the Back-In-Singapore post

something about Being Back, plus some new poems in the poems section. maybe if someone makes me some soup i might eat it and maybe i might write a post every day. 

Singapore. Day 3. 

This is how much I care about multibillion dollar buildings: I still cannot tell you what is a Marina Bay Sands, other than it has something to do with gambling. And  I think there’s an expensive lift in it. This Aussie guy I met at my hostel in Oban last year told me a story about how he managed to sneak to the top without paying when he travelled in Singapore.

I thought about this guy as we approached the tall structure. It was a series of tall and white structures of many shapes, surrounded by water like a moat. Was he still in that little Scottish port town working at the hostel? Still painting the toilets and the window frames? Was he still eating out female guests who came on bicycles?  I was not paying attention until we were actually inside this thing, and found myself in the massive shopping mall, surrounded by shiny surfaces and important brand names in rare fonts.

It occurs to me that there are two ways of writing about the experience of walking through large malls in Singapore: the liberal ang moh/Western way, and the Singaporean way (yeah, no shit…I know).

The Singaporean way goes something like, tears filled my eyes as I gaped at the massive Prada shop ahead of me. It struck me with its amazing beauty and glamour. I pressed my Iphone to the glass and took a picture. There were restaurants offering food from all corners of the world around me. I know it sounds corny, but right then, I could not help but feel proud of my nation for building such a magnificent structure to boost the economy when just fifty years ago we had been a backward fishing village. I felt so fortunate to just stand inside.  

The ang moh way goes something like, in the midst of the glamour, one could not help but feel impressed at how far this little fishing village had come, yet one could not help but feel the empty soullessness of its small-eyed citizen ( brought about by being lovingly raised on a steady diet of consumerism and propaganda by a tyrannical dictatorship) who wandered zombie-like through platinum storefronts totally oblivious to their lack of human rights.

So all I did was stare at the couple taking pictures of themselves holding overpriced tea outside the TWG tea shop. And turn around. And look up. At the ceiling. And feel like I was in the belly of a whale. A whale made of plexiglass and marble, with branded handbags for cells.

And think, WHERE the FUCK am I?!

Then, what am I DOING here?

In any other city, I would hate this place. If this were in London, I would make a sarcastic comment to show I disapproved of the gross show of money and status, probably bought with colonialism, scream, and spit on the floor. If this were in suburban America, I would raise an eyebrow while screaming  silently at the gross display of money and status, but pretend to like it because I would have no escape because I would probably be lost in the mall and without a car, and you would probably need a car to run away.

Here, however, even with my parents in the toilets, leaving me to my own devices to absorb the atmosphere, I knew exactly where the exits were and what was outside. I knew how to escape if I had to (just walk through the door). I knew the outside would be safe.  It was sunny outside. There was something telling me that this massive conglomeration of shops selling not just things that I didn’t need but things whose prices had more zeroes in them than could be taken seriously, whose doorframes had more shine in them than should be taken seriously, was bloody wrong when there were people starving. But there was something else that said it was ok. That it was ok that people chose to spend their time here….hell, my family spent every Sunday weekend in places like these. This was just a new shopping mall and we were just exploring it. But why was it SO HUGE? But what the hell was up with that stupidly fancy dark-wood-furnitured tea shop?

“Oh yar, thats a local chain,” my mother said, emerging from the toilet “TWG stands for The Wellness Group. Totally overpriced…$20 for a box of tea? Its just tea. But all the dishes are infused with tea. But come on ”

I guess that made me feel somewhat better about the shop. No everything here was all uber-atas Europeanish imports. To be fair, maybe even some of the fancy designer clothes shops whose names I’d never seen were local.  Even the toilets were Asian, apparently, because my mother had another rant to rant:

“I don’t understand why they must still bother putting squatting toilets in this place. No one wants to use them any more. There were two in there but no one in the queue would use them. They would all rather burst their bladders than squat to pee. I mean, come on. You probably grew up using a hole in the ground.”

Hmm. That was an interesting development: people suddenly thinking they were too good for squatting toilets? But I missed them so much when I was London (luckily, I went to a university who had them in the 3rd floor library, so I didn’t miss them that much any more) Anyway, that was a research topic for another day.

We headed off in search of lunch. We took a lift up. We approached what we thought was a Chinese restaurant, but  you had to take off your shoes so we surmised it was a fortune telling place and went in the opposite direction. Opposite was a Chinese herbal shop with rare and expensive dried things, like cordyceps. “Maybe after people win money they can spend it all on these.” my mother said. I did not get what she meant about winning money. Not even the prominent ATM machines gave me any clue. Nor the high density of designer stores.  I thought they all had something to do with the fortune teller.

We went up another few floors, to where it was quieter, only restaurants and carpeted corridors. There was an overpriced Japanese place and a Chinese place with a 20 minute wait. We wandered indecisively between the two for a few minutes, then my father led us  to the right to where you could look down and see stuff.

“Look at this.” he said.

And I did.

I had wandered into The Matrix.

Not something that looked like a part of the matrix, not something that vaguely resembled a scene from the Matrix, but THE MATRIX itself. A three-storey cavern of gold and carpet and mirrors and glass! At the bottom, a sea of bleeping machines made of gold and neon! Flashing lights! Red! Green! Strange un-melodious music! And people, SO MANY PEOPLE plugged into them! Sitting, staring, walking around! Obeying the lights! Responding to the sounds! Of course! THIS WAS A MARINA BAY SANDS.

I had reached heart, no, the brain, no, the PINEAL GLAND of my country.

I looked on with a mix of fascination and….fascination, gaping.

“You haven’t seen the casino before, have you?” asked my father.

I shook my head. It was so much more than a casino. Or maybe I had never seen so many gambling machines in one place, from such a great height.

No wonder Singapore had such a strict drug policy. You couldn’t need drugs here. This country was a mindfuck in and of itself. Everything in here and outside of this building was out of a sci-fi movie, just without a moral. It was not quite Las Vegas yet, but I would not have been surprised to see a polar bear raping an air stewardess, as Hunter S Thompson had noted in his book (where incidentally he also claimed that you couldn’t need hallucinogens in Las Vegas). There was none, but there were several men walking around who looked like they could be Bangladeshi construction workers.

“See them?” said my dad, “they have been known to lose an entire month’s salary in a day. Then there are people who can lose a few thousand in a day and it would be like nothing to them.”

Now it was all making sense: the ATM machines everywhere, the ostentatiousness, the trying-too-hard-ness of status and glitz, the fortune teller, the tourists (“you will notice there are lots of foreigners everywhere…probably too many but what to do?”)…. this was what the big investments had all come to. This was what the ‘casino debate’ had come to. It all came down to….slick marble. And wagyu beef. Where had I been all this while? I didn’t know, but I was glad it wasn’t here.

We found lunch in a new Italian place where American microbrews cost like $17 for a bottle (enough to turn me off even oatmeal stout forever). We sat at the bar and noticed how the guy working there was very good at acting busy but not actually doing much besides squeezing limes and shifting a flower vase around and occasionally ducking below the bar when he ran out of things to do so we couldn’t see him.

We went to the Art Science Museum where we learnt we were in a building shaped like a lotus flower or a palm. I didn’t believe them. They had Salvador Dali exhibit and mounted a roomful of chairs and tables on a curved, practically vertical sloping platform in front of a window. Behind the window was a translucent curtain beyond which you could see the sleek white railings and curved white concrete lotus leaves of the platform outside that hung over the Singapore River. Beyond that, we were surrounded by spaceships and sailboats that looked like buildings. Or was it the other way around?

“It gets even more surreal outside, doesn’t it?” said my father.

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3 thoughts on “the Back-In-Singapore post

  1. Daphne Tan

    Glad to know I’m the only one who feels sick looking at such places. Marina Bay Sands reeks of the blood of workers who died from working on 24-hour shifts to build it. Naturally it disgusts me.

  2. Daphne Tan

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who feels sick looking at such places. Marina Bay Sands reeks of the blood of workers who died from working on 24-hour shifts to build it. Naturally it disgusts me.

  3. Valerie Low

    I am a Singaporean living abroad for some years now. Each time I return it is with a mixture of anticipation and embarrassment. While I am proud of Singapore and of being Singaporean, I find myself regularly confronted by things that make me cringe. It is mind boggling to me how so many Singaporeans are willing to live beyond their means. The latest cell phones, Coach handbags, the hottest cars. All of which will be discarded when the next it thing shows up. You’re so right. Singaporeans have been programmed for consumerism. And it is all so wrong.

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