We were visiting Singapore after a gap of almost four decades. Although there was a lot of nostalgia attached to our visit, we could see that just as the island city-state had impressed us back then, it overwhelmed us now as well. Singapore was then in its early teens – only 13 years old, whereas this year, in August 2015, it is going to celebrate its 50th birthday.
The day we landed was significant, as young and old, rich and poor Singaporeans were mourning, saying their final goodbyes to their leader, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who had passed away on March 23, 2015, at the age of 91. They shared a common sentiment: gratitude for shaping the country the way he did.
We breezed through the roads from the airport to our destination, without any roadblocks.
Singapore is a city inside a garden. It was amazing to see the meticulous and beautiful landscaping on both sides of the road and the city beyond. Bright magenta Bougainvillea creepers and Rain Trees (Samanea saman) bloomed everywhere. My eyes widened upon seeing a number of large trees lined up with several brown, unusual, large ball-like growths attached to their trunks. At first I thought it was the dung beetle’s work, but after I read up on these trees, I learned that they were Cannonball trees.
The hot and humid climate of the island throughout the year is a haven for a large variety of plants and trees.
Wherever you look, it is a modern, albeit very green, metropolis, with numerous iconic buildings and facilities dotting the skyline, the river-front and the coastline. Crisp and clean modern buildings and a vast array of mostly multi-storey public housing co-exists happily with an equally clean, restored and well-maintained body of colonial-era public buildings, neatly painted row houses with colourful windows making the streetscapes attractive. There are generously wide, tree-lined footpaths, shaded promenades and outdoor cafes galore.
In spite of hosting some of the most expensive real estate in the world, the city seems to have space to offer to its citizens and visitors, just to enjoy.
Since our son and his family had also arrived there for this holiday, it was great to visit different places with our two young and bubbly grand daughters. We loved visiting the Jurong Bird Park at Jurong Hill, the Butterfly and Insect Park on Sentosa Island and the Botanic Gardens at Cluny Road.
At the Bird Park, besides being able to watch 400 species of some 5,000 delightful birds all around us, we truly enjoyed the High Flyers Show and the Birds of Prey Show, which were held in different amphitheatres. While colourful parrots, toucans and flamingoes took centre stage in the former, the mighty birds of prey: owls, kites, falcons and eagles in the latter show listened tamely to the command of their trainers.
However, my favourite outing on this brief visit was a leisurely stroll in the tranquil setting of the Botanic Gardens, spread over 74 hectares — right in the heart of the city.
While we were there, the sky became heavily overcast and there was the thumping thunder and frequent flashes of lightening. We knew that the tropical downpour of Singapore generally lasts only a few minutes. We were lucky to make it to a shelter before it started to pour.
These gardens were established in 1859. It was a pleasure to view not only the majestic trees there but also the extremely well-preserved historic buildings such as Burkill Hall, Ridley Hall, etc. Besides the Ginger Garden and the exquisite and stunning Orchid Garden, we also enjoyed walking through a small tropical rainforest, with carnivore plants around us. Twice our grand daughters spotted large monitor lizards, more than one metre long, on the grass, just a few feet away from us. We thought it best to keep our distance, and leave them alone!
No visit to a place is complete without tasting its local cuisine of a country, and I recalled that all those years ago, the Singapore government guaranteed safe street food. But street food was taken off Singapore’s streets some 20 years back because of health concerns. Although the Food Court concept existed there in the 1970s, all hawkers have now been moved to Hawkers’ Markets or Food Centres (there are over a hundred).
We ate at the Newton Food Centre, which is close to Orchard Road, now replete with designer stores.
A wide variety of food is served there, and even though my husband and I relished the large black pepper crabs, the giant tiger prawns, satays and much more over there and elsewhere in the city, we looked forward to a few cupfuls of the local tea that we had enjoyed in Singapore as a young couple.
Tea is called Teh, which is tea with condensed milk, and there’s Teh-C as well, which is tea with evaporated milk and sugar. At times I preferred having Teh-C-kosong, tea with milk and no sugar or Teh-O-kosong, tea without milk or sugar, while my husband ordered Teh-gah-dai, tea with milk and more sugar… and thus ran the mile-long list of permutations and combinations of tea and coffee (Kopi) in Singapore!
We visited ‘Little India’, which we remembered as Serangoon Road from our earlier visit in 1978. A saree-wearer, I was on a prowl to find a few there but was somewhat disappointed in the lack of variety on offer at the few saree stores, the entire area now being flooded with glittering gold jewellery shops.
We stopped by to pose in front of the interesting and colourful gopuram (tower) of Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple in the heart of Little India. Constructed by Tamil labourers in 1855 in the South Indian style of architecture, the Sri Veeramakaliamman (the goddess Kali) temple has been restored and different parts have been reconstructed a few times since the 1980s.
Since Singapore lacks in land and natural resources, it relies heavily on its maritime trade facilities and educated human resource, one of the most efficient in the world. It is the world’s second busiest port, Shanghai in China now being the busiest.
Singapore was booted out of the Federation of Malaysia in August 1965. Those were surely difficult times but the hardwork, economic growth and free market reforms initiated and heralded by Lee has made it possible for Singapore to steadily climb the ladder of economic well-being.
One of the world’s most prosperous places, Singapore is home to a multicultural population that enjoys a very high standard of living, but any anti-social action is immediately noticed and punished.
“We were very poor, the city was dirty, and there was a lot of crime too. But Mr Lee Kuan Yew changed all that. We loved him,” a woman taxi driver expressed her feelings about her leader as we drove in her taxi one day.
Similar opinions were shared by others as well: An enviable example of achieving so much so fast, beginning with so little.