Destination 1. Singapore: Singapore is where my heart is. This is my debut journey to Singapore. I board ‘Aeroline’ a double decker luxury bus, my journey starts from ‘Corus Hotel, KL.’ The bus has all the amenities of an aeroplane including Wi-Fi, movie screens and a hostess to serve. The seats are comfortable and can be extended and withdrawn. I settle down and soon the journey starts. I sing a tune to myself. It is an old Indian film song ‘dekho ji dekho sunn lo ye baat, jeevan mein ek baar aana singapore’ I remember I was very young when I had heard this song on radio. At that time I use to wonder what is so special about Singapore that a song has been made on it. Now I was going to find out.
It was a 5-hour journey and after successfully going through immigration requisites the bus finally stops at ‘Harbour Front’. I disembark. The weather is warmish, more towards hot side but my enthusiasm to finally enter Singapore hardly notices this. My first impression of the city is that it is a very clean city. I am impressed.
Another thing I admired was that chewing gum is banned in Singapore. I usually keep a packet of ‘Spout or Chiklets’ in my bag during travels to chew while landing. I threw that in the first bin I encountered at the immigration office. Gum is such a nuisance, at least one country in this world that I come across finds it repulsive and has put a ban on it.
A country that is merely 20km x 50km in all (excluding some 60 small islands) is a place worth visiting. A land of high rise buildings, beautiful malls, well-kept and pruned trees and bushes alongside the roads, carefully planned residential areas, organised traffic and conscientious citizens, all make you love it at first sight and one is compelled to appreciate Singapore for ‘its beauty and efficiency.’
The day I reached Singapore, the Chinese New Year celebrations were coming to an end, my first outing was thus to see the closing of the celebrations. The Singaporeans like the Chinese are extremely superstitious. They have strong faith in omens, and lucky charms. Every year has a significant name that denote good luck, prosperity, longevity or peace or turmoil. Year 2011 was ‘The year of the Rabbit, and 2012 is ‘The Year of the Dragon’. It is believed that the child born in the year of The Dragon will bring prosperity and wealth in the family. Hence one could see an astonishing large number of pregnant Singaporean, Malaysian-Chinese women. The road-sides and residential buildings and hotels are decorated with red banners and scrolls bearing wordsGong Xi Fa Cai meaning wishing you prosperity. My son tells me that during the CNY celebrations people do not speak unlucky words and they do not use brooms to clean houses thus avoiding ‘sweeping away good luck’. The end of celebrations is marked by a ‘Masquerading’ procession, marching bands and cultural dances.
A feature I fell in love with was that the children of ex-pats are offered their mother tongue as a subject in schools. I use to have nightmares that when my grandchildren will come back to their home land how will they cope with subjects taught in Urdu. There is an Urdu Development Board in Singapore that prescribes syllabus and publishes books for different levels of students. I feel proud and satisfied watching my grandson learning Urdu.Though his everyday conversation is full of typical Mandarin phrases like ending a sentence… ‘time for me to go out, la..’ I love buying Urdu story books for him. Special emphasis is given to the teaching of mathematics. Children as small as 3-6 year old are seen sitting in food courts or Mc-Donald’s doing maths under the supervision of their grand parent or parents. Special tuition centres called ‘Kumon’ operate to help students practice mental calculations. Singaporeans push their children to limits to see them excel in studies.
Teaching of mother tongue starts at a later stage, the children in the pre-nursery or play group have to cope mostly with local teachers who converse only in mandarin. The tiny ex-pat child is in a fix. And so is my little grand-daughter. Her speech is in-comprehensible, as her accent and intonation is totally mandarin, her English is a mix of both languages. To hear her is a delight but as the saying goes in Urdu ‘ goongay ki boli goongay ki maan hi janay,’only her mother understands what she says in her soft and typical Singaporean accent, the rest of us all look at her in exasperation.
The ‘Crossroad of Asia’ as Singapore is called is truly unique in it its blend and richness of cultures, traditions, religions and languages. Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists enjoy freedom of expression in their religious activities and festivals. Hari Raya Puasa or AidilFitri (eidul fitr), and Hari Raya Haji (eidul azha), Christmas, Holi and Deepavali are all celebrated without a sense of guilt or fear. People are extremely tolerant of each other’s traditions —- An amazing phenomenon which is now hard to find even in the most educated and civilised nations like the US, Canada, France and to some extent even in the UK. A ‘Racial harmony Day’ is observed in Singapore, the rationale is to teach the children to appreciate and respect different cultures and religions… a unique idea. It is heartening to find a mosque in the middle of the Orchard Road, the aorta of Singapore and hub of shopping. I was also pleased to see the mosque named after the ‘Khilafat Movement’ stalwart Maulana Mohammad Ali at Clarke-Quay … a place I found similar to our Boat-Basin in Karachi. There are large number of eating spots of various traditional and modern food stuff representing Pakistani, Indian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese cuisine in Clarke-Quay.
The Arab Street is a delight to clothes lovers, every type of Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Swiss material in cotton and silk can be bought here, halal food is available everywhere in all food courts and also in specialised stores. The famous ‘Mustafa Centre’ which is a super-duper Indian store, growing out of proportions, sells everything, Pakistani foods, masalas, pickles, fruits, name anything and you will find it here. (And yes, I am being a little biased in not mentioning ‘Little India’) A bazaar which is as rich in offering Indian goods as it is dirty. In fact it is the dirtiest place in Singapore. Even the ‘Mustafa Centre’ reeks of the typical desi-style of filthiness along with the strong aroma of burning incense sticks.
While Singaporeans are educated and cultured, one gets a shock of their temperament while driving. They are extremely short-tempered, impatient and rough on the road. They conveniently overtake you when you are least expecting them to and will never allow you to change lanes, simply because they do not want to wait. During the shortest contact one has with them in elevators, they appear stuck-up, non-smiling and pose a couldn’t-care-less attitude, unlike the British and Americans, unless the person is your neighbour or shares the same condominium. The taxi-drivers strangely, ask you to tell the way, they appear strangers in their own country. If you are unable to guide them, they take advantage and drive you around twisting roads, thus making a substantial fare. Sense of propriety and honesty became a question mark when my son left his wallet by mistake in a taxi. The next day his wallet was found lying in the lobby of his condo with all but cash missing.
All is not All-Good, there are loopholes and dark sides too, but the song in my subconscious still reverberates with full force…. yes, every- one must go to Singapore once in lifetime.