Part II: A Visit to the Malay Peninsula

The Last Family Hurrah?


May of 2004 - So here it is nearly 3 years later and we just finished taking another ‘last family trip’ together - we being my two lovely, intelligent, and stimulating daughters, Serena and Miranda, and my ever present and exquisite wife, Laurie. Miranda is about to go away to college in Portland, while Serena is about to go graduate school in Seattle. Neither is driving distance from Santa Barbara where we live. Miranda will be moving away from home for the first time, while Serena is moving plane distance away for the first time. She lived in the Bay Area for the last 5 years- graduating from UC Berkeley. Both are ripe and ready for relationships. Both are about to be very involved with school. Both are moving plane distance away. Neither are considering returning to Santa Barbara. Anyway a last hurrah! a final family fling!

A rite of passage ceremony for us both. The nuclear family explodes. The Egg has been fertilized - gone through incubation - and is now ready to crack open. The cell is going through mitosis - splitting into multiple parts. Anyway a window opened up - we pulled it a little further apart - and dove through - into another part of the space time continuum - from Southern California to Southeast Asia. Here are a few of the things we experienced and learned. Of course words inherently come short of experience. However they are able to organize things in a way that pictures never can - giving meaning to an experience by putting it in some kind of a box - in which it will never fit - a crystalline one sided view of a universe with a million angles - but this is the way my Person has seen and experienced it - one way - not the only way - probably not your way - but a way - perhaps exaggerated - just a little bit - for I’m never one to let facts get in the way of a good story.

So here goes. Hope you enjoy your trip.

Chapter 15: Singapore - The Land of Money

Let’s start at the end for variety.

Our first trip to Southeast Asia was focused in the north. We began our journey in Chiang Mai, the capitol of Northern Thailand. We then traveled to the ruins of Angkor near rural Siem Riep in Cambodia. We concluded our trip in Bangkok, before returning home. This trip we chose to go south to explore Malaysia and Singapore after spending a little more time in Bangkok.

What did we know about Singapore before we arrived?

Not much. Virtually no preconceived notions. A blank slate.

Doing some minimal research we discovered that it is a small island country on the tip of the Malay Peninsula, which separates the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Because of this strategic location it has always been a major trading port. Its importance has grown with the increase in global trade. It is now the biggest port in Southeast Asia. Looking at it on the map, we discovered that it consists of one main island of the same name surrounded by many small islets. Its main city, also of the same name, is located at the tip, where all the ports are. With its centralized location between the major cultural centers of China and India, connected to Malaysia by bridge, with Indonesia visible on a clear day, Singapore became a melting pot of Asian culture.

Life is hard in Singapore

With this limited knowledge, we entered Singapore.

On the bus ride in we were struck by the manicured road side vegetation - this in contrast to the wild rain forests of Malaysia. We had already been warned not to chew gum, spit, or litter at the risk of incurring big fines. Everything seemed very controlled, almost antiseptic. Our female Chinese guide, a fourth generation Singaporian, seemed very agitated.

Guide: “While Singapore is a multi-cultural nation, it is predominantly Chinese about three quarters of the population. It is the only place outside of China and Taiwan with a majority of Chinese. Malay is the next largest with one eighth. The rest are a mixture of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and others. English is the principal language of business, government, and education, reflecting our British background. There are about 3 million people on the island of Singapore and 200 thousand people living in the city. Because of government support of business Singapore has the highest standard of living of any Asian nation except Japan.

Despite the high standard of living life is very hard here. My family was displaced to the outskirts of town when the city was ‘cleaned up’ for business. They tell us this is the price we must pay for social stability. No one except business people live in the city anymore. It is too expensive for the typical working classes. They have replaced our traditional neighborhoods with skyscrapers to accommodate international business. There are nearly 200 different banks from many different countries here. In case you didn’t know, most of your corporate money is stored here because of your unstable government with all its racism.”

Elizabeth, one of our tour members: “How’s your weather?”

Guide: “The same all year long. The temperature is between 79° F to 82° F. It rains every afternoon - almost 100 inches annually. After all we have a tropical climate. But the government, while suppressing our liberties, has provided us with good roads and drainage. The price for prosperity.”

Laurie: “With all this rain and your tropical climate, you must have some amazing fruits and vegetables.”

Guide: “On the contrary, because of all the business development we have virtually no agriculture. We have to import nearly all of our food.”

Me: “What about social welfare?”

Guide: “We have to pay for everything in Singapore. Nothing is free here.”

Me: “Education and health?”

Guide: “Our government, like yours, feels that we should pay our own way. We are forced to save money in three accounts through payroll withholding.”

Me: “But it must be an exciting place to live with all the different cultures mixing here.”

Guide: “We are all working too hard to make ends meet. We must save a lot of money to provide for ourselves. There is very little night life because there is a high tax on alcohol. The government wants to discourage drunkenness. Instead we focus on self improvement.”

Me: “Like Yoga and Tai Chi.”

Guide: “More like business classes so that we can get ahead.”

Ernie, a member of the tour: “That doesn’t sound very fun.”

Guide: “That’s the impression of many foreigners. We’re trying to change that image. Our prime minister even said: ‘We must pursue the subject of fun very seriously to remain competitive into the 21st century.’ That’s why they’ve developed Sentosa Island, which we’re visiting today.”

Serena: “Uh Oh.”

Me: “What’s the main religion here?”

Guide: “There is none. We are free thinkers - independent of religion. Only the old people hold onto their religion. Except the young people, each culture holds onto its old beliefs. This is why we have Chinese, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian temples.”

Me: “Like Malaysia.”

Guide: “Right, but in different proportions.”

Me: “Why did you separate from them to become your own country?”

Guide: “We didn’t separate. We would love to be part of Malaysia but they kicked us out in 1965. ”

Me: “Why is that?”

Guide: “There were riots. The Malays were afraid of Singapore because of our Chinese connection. Enough of history, we have arrived at the dock for our boat ride around the harbor.”

The Merlion - symbol of Singapore

We boarded a tour boat. Our Guide switched on a recording. The voice of a British sounding lady issued from the loud speaker replaced our guide. It seemed that Singapore wanted to make sure that we got the right information. Everything had to be perfect for the tourist. But it seemed sterile.

On the tour of the harbor, we were awed by the skyscrapers, which lined the port and blocked the sky. Their shifting patterns were incredible - almost psychedelic - very modern. No ornamentation. No symbolism. Just glass, cement and steel.

Then from over the loudspeaker: “… Home to international businesses all over the globe with over 150 different banks. On your left you can see our city symbol - the Merlion. It has the head of lion and the body of a fish.”

Miranda, my daughter, inadvertently starts laughing: “It looks like something out of Disneyland.”

Loudspeaker: “The Merlion was adopted by our city as its symbol in the late 1960s after we achieved independence. Singapore means city of the Lions - hence the Lion. The tail of the fish indicates our connection to the ocean. We Singaporians are very proud of our Merlion.”

Serena, my other daughter: “He looks like Simba, the Lion King, with a fish tail.”

My daughters are giggling uncontrollably now. Our guide looks embarrassed.

Me, trying to salvage the situation: “What mythology does the Merlion come from.”

Guide: “None to my knowledge. It is a modern creation. Singapore worships the new and despises the old. The government has torn down all the old neighborhoods with their traditions and replaced them with the giant skyscrapers to house corporate business and banks. Ah here we are, back at the bus. Time for lunch.”

Serena, under her breath: “About time. Breakfast at 6:30. It’s now 2:30 in the afternoon and I’m starving. Singapore seems too busy to eat.”

Guide: “But on the way to lunch, I’ll introduce you to our famous docks. Covering 36 square miles they are some of the biggest in the world.”

Miranda to herself: “Docks?! She’s thinks we’re interested in Singapore’s shipping docks? Odd. They must not have anything else. But at least we’ll go to Sentosa Island after lunch. I’m sure we’ll see some native culture there.”

Serena to herself: “Hmmm. Thailand impresses us with her temples. Cambodia impresses us with her ruins. Malaysia impresses us with her history and how three cultures get along. And now Singapore attempts to impress us with her docks.”

Guide: “Tin, pineapple and rubber, which we get from Malaysia, are some our biggest exports. Before 911 we used to tour the docks. But now they’re afraid of terrorists, so we’ll just have to drive past. I hope this is not too disappointing.”

Laurie to herself: “Who would want to tour the docks? I just want to see some vegetation.”

Superbowl Golf

Guide: “Does everyone like Chinese food?”

All: “Yes, of course. We’re starved.”

We drive up to the restaurant. It’s named Superbowl Golf.

Me: “This is it?”

Guide: “Yes. Is anything wrong?”

Me: “Uh no. But the name?”

Guide: “You’ll understand when we get inside.”

Upon entering the restaurant we see golfers on the other side of picture windows, practicing their swing on a driving range. This was not at a distance, but immediately outside. Diners could easily take a few swings between courses. As a bonus the drives of the golfers were magnified because the whole restaurant was set about two stories above where the golf balls landed.

Guide: “Golf is very fashionable with the businessmen here.”

Despite the environment the food was very good, with the freshest fish, complete with bones, head and tail.

Guide: “Did you enjoy your food?”

All: “Delicious.”

Ernie: “Interesting. My wife and I are touring Southeast Asia to experience different cultures and Singapore shows us Superbowl Golf. How quaint. Is this indigenous?”

Me: “Evidently. The native culture of Singapore seems to be Modern Western Business. Their indigenous residents are international businessmen. Notice that they are wearing their traditional garb.”

Miranda: “You mean western business suits with a white shirt and a necktie.”

Serena: “Look how multicultural they are. All of them, whether Chinese, Japanese, or African, wear the traditional monkey suit of the West.”

Me: “They are also participating in their native game of golf.”

Miranda: “An international business culture. Europeans, Americans, Japanese, and Taiwanese all golf too.”

Serena: “The suit and tie is the universal attire of this exotic business culture and golf is their universal sport.”

Elizabeth: “They always choose the nicest external environment with beautifully manicured greens golfing for this golfing activity.

Laurie: “Unfortunately to maintain these greens they must use lots of fertilizer and water, which pollutes the environment and wastes precious resources.”

Me: “This makes perfect sense to the natives of this culture as they are only interested in what the money from their international investments can buy. Golf is ideal for this bacterial culture. It is always played in a relatively leisurely environment with plenty of time to network.”

Ernie: “Plus it costs enough money to weed out the ‘low life’ like me, who can’t afford it. I prefer soccer, the global sport of the masses. because it cheap enough for anyone to play.”

Me: “Golf is the universal sport of this elite culture of materialism.”

Ernie: “It is the country club sport - with their enormous yearly dues to keep people like me outside.”

Me: “If you want to know who someone’s friends are check out who they play golf with.”

Elizabeth: “Yes it’s a good way to make business connections and deals.”

Me: “In the USA the head of General Motors plays golf with the head of NBC, and the head of the Defense Department. This illustrates, quite nicely, the connection between Big Business, the Media and the Military. The Corporations use the Media to spread their propaganda, and the Military as its own private army to protect and expand its interests. Certainly a cozy little circle that manifests globally. For instance in Singapore the Government as the tool of International Business censors the Media and uses the Army to squelch dissent.”

Miranda: “Dad chill. You’re on your soap box again. Let go of your politics and enjoy yourself.”

Me: “I’m just trying to understand this Superbowl Golf thing.”

Serena: “It makes perfect sense that Singapore would be proud of its Superbowl Golf. They are attempting to attract international businessmen to their city. They want to make them comfortable by cultivating their culture, which includes golf.”

Miranda: “This was not exactly the type of exotic culture that we expected to find here in Southeast Asia, but it is the native culture now.”

Me: “But we wanted to leave this culture of materialism behind.”

Miranda: “Lighten up and enjoy what the Universe has to offer.”

A Jewelry offer that is hard to refuse

Guide: “Now that you’re content with food I’ll take you to a Jewelry store because I get paid an extra $10.”

Serena whispers: “Although she has no tact, at least she’s honest.”

Inside the jewelry store we were immediately given some flavored sugar water in cardboard boxes.

Miranda: “How low can you go?”

The self-proclaimed owner of the store gave us a presentation, which ended with him hawking a gold-plated pendant with a spinning Tiger which was studded with Diamond chips. Snipping the Tiger with his finger for full effect: “The Tiger is one of the signs of the Chinese astrology. They say that wearing this is good luck for gamblers. We have these in each of the 12 signs. How can you resist such a deal at only $90?” He sent it spinning with a snip of the finger one last time hoping to impress us.

Miranda, under her breath: “Thrilled.”


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