The little essay you see before you is intended as the first in a series on Singapore and Southeast Asia. It is written principally for Americans who may have heard of Singapore and who perhaps have even visited briefly, but who have not lived here.
I know the difference already after only two months as a resident, complete with official government work-visa status and non-hotel digs, since my two earlier trips here lasted but a few days each—and oh, what marvelous hotels they were. During those earlier trips I had but modest incentive to learn deeply about Singapore and the region; it’s different when you expect to stay for an entire year or more, as I do, and when you conceive your professional responsibilities in terms of being a metaphorical corpus callosum, in this case one composed of my charge as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University to explain America and Americans to Singaporeans and, as a TAI columnist, Singapore and Singaporeans to Americans.
We learn much about a place just from being in it and managing to stay awake. I’m not kidding about the staying awake part. Jet lag wears off, of course, although jet lag of the twelve-hours-removed-from-home type is no joke, at least for someone in his 69th year of age. But it’s the weather here, and the location, that are unusually suited to lethargy.
As to weather, contrary to what you may have heard, Singapore does have four seasons: hot and humid; hotter and more humid; hottest and most humid; and holy crap it’s hot and humid here. The winter monsoon that I and my wife expect soon to experience, unless we figure a way to arrange timely travel beyond its drenching reach, qualifies as merely hot and humid. During the rains the temperature moderates some and the breeze picks up a bit; but the rise in humidity from outrageous to unthinkable compensates for the few degrees of faux coolness.
The main creature-comfort benefit of rain here is otherwise that it temporarily banishes the haze. What haze?
Well, it seems that many Indonesians, notably in Sumatra and Kalimantan, have developed a hobby that involves burning their country down. We will return to this later, but suffice it to say for now that demand for palm oil and other crops led rural people in Sumatra in particular to slash-burn the rainforest and crop out the land, on which opportunistic and often desperate farmers squatted and rarely if ever owned. That was fine with the farmers because the land is so poor that one crop is about all the soil will support much of the time. So they moved on, slashed and burned again, and so on. The lingering problem is that the fires, once started, don’t always stay out. They slowly burn down into the massive layers of accumulated peat, forming hot spots that flare up with some regularity year after year, sending huge plumes of smoke into the air to be blown hither and yon by the winds coming off the South China Sea. No one knows how to put the fires permanently out.
So Singaporeans understand better than most people the interconnectedness of the global environmental commons. They also understand what it means to be small and helpless in the face of poverty-driven irresponsibility elsewhere. They have gotten used to consulting the daily haze index, since they have no alternative. When Scilla and I were here in October 2015 at the invitation of the Foreign Ministry, the haze was so bad that elementary schools had to close. People who needed to go outside for extended periods for one reason or another wore Niosh N95 masks to protect their lungs from damage from the particulates. It has not been that bad here lately, but pretty bad all the same. The masks were out last week. Some rain since then has eased the situation a bit.
As to the location, the Red Dot—one of Singapore’s nicknames—is roughly one degree north of the equator. That means that the sun rises and sets at pretty much the same time every day, all year, every year. Light and darkness are evenly divided, always. The fact that the island is about 31 miles across and 17 miles north to south changes this not one iota.
The island is not flat. There is topography, smaller islands to the north, east and south of the main island, and there is about 120 miles of coastline all tolled. For a densely populated area—5.8 million people plus assorted expat workers and hangers on—there is plenty of greenery and nature preserves. But a great deal of natural diversity, no. It is not unpretty from a naturalist point of view, not at all. If you are partial to tropical flora and fauna you will never be bored here. But compared to the East Coast of the United States, at least, it is monotonous enough to qualify as sleep-inducing if you stay long enough—and even two months qualifies as long enough.
So you see it is true after all, as Woody Allen once quipped, that “eighty percent of success is just showing up.” But we would all like to think that we can learn more if we try. I certainly need to, and so let me conclude this introductory section of the planned series with a caveat in two parts.
I do know a little something about the Near East and its environs. I had read many books about the Great Game and even the marvelous King Amanullah before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979. I could recite dialogues between the Emir of Najran and his vizier from 1934 four decades before the current war in Yemen began. OK, so I am bit odd—what of it, bub? The point is that I have witnessed in my life many drive-by journalists return from brief sojourns in the telegenic Near East and pose as experts that they decidedly were not.
Now, there is nothing very wrong with the one-eyed leading the blind, except when the one-eyed are leading the blind over a cliff—are, in other words, misleading them. I have witnessed not the good, the bad, and the ugly in this regard, but rather the ugly, the uglier, and the ugliest—a little like Singaporean weather, now that I think about it. I have therefore sworn on an odiferous harvest of durian that I would never pose as an expert on Southeast Asia, or even on Singapore. At best I am a one-eyed guide leading you, the blind, not over a cliff—there are none here anyway—but rather toward a toothsome hawkers paradise like the one you saw in Crazy Rich Asians. I have zero intention of claiming more than that, and zero intention of learning Malay, Tamil, or the main Chinese dialects here that include Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese, and Cantonese. So, upfront disclaimer: I am not and never will be a true expert on Singapore.
The second aspect of my caveat concerns method. Whenever I find myself in a place I know little about, I resort to a combination of history and anthropology to get my bearings. I want to know what has been, and I want to know about culture and social structure that still are. So I ask, for example, about what parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles tell their precious children at bedtime. Do they read stories to them from outside their culture, or do they tell stories to them from deep within their hearts and souls? It’s a big difference, defined largely by eye contact, between reading and telling stories to children. If the latter especially, what are they? Tell me the stories, please.
It turns out that the latter is more the case here among Chinese, Malays, and Tamils alike, and I am looking forward to collecting many stories. I am also eager to understand the variable senses of humor here. They exist, but they are different from ours and from each other. To that purpose I quickly made tracks to visit my old acquaintance Wang Gungwu, whose office is just off the stunning orchid-laden Botanical Gardens here, and as always he enlightened me.
So if you are interested in the surface layers of Singaporean politics—for example the prospects of the new party just formed by the 79-year old Tan Cheng Bock, who has invited the membership of the disgruntled brother of the current Prime Minister, both of them sons of the late Lee Kwan Yew—yes, I can tell you all about that. It’s impossible to miss it. If you want to know about how the Port of Singapore Authority works, and how it managed to get the contract to work the port of Antwerp, sure, I can handle that, too. I toured the facility last Thursday along with a small interested party of three from the Oppenheimer Generation in South Africa. Want to know if Singapore is a democracy or a police state? That’s next up.
But in this, the bicentennial of Stamford Raffles coming to Singapore, those are not things I much care about. They are too easy. Singapore does not contain the same multitudes as does Walt Whitman’s America; it contains multitudes of its own, and they are remarkably capacious for such a small place whose modern history does not antedate that of America. You, innocent at home, likely have no idea because you know not the deep meaning of fish-head curry at Mustafas, or of how to eat otak-otak, or why a Taoist temple and a Buddhist temple is usually the same temple. But patience please: Bye and bye, I will give you an idea. I will convey the multitudes.