Singapore Blog

August 2019

After about 6 weeks of dealing with maintenance issues in cold weather, mainly in Lawson, we felt the need to plan for a warmer holiday. Our preferences are always within Australia, as we do not like international travel, but visiting Singapore is almost like being at home as we have both spent time there, especially Tim. So we booked for an 8-day visit in early August.
The Qantas trip was just OK, and thankfully only 8 hours and not the 13 involved in the trip to SA. Singapore airport and transport is, as one might expect, very organised. Our taxi ride to the Novatel Hotel at Clarke Quay was easy and comparatively cheap; cheaper than from Glebe to the Sydney Airport even though it was probably a bit further. Traffic in Sydney is much worse.
We were tired, but managed a brief walk around the area, having a quick but expensive bite to eat at a Riverside Restaurant, somehere we sensibly avoided for the rest of the trip.

Wednesday 7th August

Even though the time change is only 2 hours we were tired and it took a couple of days to get on schedule. On Day 1 we visited Chinatown, including the Chinese Heritage Museum.
We stopped for a coffee, and were served by someone who seemed less than impressed about our being from Sydney. We wondered about this, until he told us that he had lived for 20 years in Melbourne. The Sydney Melbourne rivalry obviously has deep international implications.
Whatever, he was very helpful in giving tips about how to manage the National Singapore Holiday (Friday through to Monday). We had not known that our trip coincided with it when we booked. He thought we might not need to worry as most Singapore folk would use the 4-day holiday as an opportunity to leave the Island. But, it did mean many more crowds at the locations we visited (more later).
We were hoping to fill in a several blanks in our knowledge of the history of Singapore and surrounding areas, and here we learned that the earlier Strait Chinese felt that the more recent immigrants/refugees (after the downfall of the Ching Dynasty in the early 1900s) were different and probably of a lesser status. They lived in different areas of Singapore, and had to claw their way up through hard labour; but they did. Also, we learned that the British imposed a form of 'apartheid' on Singapore, declaring certain areas for the Chinese, others for Indians, and yet others for Malays. There were more subtle space allocations as well. Despite this Singapore people were and are tolerant, setting themselves up for the current cosmopolitan city state. Although we had been exposed to the history of the gangs and secret societies and their influence on Singapore's functioning, we had not known about the transition of these to family clans that had a much more positive influence on the society, providing education, support and many other functions.
Chinatown offered interesting architecture, street scenes, markets, and a hike up a hill to a small but peaceful green patch.
Then we learned how to negotiated the MRT that was to become our major mode of transport for the next days.
We took the MRT to Little India, and enjoyed the rich architecture, markets, street scenes, and the Indian Heritage Museum. We had hoped for a little more about the influence of India on the Pre-British period, and even the Pre-History era, but there was only brief mention of the Indians having traded through Temasek (the Island before the British arrived and called it Singapore).
We did learn about the British having used Singapore as a penal colony for Indians, mainly to benefit from their labour in building the infrastructure they wanted on the Island. Many of the subsequent non convict refugees were better educated, working either for the Civil Service, as teachers, health workers etc. They became and integral part of the new Singapore, and were willing ears in helping revolt against British rule. Singapore is now just under 10 percent Indian.
From Little India we walked to Kompong Glam, the Malay area and the historic seat of the Malay royalty before the English and Raffles arrived. Ali Iskandar Shah negotiated an agreement with Britain re the establishment of the Island as trading post for the East Indian Company. The street scenes were interesting, with markets and small street businesses. The Malay Heritage Museum provided good insight into the various longer-term influences of folk from Arabia, Malasia and Indonesia on the new Singapore. There is a tendency to refer to all those of Muslim heritage as Malay, but the sources of the Muslim population in Singapore is quite diverse, including many from India and associated areas.
That night we ate out at a Thai Restaurant on Circular Road. The Boat Quay, while better than Clarke Quay, is also overpriced with too many people touting for business. The back streets are much better. However, one of the events we noticed on the Bay Walk was people participating in public exercise sessions.
One of the big advantages of our trip was the exposure it gave us to CNA (Channel News Asia). Reporting of events in Asia and of international news is excellent. It was good to get information from a slightly different and very balanced perspective. Western reporting can sometimes be a little myopic.

Thursday 8th August

We had planned to cover the Singapore Zoo, River Safari and the Night Zoo on one day, but School Holidays had obviously started a day early, and the Night Zoo was booked out. We spent 3 hours in the Zoo, and 2 hours 'cruising' through representations of the major rivers of the world in the River Safari, with samples of water creatures, a few sea birds, and even mammals living on the river systems. There were many young children, and it was great to see how well both the Zoo and the River Safari catered for them, with interactive opportunities, lots of explanations about the reproduction of the species, and the impact of humans and climate on their sustainability.
The Zoo is considered one of the three best in the world, and apart from the really large African animal holdings, one can see why. Seeing one giraffe in a small enclave and a couple of elephants, zebras etc, was sad after our Elephant Park experience in SA. But the animals looked very healthy and are obviously exceptionally well cared for. All the primates (monkeys, apes etc), were housed unbelievably well with lots of stimulation.
The highlight for us was the reptile section.
But we really did enjoy getting photos.
We were very tired after 5 hours of slow motion walking, and long trips to and from the North West of the Island on the MRT (trains and buses). We ate out at a pub, which thankfully had one vegetarian dish. That evening we again enjoyed the various Asian news programs, including the different way in which they manage advertising that is so much less intrusive than in Australia.

Friday 9th August

We decided we needed to hike and also get away from the crowds that would be amassing for the celebrations around Padang, not far from our hotel. We chose to do the Southern Ridges Hike in the South Western part of the island known as the best set of parks on the Island. We walked up Mt Faber - the Morany Track (having taken the Cable Car to the top from Sentosa Island on a previous visit), and then walked over the spectacular Henderson Bridge onto the Forest Track (Telek Blought), through to 'Hort' and then the Canopy and Kent Ridge. We did not do Labrador Nature Reserve, but left it as a possibility for another day.
Altogether, we did 10.5 km, in 3hours 50 min, with 311 m climb. It was hot and humid (about 33 degrees most of the way), but views, vegetation and the amazing paths were well worth every moment.
Hort is a large area devoted to educating the Singapore population about ways of greening their homes, with lots of sampler plants, large glass-houses and interactive displays.
Singapore is known as the 'Garden City' as they have worked really hard to ensure that every bit of earth, and many of the buildings have greenery. So surprisingly, there are large tracts of the Island that are not built up. We experienced this on the hikes. But given the tropical climate, with the dreaded 'mile-a-minute' weeds, one can understand that maintaining hikes at ground level is a challenge. This walk was mostly built up so that one walked for at least 5 or 6 km of the trail on an iron track about 40 m above the forest floor. Only Singapore could do this!
Views of the spectacular buildings were possible through the thick vegetation, and of the absolutely massive port (Keppel Port) and container terminal area on the South Western side of the Island State.
We found our way home, enjoyed a shower, managed to do two days of washing in the hotel laundry, and ate out at the same hotel as the previous night, but chose a double dose of the vegie dish. The Singapore National Day celebrations were happening all around us with lots of folk, but not as many as attend events in Sydney. Singapore has about 5 m population (3 million Singapore citizens), about the size of Sydney, and probably many were away, so the crowds did not reach the millions that occur in Sydney.
We enjoyed watching all the events on TV back in our air-conditioned hotel room.

Saturday 10th August

Tim woke with a blister, thanks to using smarter rather than sensible shoes. Nevertheless, we set out to locate the bookshop "Books Actually" where we hoped we would find good historical texts of Singapore and perhaps also Indonesia and Malaysia, all areas we want to understand better. Thanks to Tim's i-phone and our generally growing understanding of Singapore geography we walked from our hotel to Yong Siak Street, which took us through very different areas of Singapore - more upmarket, with strong Japanese influences in architecture, hotels and accommodation.
The bookshop did not disappoint and we purchased three books: a 700 year history of Singapore, one on Malaysia post the British and one giving the history of Indonesia but with a focus on the role of Islam (see refs at end). Then with directions from the bookshop we took the MRT to Boon Lay, and then the bus to the Jurong Bird Park. Being a public holiday, there were many families with the same goal, so it was a challenge, with queues for the bus and lots of children. But we were impressed with how the systems coped.
The bird park was both positive and negative. We enjoy having opportunities to take photographs of birds we have never seen, but feel uncomfortable about the restraints put on them, particularly for the larger birds. Fortunately there were two very large open-air aviaries where the birds flew freely and provided opportunities for the public to walk through. Pictures are the best way to show both the positive and the negative.
We simply could not look at the Australian large parrots in cages and felt guilty that we were looking at birds from other parts of the world in cages - so a mixed day. At least they did not have a yellow-tailed black cockatoo at the zoo, only the smaller red-tailed black cockatoos. Our experience of the beautiful huge black-tailed cockatoo in the London Zoo remains a bad memory. In our valley in Lawson they all fly so freely.
We ate at an Indonesian Restaurant on our way home - it was OK, but we were tired and hot and just needed to refresh.
Fortunately the TV was excellent, including the first of a series on insects in Singapore, and how they are informing science.

Sunday 11th August

The Botanic Gardens was one of the 'must do' visits on the agenda, so we headed there. It was hot, but we enjoyed searching for the colour among the green. We experienced our first Hawker meal, at the Raffles Centre - wonderful food for just $3 each. I think this catered for staff working in the Gardens rather than for visitors, so we were lucky to find it. If one can find the Hawker outlets, this is the way to eat on a minimal budget.
The Gardens were packed with many picnicking groups of women in very coloured outfits, a mix of Indian Saris and the Muslim shawls (hajibs, and some birkas). Our next destination was Joo Chiat, a Peranakan area that promised interesting architecture and insights into the original Singapore.

With crowds and some challenges we eventually found our destination. Again there were many groups of women dressed in colourful (and very hot) clothes, finding every bit of shade over almost an entire village, sitting on plastic covers and enjoying picnics. Very few men in sight - we understand that they were at the Mosque praying as it was the Hori Raya Haji celebration of the end of Ramadan.
We suspect that these women only wore clothing of this sort on the celebration day (I hope so for their sakes).
There was some reference in our guide book to the earlier Chinese from the Straits having married Malaysian Muslim women and that this area was their 'stamping ground'. We need to learn more.
We were hot and tired, so returned to the hotel, did washing, and ventured out to try to find somewhere to eat. This was a challenge.
Somehow we ended up in a Karioki outlet, but were the only ones there as it was early. We were looked after by 5 staff, who desperately tried to meet our needs for vegies, less loud music etc. It was not a wonderful meal, but it was fun watching the women trying to proposition Tim!

Monday 12th August

Fort Canning hill was about 50 metres from our hotel, so we decided to explore it en route to the National Museum. We had read in our newly purchased book on 700 years of history in Singapore that there was a significant archaeological dig on the mountain that provided most of the information about the pre-British era.
The trees were old and lovely and their shade most welcome. The explanations and presentation of the dig was typically well done, with clear explanations of the processes used, the objects found, how the dating was done and how this plus other information was pieced together to provide a story about the early occupants of the hill prior to the Raffles/British take over.
We had spent time in the National Museum on a previous visit, so were focussed on trying to fill in the missing gaps in our understanding of Singapore's history. Given the National Day celebrations they had a video presentation of Lee Kwan Yew speaking to the press and the Nation at the time that Malaysia 'kicked Singapore out' of the Federation (see section where we piece together our current understanding of Singapore's history).
We had hoped to visit the Peranakan Museum, but it was closed for renovation, so we treated ourselves to a French lunch in a lovely (but very expensive) restaurant.
That evening we repeated the MRT/bus ride to see the Night Zoo. The animals appear to be in natural settings, separated from visitors by moats and other means invisible in the dark, so it is quite an experience. Difficulties negotiating other visitors and light levels makes photography difficult, so a comprehensive photographic record is skipped here.

Tuesday 13th August

Rather than revisit Santosa Island which we covered well on the last trip, we chose to use public transport (train, bus and bumboat, a small ferry) to a much more remote Island on the North East side of Singapore - Palau Ubin.
There we rented bicycles, somewhat old and clunky and cycled to the wetlands section of the Island. It was a fun day out.
On our way home we stopped off at "Gardens by the Sea" another Singapore extravaganza that is a big tourist attraction. It was a bit glitzy for us, but one had to see it. We managed to get a few photos of the Marina Bay Hotel edifice with a cantilevered sky-park across the three 55 story towers.
The Satay Stick Hawker Centre on the bay is well known, and we had something to eat there. Not as cheap as our other Hawker experiences, but the setting was good. Hawker Centres are ubiquitous - the one pictured is at Changi Village on the way back from the island. The centres provide fixed, sheltered accommodation for what used to be street barrows.

Wednesday 14th August (half day)

Knowing how hot and sweaty one gets with even the shortest time outdoors, we arranged a late check out at an exorbitant price. This meant we could visit the Asian Civilisations Museum, about 45 minutes walk from our hotel. We spent most of our time in the large section reporting on the salvage of the Tang Shipwreck off the Mid East coast of Sumatra. From an archaeology and pre-history perspective this salvage must be one of the most important finds, confirming the view that Singapore was on the main sea trading routes, equated to the land silk road (but more in the section on Singapore's history).
One of the more interesting parts of the display was the pottery, which showed its mass manufacture in China, the variations in design and some of the ways the bowls were packed for sea transport. The map shows trading routes and manufacturing kilns in China. Hangzhou would have been one of the major export ports.

We had a lunch at a Japanese restaurant in a shopping mall close to the hotel. Tim finally had noodles that were excellent.
Then the trip home to Sydney, including a 3-hour delay in the departure because of a mechanical fault!!!

Singapore History

Australians are well informed about the history of Singapore during WW2. Britain was assumed to be the protector of Singapore according to various treaties, but it had run down supplies and armaments, although the army, largely Indian, was quite large. The Japanese had attempted to take over China after the start of the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937 (including the horrors of the Nanjing massacre) but China was just to big to be swallowed. The USA had placed oil embargos on Japan in an attempt to end the Sino-Japanese war, so the only 'face saving' option for the Japanese was to claim the Dutch oil fields around Borneo. They travelled through the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, the Malay Peninsular, across the causeway to Singapore with almost no opposition. The British claim that Singapore was a fortress was all bluster. The level of incompetence among the British military leaders in Singapore (and probably also in Britain) was legendary and not helped by the somewhat ambivalent largish group of Indian soldiers and a small contingent of young Australians and New Zealanders. The British did not trust the Chinese (although they would have been the strongest allies). This situation meant that the Japanese easily captured Singapore with prisoners of war being sent work on the Burmese railway for years. Many books have been written about this ordeal with stories told by the few who survived.
The Chinese fared worst in Japanese occupied Singapore, in part because they had mobilised to try to support China during the Japanese invasion of China. Britain, at this stage, was still treating Japan as an ally! It was not a happy time, but probably provided the basis for uniting the Singapore and Malaysian folk against colonialism, something that the Indians were also battling against. FD Roosevelt was also very much in favour of Britain granting independence to its colonies, so it all happened. But in the Malaysian/Singapore/Borneo/Indonesian areas, as in India and Pakistan, the manner of the handover by the British was not optimal, although things have worked out with less enmity among the former than the latter.
The MCP, a group with communist leanings had been the best organised against the Japanese, so managed to gain influence in Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, but more so in Vietnam (hence the fraught subsequent Vietnamese war). The post WW2 cold war had its influence on subsequent politics in Singapore, with quite draconian measures to stop the influence of the MCP. The British tried to maintain influence, but increasingly became irrelevant. Although some (including most people in Singapore) wanted a united federation of Malaysia, Singapore and bits of Indonesia, different political and religious values made this difficult. In Malaysia the new leaders wanted to give preferential treatment to Malays in education and other areas as they had been badly mistreated under British rule where the Chinese benefitted. But Singapore was emerging as a secular, tolerant multi-racial society (although absolutely against the communist parties) who would not accept the Malay dominance. Ultimately, Malaysia 'sort of' kicked Singapore out of the Federation in 1965 and made them 'go it alone' which they did spectacularly. This was what was being celebrated during our visit, along with the 200th anniversary of Raffles' arrival in Singapore.
So this bit of history we knew, although not in full detail and the British perspective tends to be that Singapore did not amount to much before Raffles and the British arrived 1819 and established the British Trading Station. Fortunately archival detail and old maps from the Portugese, Spanish and Dutch traders and seamen have shown this assumption to be false, as have other sources such as the writings of the Malays and Chinese, archaeological digs, tree rings and oral histories.
Although its importance as a port varied depending upon competition from ports along the Malay peninsular and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Singapore (Temasek) has always been on major sea routes for trading, long before the Europeans discovered the East. We learned about the 500 years (1300 to 1800) through visits to museums and the "Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore" that we purchased. The richness and harmony in Singapore is best understood through a lens that sharpens the waves of people who have come and gone from the Island, mainly Chinese, Malays, Indonesians and many from the Indian sub-continent, but also more recently from the all areas of Asia and the West.
At the time that Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia, they were worried about survival (water, land, size etc.) and these remain concerns. Much land has been reclaimed in Singapore, and we were told by a fellow passenger on the flight home who has lived and worked in Singapore and Indonesia that neither Malaysia not Indonesia will sell Singapore any more sand for land reclamation. But, it does seem that the three neighbours have a reasonably sensible relationship, and finally at least some Australians are starting to accept that our future lies in better integration with this part of Asia and our Pacific neighbours.
Interestingly, Indonesia is planning to move its Capital from Jakarta (on the island of Sumatra) to a new venue probably on the South Coast of Borneo. Borneo is split between Malaysia (North West), and Indonesia (South West). Singapore lies in-between all of this.
Borneo has large tracts of Rain Forest, which, like in the Amazon, is being cleared for various activities, now probably including the new capital for Indonesia. Apparently Jakarta is sinking with so much underground water having been used, so something has to be done. No doubt there will be much hand wringing as more rainforests are removed - it is sad, but from the perspective of a very large population such as in Indonesia, what right has the Western World to claim that they should not clear their land when clearing has been the norm in the USA, Australia and elsewhere for centuries?

Books Purchased

  1. Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng, Peter Borschbert and Tan Tai Young (2019): "Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore". National Library Board, Singapore.
  2. Rehman Rashid (2016): "Peninsula: A story of Malaysia". Fergana, KL.
  3. Ahmad Syafii Maarif (2018): "Islam, Humanity, and Indonesian Identity". NUS Press, Singapore. (Translation George A. Fowler).

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 4.12.