It was when the nearly naked man staggered past us, with steel skewers through his jaw, that I began to realize what a special place Singapore is.
My friend and I were watching the annual Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Singapore’s Little India neighborhood. Over pizza the evening before, my friend had told me a bit about the festival. She explained that participants offered their thanks to the gods by mutilating themselves in painful but not life-threatening ways. Then they trekked a four-km course, surrounded by their chanting, clapping families.
It had all sounded terribly exotic. So at lunchtime the next day my friend called for a taxi on her cell phone and we drove past the Prada stores and the Ralph Lauren boutiques, through Singapore’s immaculate highways and manicured streets, to the chattering chaos of Little India, where we found a small crowd gathered behind metal barriers to watch the agony in action.
One semi-naked man with a glassy stare weaved past us with an ornate piece of tin filigree hammered through his tongue and a huge metal canopy festooned with tassels and fabric over his head. The next strolled by briskly, as if he were on his way to the photocopier, although metal skewers pierced his sides. The showstopper was the man who had heavy bottles of sand dangling from hooks that clawed into his back and dragged his flesh into puckered folds.
I felt queasy. Where I come from, self-mutilation means an ankle tattoo. These guys were out of my league. So my friend and I decided to adjourn for a nice lunch at a nearby restaurant.
And that’s Singapore for you. If you want to experience the searing heat and exotic customs of Southeast Asia, but in English and with all the comforts of good food and great shopping, you’ll love this tiny city-state of four-and-a-half million people at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. A former British colony, it gained independence in 1965 under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, who served as its prime minister until 1990. Lee dominated the politics of his little nation in its early years and set out to turn it into a place where Singapore’s explosive mixture of ethnic Chinese and Malay citizens could live in peace and prosperity.
Unlike most would-be utopians, Lee succeeded, perhaps because he balanced his paternalistic belief in central planning and his blatant disregard for civil rights with a wary respect for private property and ethnic sensitivities. Thanks to him, Singapore is an odd mix of the natural and the artificial, of laissez-faire economics and government-knows-best micromanagement. It’s a city that sees nothing wrong with folks impaling themselves on metal skewers, but that fines anyone who spits on the sidewalk. It’s a city that’s fiercely nationalistic, but one that expresses its nationalism by speaking English and wearing Gucci.
To a visitor, the city hums like a well-run hotel. Crisp air conditioning, trimmed lawns and omnipresent Starbucks outlets swaddle you in First World comfort. A high-tech subway system and a huge taxi fleet shoot you to your destination in minutes. English is widely spoken, although garnished with Malay and Chinese words that create a linguistic stew call Singlish. As “eh” is to Canadian English, so “lah” is to Singlish: “That was good, lah?” or “Have a seat, lah.” Count on a few extra moments to make yourself understood, but don’t worry you will be.
Begin your tour along Boat Quay, the historic heart of the city, close to where Sir Stamford Raffles landed in 1819 and claimed Singapore for Britain. Two centuries later, the economic tables have turned Singaporeans are now just as rich as their former British masters.
You see Singapore’s prosperity everywhere. Along the riverfront at Boat Quay, expensive restaurants fill sun-battered trading houses that date from the 19th century. Behind them glass-and-steel office towers prop up the blazing sky. A short taxi ride away is Orchard Road, a stretch of blow-your-wallet carriage-trade shopping that makes Toronto’s Yorkville or Vancouver’s Gastown look like rummage sales.
Want something more exotic? You can enjoy a mini-tour of Asia within the city limits of Singapore. Start by visiting the Malay Heritage Centre and the imposing Sultan Mosque for a taste of Islamic culture. Then head to Chinatown, where you can battle the crowds to buy anything from gold jewelry to a cured duck carcass. Finish up in Little India for a spicy curry and cooling lassi amid a jumble of streets that make you feel as if you’re in Mumbai.
Singapore isn’t endowed with much in the way of mountains or lakes, so the government, with its usual efficiency, has built the nature it needs. At Jurong BirdPark you can ride a monorail from one shopping-mall-sized birdcage to another and feed tropical birds shipped in from around the world. You can finish up by lounging in front of a thundering nine-storey-tall waterfall which is truly majestic and also entirely manmade. When evening falls, don’t miss the Night Safari, a three-km tram ride through the jungle. You can get up close with an imported cast of animals that includes everything from Himalayan blue sheep to African antelopes. All the animals are uncaged, but a network of hidden moats stops them from wandering and prevents you from suddenly sharing a seat with a Burmese deer.
If you have a head for heights, take a taxi downtown the next afternoon and climb on the Mount Faber cable car. It swings you into the air, more than 60 metres above Singapore’s harbor, as it sways and creaks its way to Sentosa Island, a favorite recreation spot for Singaporeans. Volleyball players and sunbathers fill the white sand beaches, then flock to bars that look as if they were airlifted in from California. Buy yourself a drink, sit back and watch night fall over the world’s busiest port. Singapore may be one of the most artificial places on earth, but, at moments like this, it’s tough not to love it.