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My Singapore Story in 11 Days - by Li Xueying

While taking a break from work for three weeks last month, I was still writing - sort of.

In my head, I was crafting and editing my version of the Singapore story that I wanted to narrate to overseas friends visiting the country for the first time.

Coming from four very disparate countries - Israel, Romania, Britain and the Philippines - they are classmates from a graduate programme in public administration at Harvard University.

There, for a year straddling 2009 and 2010, in between the fun stuff (road trips, dinner parties and American football games), we debated and argued vociferously, inside and outside the classroom, our countries' different political systems and policies, and what our governments did right - and not so right (in our opinion).

Now, they were here, to spend Christmas and New Year with my husband and me, and to see first-hand for themselves the Singapore that they had heard so much about, not just from me, but also from business surveys, political and social indexes, news articles and friends.

In thinking through the itinerary for their visit, I had to ask myself: What is the Singapore story that I want to tell - within a few short days?

What kind of narrative do I weave? Where do I take them? What do I show them? What do I tell them?

In the telling of any story - including the Singapore story - there are different versions, angles and shadings. And just as a newspaper article - or even a 1,400-page, two-volume tome - has to contend with space constraints in reflecting every nuance and providing every context, one week would hardly be time enough to show and tell the story of this 710 sq km of land mass.

Within these constraints, I had to edit judiciously, to seek out the saliant signposts of my version of the national narrative.

Beyond that, my underlying principle as a tour guide was similar to that of a journalist: to be as balanced as one can be.

Ion Mall - Orchard

I wanted to show them the glitzy side of Singapore - the breathtaking Marina Bay skyline, Ion Mall with its labyrinth of shops, the Night Safari that has manoeuvred the jungle into the city, and Sentosa with its sand imported from Indonesia.

I also wanted them to see the so-called real side of the country, where the majority of Singaporeans live, work and play.

So for instance, in showing off Singapore's skyline, it was a tale of two, but not mutually exclusive, views.

First, we went to the residents-only terrace on the 44th floor of luxury condominium The Sail@Marina Bay, thanks to a friend whose relative has a unit. There, we watched the lights at play, spotlighting the bay, integrated resort, hotels and skyscrapers, in preparation for the next night's New Year's Eve festivities.

It was all very impressive. My friends took plenty of pictures.

I pointed out the landmarks, before adding that many Singaporeans would not have been able to afford the cover charges at the rooftop bars and restaurants, or the condo units or hotel rooms. Much of 'this' - I gestured at the glitzy part of Singapore - is for a certain segment of the population: well-heeled Singaporeans, foreign investors, tourists and expatriates.

But any feelings of exclusion is held in abeyance with efforts in other realms.

On another day, we went to Toa Payoh Central's Block 79E. Another universe, but it, too, comes with a view.

From the public corridor on its highest floor - 40th - one can see as far as the Singapore Flyer and yes, Marina Bay. The best thing: The view was for free, requiring neither cash nor connections. And the flats are built, undeniably, for Singaporeans.

We took the lift down, our ears popping along the way.

I showed my friends the library where I had huddled with books for hours as a child, the public pool where for a dollar anyone can have a dip, the void decks where old men played checkers and the FairPrice supermarket chain opened by the labour movement to provide affordable goods from kai lan to wine (although, I also noted, its success has ironically undermined the livelihood of workers in smaller grocery stores).

East Coast Lagoon Food Centre
East Coast Lagoon Food Centre

Another night, we took a stroll on the Bedok jetty after dinner at the East Coast Lagoon food centre, and watched families pass the time in an affordable manner - fathers fished as babies lolled on mats.

Bedok Jetty
Bedok Jetty
Photo credit: Fusionstream@flickr

I took pride in the 'social capital' evident in the heartland - a concept that we learnt in class and popularised by one of our professors Robert Putnam, to describe how when a community builds connections, cohesion and trust, children grow up healthier, safer and better educated, and people live longer, happier lives.

All well and good. But how did modern Singapore begin?

We drove to the Tanjong Pagar distripark along Keppel Road. We parked and watched giant container trucks trundle past, bearing metal oblongs of cargo and belching smoke. It was a reminder that in today's high-tech world of bytes and billion-dollar websites, the physical transfer of goods - from toothbrushes to television sets - across borders remains a key artery of the economy.

And then we crossed the road for another slice of history: the 79-year-old, Malaysia-owned KTM rail station, a legacy of the two countries' ties.

Veering to the domestic, we dropped by Bras Basah Complex whose bookstores used to be packed with Chinese (sometimes, leftist) literature. Now, I noted, they hold mainly used textbooks for kiasu parents.

Another key chapter of the story was how a small and densely populated country reconciles its various needs - secular, religious and traditional.

We took a peek at the Muhajirin Mosque in Braddell Road with its modern white facade entwined with Islamic floral motifs. In Kampong Glam, indie boutiques in Haji Lane sell whimsical fashion a stone's throw away from the stately Sultan Mosque and fabric stores with rolls and rolls of luscious batik and silk.

Sultan Mosque
Sultan Mosque

In Keong Saik Road, we watched a woman and her customer emerge from a brothel opposite a Chinese temple. A junction away, devotees prayed at a Hindu temple. My friends bat nary an eyelid. After all, we had prowled the lorongs of Geylang where I enlightened them on the Government's pragmatism: far better to regulate - and tax - the world's oldest profession than drive it underground.

We decided to go watch a colleague of mine at her lion-dance training at a nearby clan association, before worshipping at Singapore's shrine to consumerism at Orchard Road.

So this is the tale of Singapore which I told in 11 days.

There was plenty that I had left out.

I would have liked to take them to a meet-the-people session to hear the problems of Singaporeans and see how politicians try to remain in touch with the ground. I would have liked to take them to the forum organised by socio-political blog The Online Citizen, where young Singaporeans turned up in droves to engage in dialogue with opposition politicians.

But I did not do too shabbily, I reckon. The review from my friends was that Singapore had 'more soul' than they expected. My Singapore story is not quite a page-ripping thriller or a dramatic epic, but perhaps a collection of vignettes - some rather sentimental and maudlin - that tries to use the picayune of daily life to illustrate the intangible forces beneath.

What would your Singapore story be?

 


~ This article is published with the kind permission of Li Xueying (ST journalist) and The Straits Times

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