The Policeman Inside
I'm in a hotel in Singapore waiting for my Vietnamese visa to come through. I paid $75 US to get it by Friday, so I've got a couple more days to kick around here.
I had some trouble when I submitted the paperwork to the embassy. The man at the counter asked me why I was going to Vietnam.
"Tourism," I said.
"Sorry, we are not allowing tourists into Vietnam. We just got rid of SARS. We allow people in for business purposes only."
"Okay...umm...business. I'm going to Vietnam on business."
"You go on business?"
So Vietnam is the first country in the world to contain SARS. They went twenty days with no new cases, which is the official criteria.
I should mention at this point that Singapore, one of the main SARS hotspots in the world, is a lovely, vibrant, thriving city. The streets are filled with people. No one is wearing masks. Everyone is going about their daily lives. We're fine here.
Stop with all the fear, okay?
It's not the end of the world. It's a bad flu. It's happened before. The only difference this time is air travel and media coverage. What's spreading at an alarming rate isn't SARS, it's blind, dumb terror. The likelihood of me catching it on the streets of Singapore is up there with spontaneous combustion, runaway lawnmowers, and falling pianos.
If you let them scare you, the media wins.
I flew in on a brand spanking new Boeing 777. It was half-full. I had a whole row to myself. When I got off the plane, I realized all the other passengers were connecting to other locations. There were five people waiting with me at the luggage carousel. I have no idea how much it costs to fly a 777 from Australia to Singapore. I imagine it's a lot. And I imagine someone lost a lot of money on that flight.
Indeed, tourism is down over 50% in Singapore. But aside from anything tourist-related, the city is functioning smoothly. And when I say smoothly, I mean really really smoothly.
We've all heard about Singapore's cleanliness; the stuff about chewing gum. You don't go to jail for it, by the way; you get a fine. You also get fined for spitting, littering, vandalizing, smoking indoors, feeding the birds, and urinating in the elevators. None of this upsets me at all, as none of those are things I'm likely to do -- except maybe that last one.
Yes, it's a very ordered place. But the fascist, Orwellian images one might conjure are entirely inaccurate. Totalitarian governments function on the backs of the people. These folks aren't exploited, they're molly-coddled. If anything, the state is guilty of being overly paternal. It's clear that Lee Kuan Yew, a Cambridge-educated lawyer, the first prime minister of independent Singapore, and the guy who rebuilt this city from scratch, genuinely wants the best for his people. He wants them to be safe, happy, and morally pure. He runs a tight ship with lots of rules. And in a very real, visible sense, his methods worked.
The designers of this city knew exactly what they were doing. It's freakishly safe and efficient. It's what Guliani would've done with New York if he could've gotten rid of all the New Yorkers. The crosswalks have timer displays showing how long you have left to reach the other side of the street.
The parking garages show the number of vacant spots. The movie theaters let you pick your seat assignment from a touch screen. And it all works. The only other place I've seen that vaguely resembles this is the Microsoft campus.
My favorite gadget is the little speakers at restaurant entrances that say "Thank you, come again!" when you leave. Apparently having the employees say it was too unreliable. And strangely, the sentiment seems no less genuine when it's triggered by a photoelectric cell.
Some basic background on the country: it's a tiny little pimple of an island on the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia. At 42 kilometers, you could walk the length of it in a couple days. It was briefly a part of Malaysia proper for about two years in the early '60s, but racial politics caused a parting of ways. The ethnic make-up of Singapore is predominantly Chinese, and they took a lot of heat for their treatment of the Malaysian minority as second class citizens. So they struck out on their own, and in the process, became the world's first pure technocracy.
The Chinese comprise about 77% of the population, another 14% are Malay, 7% are Indian, and the remaining 2% are a mostly western blend. The Indians first came here along with the founder of modern Singapore, Sir Thomas "Two Times" Raffles. They called him that because he said everything two times, two times.
...okay, no they didn't. That's Goodfellas.
He came here to establish a trading port between Asia and Britain, and he brought a hundred or so Indians along to do the hard labor.
It's strange being in a city of mixed ethnic background where the overclass isn't white. People seem to be getting along with each other pretty well now -- or at least the local culture clash sitcoms are trying to make it look that way -- but the Chinese were clearly guilty of some naughty policies in the past. Of course, if you look back far enough, you'll find good old European imperialist meddling at the root of it all.
The first thing I did after catching up on sleep was go shopping for a digital camera. I don't think there's a better way to experience Singapore. This will soon be the first country in the world (and probably not the last) that you can traverse from end to end without ever leaving a shopping center. Orchard Plaza, Orchard Point, Centrepoint Shopping Centre, Orchard Emerald, Midpoint Orchard, Lucky Plaza, Tang Plaza, Ming Arcade -- it goes on forever. I brought a pen and paper and glided from shop to shop, looking for the best price. They must pump something into the air, cause I was deliriously giddy.
I was planning to buy the Sony DSC-P8. I found a guy who gave me a good price on it, but then started steering me over to the Canon Powershot 230. He made a mean pitch. He showed me both cameras side by side and the Canon's quality was clearly superior. I made the switch. Then he started with the razzle dazzle.
"You want 128 MB card?"
"You need leather case so you don't scratch it."
"One battery not enough. You need extra."
"Underwater case goes down 30 meters. Very good."
"Transfer to laptop not fast enough with USB. I give you this card reader. Much better."
He sold me the whole pile for $1000 Singapore dollars. That's about $560 US. It wasn't the
best price I could've gotten, but considering I was under mind control and completely at his mercy, I did okay. When it was all through, we cried together, hugged, and said goodbye. I had seen the light. I'd been baptized. Everything looked different after that.
This city works as long as everyone keeps buying. We can all be happy and prosperous, we can get everything we want, just keep the money churning.
It doesn't work as well in America. The drug of free market capitalism is tainted by creeping ennui -- a jaded insight obtainable only by those who've never been poor. Most of us don't believe that cell phones will make us happy. And because we don't believe, we're right. It's just like any religion.
But these folks dive in with aplomb, keenly aware of the dreary alternative to their retro-
futuristic enclave. They're safe, they're comfortable, and they're appreciative. So they line up when Nokia releases the world's first combination cell phone and flashlight. It's their civic duty.
William Gibson wrote a well-known article on Singapore in the early '90s called "Disneyland
with the Death Penalty." He described "a relentlessly G-rated experience," completely devoid of any dissident lifestyles. While homosexuality and, I would assume, other forms of deviant behavior are still against the law, it's clear that the place has loosened up a bit. The prohibition of long hair on men seems to have lifted, and you'll even encounter the occasional Asian pseudo-punk skating down the sidewalk with a practiced sneer. Apparently they used to stop longhairs in the airport and force them to either turn back or shave it off in the terminal.
I saw one girl sporting a big yellow swastika on her chest. I'm kicking myself for not asking her what that was all about. Was she being ironic? I doubt it. These folks don't seem all that interested in irony. Was it pure decoration? I can't imagine that symbol being stripped of its meaning. Was she trying to incite the authorities in this of all places?
It was around then that I realized I hadn't seen a single police officer the entire time I'd been here. Where was the regime? How could they have done such an effective job on this place without a constant physical presence? Gibson mentions this too. To quote him quoting William Burroughs, he theorized that the people all have "the policeman inside."
The book banning Gibson describes doesn't seem to be in effect anymore. I found stuff in the local Borders by Henry Miller, Salman Rushdie, and enemy of the state Gibson himself. I'm no expert on censorship, but I know that when I burn books, Henry Miller is the first guy into the fire.
So it seems like the outside world is slowly infecting the populace. It'd be hard to imagine such a relentlessly commercial culture not experiencing a little osmosis. But despite the changes, after a few days, Singapore can become a profoundly boring place. That's what everyone told me, and it's true. It's not that I WANT to check out the local music scene or get hideously soused at the pubs, I just wish I had the option.
...okay, last minute addendum to that. After turning over enough rocks, I finally found the seedy underbelly. There's a cluster of about six pubs at the far end of Orchard street. I went into a country music bar where all the men were white and all the women were either Thai or Vietnamese. After about the fifth girl telling me I was handsome and asking me where I was staying, I finally caught on that they were all hookers.
My razor-sharp wit was lost on them:
"I want you."
"What exactly do you want from me?"
"I want to go to your hotel."
"Sorry honey, it's all booked up."
So it's nice to know it's not all pristine and family-friendly here, but I'm left with the lingering question of where people actually go when they're not looking to pick up a hooker -- or alternately, BE a hooker.
And what about those non-"professional" women? This is a fairly urbane city and the makeshift brothels are right in the heart of the commercial district. I wonder how they feel about that.
Alcohol is available here by the way, but it's insanely expensive. A beer in one of those clubs costs $12. A liter of Jack Daniel's costs $80. Most of that is sin tax.
I left Australia once and for all on Sunday. I felt kind of like a ghost while I was there. Things slipped back into the way they were, friendships picked up where they left off, and then abruptly halted once again. All the emotion was dealt with the first time, so I was pretty numb through the whole visit. It was a pleasant coda.
...surely someone out there is impressed that I used the word 'coda'.
Andrew Payne is the greatest man in the universe. I cannot thank him enough for his generosity. If you're ever in Brisbane, give him a call. He'll take care of you.
Picture menus at restaurants: America, stop being so snooty and get with the program. People want to see what they're ordering.
I'm a big word count freak. I'm not so concerned with the quality of my writing as I am the
volume. I don't want to bore people, but I like producing something that could hold a door
open. If you've been reading all these posts, you've gotten through about 35,000 words. That's half a novel. Yippee! That makes me very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very happy.
With this camera purchase, I've upgraded my gear considerably. Not only will I be taking better pictures, I can also make, edit, and post movies onto the site which is no small achievement when working from dodgy internet cafes. And I no longer need to lug around a stack of floppy discs to upload my files. I can put everything on a CompactFlash card and plug it into the USB slot of any machine. Hi ho!
On Tuesday I went to Sentosa island. It's a quadrillion dollar entertainment facility off the coast of Singapore. It's got a dozen or so different parks and venues scrunched together in Disneyland fashion. Given that there are no tourists in Singapore right now, I pretty much had the run of the place.
I went to Underwater World and jumped in the shark tank to try out my new camera. Dig it:
Shark Tank (5MB)
Eagle Ray Feeding (5MB)
Paying for the dive got me free admission to the pink dolphin show, which was incredibly
crappy and depressing:
Pink Dolphins (2MB)
Let's contrast that miserable display of animal abuse with this pod of wild dusky dolphins of the coast of New Zealand:
Dusky Dolphins (2MB)
Singapore is an ancient Sanskrit word meaning "Lion City." It was named because of the lions running around here when the island was first settled. The Merlion is the half-fish, half-lion symbol of the country. They've got this twelve story Merlion in the center of Sentosa island.
You can take an elevator up and look out through it's mouth if you're really THAT interested. I wasn't.
I found another one of those tourist things that tells you how far you are from major cities in the world. Here are all the places they listed that I'll be visiting in the next few months:
Because Singapore is connected to Malaysia by a land bridge, and because Sentosa island is connected to Singapore by another land bridge, and because there's a tiny little unnamed island connected to Sentosa by yet another land bridge, that tiny little island has become the southernmost point in continental Asia. Fortunately, the Singaporean government shares my affinity for geographical markers of arbitrary significance.
The tip of the island is only 130 kilometers from the equator. In case you're wondering, yes, Singapore is really hot and humid. It's a tropical climate and it rains every afternoon like clockwork.
The Suntec Plaza is a massive complex of buildings surrounding a garish centerpiece called the Fountain of Wealth.
They claim it's the world's biggest fountain. I find that hard to believe. Vegas almost certainly has it beaten several times over. Anyway, the place is amusing because in addition to housing a cluster of office buildings, a convention center, and a large shopping mall, it's also a sterling example of a uniquely Asian theme; the seamless confluence of business and spirituality.
The whole thing is awash in high concept Feng Shui weirdness. It's a giant hand. Each of the four office towers is a finger, the shopping center is the thumb, the convention center is the wrist, and the fountain is the palm. The palm channels and circulates positive financial energy. Visitors are allowed to soak up this energy by orbiting the fountain. You are advised to walk clockwise around it for two hours between 4 am and 6 am to absorb its energizing properties. For maximum effect, you need to do it for nine consecutive days.
Lightweights can simply walk around it three times to get perfunctory benefits, but that's unlikely to turn you into a real estate tycoon anytime soon.
I went to Little India to get a taste of what the real thing is going to be like next month. The food was great, but the music got really really annoying. Oh sure, it's all quaint and ethnicy for the first few minutes, but when it's blasting incessantly out of every merchant stand, it can really start to grate. After half an hour, I was longing for that same damn Eminem song you hear everywhere else in the world.
Outside of the city center, there's a zoo with a very cool night safari. A lot of the large mammals in India and Southeast Asia are nocturnal. That's why they're always sleeping when you see them at a normal zoo. But in the cleverly designed lighting of the night zoo, you can see them running and foraging and playing and generally doing their thing.
They had lions, elephants, giraffes, and all that stuff on display. They also had a number of creatures that I've never heard of and am pretty sure were genetically engineered. The
mousedeer seemed particularly suspicious, as it pretty much looked exactly how you're
imagining it would look right now.
As cool as the place was to see, the sounds were just as neat. I couldn't take any pictures cause it was night and all, but here's what it sounded like:
Weird Zoo Sounds
My new camera is all-powerful. It can do anything.
I saw X-Men 2 the other day. It was fantastic. It goes on the very short list of sequels that are better than the original -- and this one is way better. The script is what impressed me the most. They don't give out awards for movies like that, but they should. The technical juggling act of having that many characters with all their disparate arcs and keeping the whole thing moving in one direction without getting tedious for even one tiny little moment is a tremendous feat. Every scene is BAM! BAM! BAM!, and it's all really clever and character-driven. I had a great time watching it and I never once felt insulted by pointless set pieces or disposable plot points. It's an elegantly made big summer blockbuster, which is a rare thing.
And Ian McKellan is the best bitchy drag queen super-villain ever.
Lately I've been waking up and having no idea where I am for a period of several minutes. I expect this will get worse as I keep traveling. I've stayed in approximately twenty hotels in the past two months.
Tomorrow morning I board a super-fast ferry boat to Pulau Tioman off the coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It seems like a nice enough resort island, and it was a more interesting way to cross into the country than taking the train. From there I'm going to Kuala Lumpur, and I'm flirting seriously with the idea of catching a plane in KL to Malaysian Borneo. I would very much like to see the jungles of Borneo, where orang-utans still live in the wild. The orang-utan is the only great ape in the world outside of Asia, and I've long harbored the fantasy of becoming a honkytonk truck driver, reluctantly befriending one, and getting into all sorts of hair-raising adventures.
There are also elephants, rhinos, and other large mammals visible from boat cruises through the jungle. I can't pass that up. Just to be able to say I'm in The Jungles of Borneo.
There's an island called Sipadan off the coast that is one of the top-rated dive sites in the world. And I can catch a boat from there to Kapalai, which isn't even an island. It used to be, but now it's just a cluster of huts built on stilts above the water. That sounds just dandy.