selling durian (the large pungently smelling fruit so beloved of Singaporeans and so hated by Europeans.) It looks hard and impenetrable before it is hacked open, and smells of over-ripe Stilton (and worse) when it is. It is impossible to tell whether the fruit is ready for eating until it has been opened. So the notice reads, with impeccable logic and Cantonese concision: ‘No good, don’t take: try will know.’ It is a sequence of mono-syllables which requires careful punctuation in English, but which in Singlish flows without interruption or inflexion, and at speed.
Last of all (and perhaps suspect to some English visitors), there is the peace and order of it all. Of course Singapore has its share of vice and crime – and corruption too, I am sure. But is streets are clean, and famously safe after dark, its social services and medical services are second to none, and the standard of housing (mostly government provided) is impressive and constantly improving.
All this, you will say, is easy in a city state of barely four million people. But it was not always so and it has been achieved, together with an efficient and extensive public transport system, in very little time. This garden city (a piece of waste land will be planted with bougainvilleas before ever your neighbours can dump a mattress on it!) is what Communism might have achieved had it not been universally run by incompetent homicidal hooligans. Here is advanced dentistry, innovative heart surgery, and drains which work. Here is an environment in which the rich can get richer, and the poor will not fall through the net. The trains run on time and the temperature (no thanks to Mr Lee!) is a constant 34C.
I cannot say that I prefer it to Lewisham. But it is fun to go home from home.
Geoffrey Kirk intends to retire to Singapore.