Saturday, August 9, 2008

Singapore A to Z

On the occasion of Singapore's 43rd birthday, here's my salute to this island-nation that I've called home for more than two decades. This is my own - sometimes serious, sometimes quirky, sometimes tongue-in-cheek - "A to Z" style review of the Lion City. Hope you find it interesting ...

A is for Air-Conditioning. The air-conditioner has been used as a metaphor for the workings of Singapore (for more, read Cherian George's "Singapore: The Air-conditioned Nation"). Former Prime Minister & current Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, when asked what was the most important invention of the 20th century also cited the air-con, because that's what enabled developing countries like Singapore to progress economically. The hot humid conditions were impediments to work, and by controlling the environment, we were able to work much more efficiently and comfortably. I believe one day, Singapore will go further and control its environment even more completely by building a "dome" that covers the entire island, and is able to tweak even the weather conditions its inhabitants' experience!

A is for Ah Meng, a Sumatran orang utan and for many years the most-loved icon of the Singapore Zoo. "Breakfast with Ah Meng" was a major tourist draw, with many dignitaries and celebrities dropping by - some notable ones include Prince Philip and Michael Jackson. Ah Meng passed away of old age in early 2008 aged about 48. Some 4,000 people attended the memorial service. Perhaps one could say that Ah Meng was one of the early foreign talents in Singapore!

B is for the Botanical Garden, one of the world’s finest in terms of landscaping and quality of its botanical collection. The garden has more than 3,000 species of tropical and subtropical plants and a herbarium of about 500,000 specimens. Much of the 31-hectare Garden, which was started by the British in the mid-19th century, was carved directly out of virgin forests. In its early years the garden served as an experimental station for plants with potential commercial value. Under the direction of Henry Ridley, superintendent in 1888, the garden became a centre for research on Hevea brasiliensis, the Brazilian rubber tree. Ridley even developed an improved method of rubber-tapping trees that resulted in a better yield of latex.

C is for the five C's that many Singaporeans aspire to acquire, namely Car, Condo, Cash, Credit card and Country club membership. In some ways, this reflects the unstated Singaporean cultural ethos of materialistic obsession and aspiration to achieve these things. Might this be the Singapore Dream?

C is for Caning. We're not talking about parents or teachers using the rod on naughty little kids, but caning as a judicial corporal punishment. Remember the international fuss that was made when that American kid, Michael Fay received four strokes for theft and vandalism? It's quite ironical how the West often criticises Singapore's practice of caning, deeming it inhumane treatment of prisoners, when history tells us that judicial caning was introduced to Singapore by the British during colonial days.

C is also for Chicken Rice, which many will agree is the unofficial national dish of Singapore, whether you go for the $25 version atop the Meritus Mandarin hotel or the much lower priced (but often equally good) hawker fare. Chicken rice is just one of a huge variety of sumptious, multi-ethnic food that Singapore is known for.

D is for Democracy. The government system in Singapore is a democracy with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government representing different constituencies. Most of the executive powers rests with the Cabinet, headed by the Prime Minister. The office of the President, historically a ceremonial one, was granted some veto powers as of 1991 for a few key decisions such as the use of the national reserves and the appointment of judiciary positions.

E is for ERP or Electronic Road Pricing, which Singapore successfully pioneered as one of the ways to curb traffic congestion. Gantries have been erected around various roads of Singapore, and electronic cashcard bearing units are installed in all vehicles. This enables automatic deduction of the relevant amount from the cashcard whenever the vehicle passes under an ERP gantry which is in operation. Some cynics say that at the rate the number of gantries are going up, ERP may soon mean "Every Road Pay".

E is for the "Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay", an impressive performing arts venue for both local and international performances, which opened in 2002. The Esplanade is located on prime waterfront land on the Marina Bay and has a 1,600 seat concert hall and a 2,000 seat theatre. The complex also includes retail space, food outlets and an arts library. I predict that in 20 years time, people will refer to 3 global centres for performing arts - Broadway in New York, the West End in London and the Esplanade in Singapore.

E is for Education, highly valued by Singapore society and also getting much attention from the Singapore government. By global standards, Singapore's education system is deemed highly effective, with Singapore students consistently scoring among the world's highest in mathematics and science. Psst, wanna know the secrets behind this success? Five main factors seem to have contributed: (i) the dedication and work of Singapore's education ministry- especially in developing the education framework and syllabi, (ii) the environment in Singapore where most parents strive to give their children the best in their education, including buying lots of assessment books and getting them private tuition, (iii) the competitive environment in most schools, and (iv) regular assessments of students' performances via homework, projects, tests and exams.

F is for Fines. The cynics like to say that "Singapore is a Fine City"- you can even buy souvenir T-shirts saying the same! There are fines imposed for quite a number of transgressions, such as littering, spitting, speeding, drink-driving, illegal parking, jaywalking, not flushing public toilets, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera ...

F is for Formula One races, part of the Singapore Grand Prix event which will have its inaugural night races on 28 September 2008. The races will be staged in the Marina Bay area. Vroom, vroom ... I wonder if these racing cars will have to pay ERP charges too?

G is for Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee Kuan Yew as the second Prime Minister of Singapore from 1990 to 2004. Although his style seemed more gentle and accommodating than his predecessor, he was equally firm when situations warranted. He was responsible for seeing through much national progress, including weathering through the Asian financial crisis. He currently serves as Senior Minister.

G is for Girl, the Singapore Girl that is. No one who has flown on Singapore Airlines can forget the elegant, demure, sarong kebaya clad air stewardesses who are the unmistakable global face of SQ. The original concept was created by Ian Batey, while Pierre Balmain, a French haute couture designer, was engaged to construct and update the Malay sarong kebaya costume. Ahhh ... what can I say - sex sells!

H is for Hub, a word one reads about a lot in the local newspapers. Singapore has aspirations to be a hub in many areas - healthcare, communications, logistics, technology, education, biomedical, sports, entertainment, even luxury watches !

H is for HDB or Housing Development Board. Public housing in Singapore is managed by the HDB. These HDB flats are made affordable for the masses, who can also draw on their CPF to help pay for it. About 85% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats.

I is for Integrated Resort (IR), one is being developed on Marina Bay and the other on Sentosa island. (The photo shows the Marina IR currently under construction). As everybod knows, IR is just a euphemism for "Casino". According to the government's master schedule, both IR's are planned to be operating by 2011. I'm sure many are willing to bet on that.

J is for the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a militant Islamic organisation bent on setting up an Islamic State in South-East Asia. JI is known to have been responsible for the Bali bombing of 2002. JI also had a plot to set off bombs in Singapore, but this was foiled by the local authorities. Although security on this island-nation is very good on the whole, there was one incident in early 2008, when one of the JI operatives, Mas Selamat, escaped from a Singapore detention centre in early 2008 and is still at large.

K is for Kiasuism. "Kiasu" is a Hokkien word meaning "afraid to lose" Some people say that the term entered Singapore's popular lexicon via the Mr Kiasu cartoon character, whose philosophies include: Always must win; Everything also must grab; Jump queue; Keep coming back for more; Look for discounts; Never mind what they think; Rushing and pushing wins the race; and Winner takes it all! all! all! Are Singaporeans kiasu? At the risk of generalising, it's true that they are competitive and a true Singaporean will never pass by a bargain. Retailers know this very well and are constantly offering FOC (free of charge) gifts, "limited edition" goods or good discounts to attract shoppers. In fact, it is easy to spot where bargains are being offered. Just watch out for queues at retail outlets (learn more about this under Q)

L is for Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father. As Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, he is credited for shepherding the underdeveloped port into one of Asia's wealthiest nations within one generation. He currently holds the position of Minister Mentor.

L is also for Lee Hsien Loong, the current Prime Minister of Singapore, who took over the job from Goh Chok Tong in 2004. A graduate of Cambridge and Harvard, prior to entering politics, he was in the Singapore Armed Forces and quickly rose through the ranks to become the youngest Brigadier-General in Singapore's history. He is the son of Lee Kuan Yew.

L is for Lion. According to the legend of how Singapura was "founded", a Sumatran prince named Sang Nila Utama wanted to find a suitable place for a new city. He decided to visit the islands off the coast of Sumatra. From there, he spotted a distant island, and had to brave a great storm before reaching it. When he went inland to hunt, he suddenly saw a strange animal with a red body, black head and a white breast . It moved very quickly and disappeared into the jungle. His chief minister informed him that it probably was a lion. However, recent studies of Singapore indicate that lions have never lived there, and the beast seen by Sang Nila Utama was most likely a Malayan tiger. Anyway, Sang Nila Utama believed the sighting to be a good omen and so he decided to build his new city in Temasek, which he named "Singapura" - "singa" means lion and "pura" means city. According to the Malay Annals, Sang Nila Utama ruled the island from 1299 to 1347.

M is for the Merlion, the "creature" thought up by the Singapore Tourism Board as an emblem for Singapore. It has a lion head and fish body, resting on a crest of waves. I'm sure there's some clever symbolism for each feature, but I haven't found the STB write-up yet.

M is for "Majulah Singapura", the national anthem. It means "Forward Singapore" and was composed by Zubir Said in 1958, originally as a theme song for Singapore City Council functions, but when Singapore gained independence in 1965, it was officially adopted as the national anthem. Alas after 43 years, many school kids when asked to name their national anthem still respond with "Mari kita" ...

M is for Mustafa, the ever-popular department store located at Serangoon Plaza, on Serangoon Road in the area called "Little India". A couple of floors selling everything from foodstuff to jewellery to electronic goods. Prices at Mustafa are supposedly lower than in other department stores on Orchard Road. Mustafa also stays open 24x7.

N is for Newton Hawker Centre, a popular eating spot for locals and tourists alike. Here one can find many food stalls selling everything from chicken rice to laksa, hokkien noodles to chilli stingray, kangkong belacan to laksa (with cockles, of course) .... yummy!

N is for "NEWater" the name given to potable, recycled water produced by Singapore's Public Utilities Board. The purification method uses dual-membrane (via microfiltration and reverse osmosis) and ultraviolet technologies, in addition to conventional water treatment processes.

O is for the Opposition politicians. Not much to write here, as there are not many in the Opposition. Currently there are three in Parliament - MP Chiam See Tong (of the Singapore Deomocratic Party) , MP Low Thia Khiang and NMP Sylvia Lim (both from Workers' Party).

O is for Orchard Road, the main retail and entertainment area in Singapore. Lots of hotels, lots of malls, lots of shoppers ... 'nuff said.

P is for PAP (People's Action Party) , Singapore's ruling political ruling party since 1959. From the 1963 general elections, the PAP has dominated Singapore's parliamentary democracy and has been central to the city-state's political, social, and economic development.

is for Population. Singapore has a population of about 4.2 million, a multi-racial (Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians) and multi-religious (Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindu, etc) mix, which has managed to live harmoniously together for the past four decades. Unfortunately Singapore also has a fast aging populations. It has been projected that by 2020, more than a quarter of the population will be above 65 years of age. Various measures are being implemented to stop or slow down this trend.

Q is for Queues. Everywhere in Singapore, you find queues. From queues at hawker stalls to bus stops to ticketing booths to ATM machines (especially on pay day) to ..... you name it! But above all, queues form most quickly in retail areas when there are discounted items or better still freebies to be gotten ...

R is for Raffles. Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) is honoured as being the founder of modern Singapore in 1819. In December 1818, Raffles left Calcutta in search of a new British settlement to replace Malacca. Malacca was one of the many British territories given back to the Dutch as part of a war treaty. Raffles had foreseen that without a strategic British trading post located within the Straits Settlement, the Dutch could gain control of the Straits Settlement trade. He found this in Singapore. Raffles arrived in Singapore in January 1819 and together with William Farquhar, he met the Temenggong Abdul Rahman to negotiate for a British factory to be established on the island. On 6 February 1819, he signed an official treaty with the Sultan and Temenggong, and subsequently the Union Jack Flag was raised officially.

R is for "Red Dot". This came from a disparaging reference to Singapore by former Indonesian President Habibie in 1998. The Indonesian leader had remarked that he did not have the feeling that Singapore was a friend, and had pointed to a map saying "All the green [area] is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore." The term has come to be used by both Singapore leaders and citizens with pride and a sense of the nation's success despite its physical limitations.

S is for Sentosa island, a small island located just off the southern edge of Singapore. A bridge links it to the mainland. One can also get to Sentosa by cablecar. The name "Sentosa" means "peace and tranquility" in Malay, which is so much better than its previous name, which was an ominous-sounding "Pulau Belakang Mati", which literally means "Island of Death from Behind". Sentosa is one of the popular tourist spots in Singapore, with sites such as Fort Siloso, Underwater World, Dolphin Lagoon, Butterfly Park, "Song of the Sea" Show, etc. There are also a number of hotels there. By 2010, it will also be the site of one of Singapore's two Integrated Resorts.

S is also for the Singapore Flyer, a huge "ferris wheel" like structure and one of Singapore's latest tourist attractions. You can read about my experience on the Singapore Flyer in one of my previous blog entries.

T is for Temasek, the old name for Singapore. According to legend, it was the Sumatran prince Sang Nila Utama (see under L for Lion) who gave the name Temasek to the island, where he spotted an animal which he thought was a lion, and therefore called the place Singapura.

U is for "Uniquely Singapore", the tagline that the Tourism Board is pushing in a whole series of media campaigns.

V is for Vivocity, one of the recently opened shopping malls on Pasir Panjang. Warning to husbands and boyfriends: if you go there with your other half, be prepared for lots & lots of walking !

W is for world-class companies - such as Singapore Airlines, Changi International Airport, Port of Singapore, and many more.

X is for eXcellence. This tiny nation-state continues to strive for excellence in so many different areas.

Y is for Yusof bin Ishak, who first served as the Yang Di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State) from 1959 to 1965, and then Singapore's first President from 1965 until his death in 1970. He was loved and respected by all communities. Today his picture appears on certain Singapore currency notes introduced in 1999.

Z is for Zoo. The Singapore Zoo at Mandai is one of the best zoological parks in the world. They also have an attraction called the "Night Safari", which was a world's first. The Singapore Zoo was also home to Ah Meng, the orang utan.

Well, to all my Singaporean friends and colleagues, have a great National Day!


durian said...

Thanks! I like your list very much. I would love to see, "D" is for Durians. The reason is more than obvious - I sign in with that name. In fact, many people are buying and eating the fruit every where now. :-)

I wonder if you have omitted Durian because the fruit is more popular with the older people, e.g., My children do not eat it.

James Yong said...

To durian: Ah yes, how could I have forgotten the king of fruits. Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with the durian. I love to eat it, but I hate it when I invariably get sick after consuming too much. My body can only take so much of the "heatiness" :-( Anyway, consider the Durian included when I next update this entry!

Anonymous said...

Good one! Well done.

flightstick said...

P is for Pangolin, the retiring critter that hides in Bt Timah forest reserve, but occasionally crossing a highway and getting itself squashed by cars, according to the Post Office which issued a stamp featuring this armoured ant-eater. The Pangolin should be the national symbol, and not the lion which is not native to Singapore at all.

Read more of pangolins here:

James Yong said...

P is for Pangolin indeed. I must admit I haven't seen a pangolin - either alive or as roadkill -before, except in the zoo. But I'll be sure to watch out from now on. I wonder if we can come up with some common traits between Pangolins and other residents of Singapore ;-)