Young Singaporeans letting their hair down on a weekend afternoon
Young Singaporeans letting their hair down on a weekend afternoon

WE’RE WALKING ALONG the bridge between Sentosa and VivoCity on an overcast afternoon. Ships are docked at the nearby harbor. A group of teenage girls are with their tummies on the floor trying to take their picture with the ocean as the background. They’re all giggling, a very much different display from the deadpan expression I’ve come to associate with Singaporeans.

My friend – and tour guide – Rhea tells me that it’s such a delight to see those girls. I’m not sure how to take that statement, so I ask. “What do you mean?”

“Singaporeans are so preoccupied with their jobs or academic life,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s fun to see them letting their hair down once in a while.”

It’s true that Singaporeans can be a bit stuck-up and pushy – a stark contrast to the warm and hospitable image of Southeast Asians. But it’s the by-product of constant progress, in which Singapore is perpetually stuck in. The fast-paced makeover that regularly takes place in the city-state, combined with a population that values a no-nonsense approach to things, leaves the average Singaporean to be business-like to keep up.

But the laughter is very audible this afternoon. It’s spontaneous and reflects an untroubled expression of a nation that has gone a long way since becoming an independent country nearly half a century ago.

Sure, it’s the Switzerland of Asia – chewing a gum or biking in the wrong places leads to a hefty fine – but it provides the comforting antithesis to the grimy and dangerous cities of the region. It’s this discipline the Philippines probably wants its constituents to have.

The Marina Bay Sands dominates the skyline.

SINGAPORE IS A LITTLE bit larger than the whole of Metro Manila but it feels much smaller. Every district I’ve been to this day feels like just a quarter of a district in my home city. It’s almost lunch and I’m in Chinatown, which feels redundant in a city with a majority ethnic Chinese population. Yet at the same time, it’s the cultural heart of a city that has traded much of its history for modernization at a breakneck pace. It’s a part of Singapore that shows the city has not erased every vestige of yesteryears, reminding those who walk its interesting alleyways of the hardships the Chinese immigrants to the island had to undergo at some point. Seeing the colorful facades of the buildings and the red lanterns hanging above the roads give me reason once again to marvel at an oft-neglected aspect of the country.

The history of an independent Singapore is short by world standards but it plays like that of a jilted lover who has overcome its grief to grow mature enough and improve itself. In short, anything but boring.

In 1965 political and ethnic tensions prompted the newly independent Federal States of Malay to expel Singapore from the federation. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew was badly hurt of this break-up that he publicly sobbed. Once a backwater marshland with little natural resources to support itself, Singapore heavily relied on the sheer hard work and resourcefulness of its people to become the region’s most economically prosperous state.

Rhea takes this opportunity to introduce me to the current political and cultural climate of Singapore. Six days prior, the city held its general elections with the ruling PAP occupying all but six seats in Parliament. Notable, though, was the fact that this year, more opposition parties challenged the PAP than ever before, with 82 of 87 seats contested. The success of the Workers’ Party of Singapore in grabbing the Group Representation Constituency was a major breakthrough.

My guide goes on to discuss the housing projects and the system of purchasing houses in the city but I lose track. Besides, I’m hungry.

We take our lunch at some random vegetarian restaurant where, for SD 3, I get a serving of rice and two helpings of viand.

Tummy grumbles fixed, we set out to the heavily manicured Sentosa Island. Separated by 500 meters of water to the south, the island feels like a world away from the urban glamour of the mainland. It was a military fortress during colonial times, but Singaporeans, ever fans of glitzy makeovers, turned the area into their own resort getaway. White sand was imported from Australia and fake trappings of a beach resort were placed in Palawan beach, where locals get to have their weekend of fun, never mind that it feels synthetic.

Rhea and I sit on the wooden floorboards of a hut overlooking the sea to recharge before another long walk. We take this time to catch up on things and our breath.

Chinatown, in many ways, represents Singapore's cultural heart.
Chinatown, in many ways, represents Singapore’s cultural heart.

EVENING STARTS TO descend in Clarke Quay. A smorgasbord of restaurants representing cuisines from all over the world line up the walk shielded from a slight drizzle. The clouds cast an ethereally romantic feel to one of Singapore’s main shopping centers. Rhea and I are under the tree near the foot of the bridge, eating ice cream bought from a vendor on the bank of this historical river. Somewhere on the bridge, an old busker and his wife argue with each other while preparing for tonight’s performance.

“I hate lovers’ quarrels,” she mutters. I look at her awkwardly.

The foul weather eventually lets up and we board a boat for a short cruise along the Singapore River. The colorfully lit buildings provide a dazzling background for a slow trip through this strip of water, which has provided the momentum for the city’s rise to modernization.

We arrive in time at the Merlion Park to see the light show of the newly finished Marina Bay Sands, then move on to the Esplanade to watch a free acrobatic show. It’s my first time to see the program, it’s Rhea’s third.

“You want to see something weird?” she asks after the show.

“I guess,” I reply.

She then leads me inside the Esplanade, where short animated films from around the world are shown as part of the just-starting Singapore Arts Festival, running through June 5. The festival, themed “I Want to Remember”, aims at reminding locals and visitors alike of the country’s past even as it gears towards the future. We stand in front of a large TV at a lobby and view six minutes of intense surrealism I would have never expected even from the weirdest of my classmates in my animation elective.

“It is weird,” I tell Rhea.

A man-made beach in Sentosa Island is a popular weekend destination.
A man-made beach in Sentosa Island is a popular weekend destination.

IT’S BEEN ALMOST ten hours since our last meal but I’m not hungry. At least not yet.

Still, it’s almost eleven and we’re in the Orchard Road, Singapore’s famed shopping district. Rhea and I duck into the busy Food Republic in Wisma Atria — one of the numerous malls along the road — where I have a large bowl of tomato noodle soup.

“The mall across us is Lucky Plaza,” Rhea tells me. She slurps a bit of her noodle soup. “It’s where Filipinos congregate. You would know from the stores and establishments in that mall.”

“So you’re often there?” I ask.

“Not really,” she shrugs. “I don’t find myself here in Orchard Road that much. I’m more of a Merlion Park kind of person.”

“Really, huh.”

“Yeah,” she insists. “I often tour visiting friends at the Esplanade. In fact, I just did last night. I should be a tour guide.”

I try to slurp some broth but it’s too hot. Then I inadvertently put all the chili sauce from my extra order of spicy tofu. Partly because my tongue can’t take the chili any longer and mostly because the serving is too big, I give up halfway through the bowl.

We stroll a little more along the district, witnessing a fashion show somewhere. Then I have to meet my group while she has to catch the last MRT trip to her flat. We shake hands, bid each other farewell and she disappears into the thick Friday evening crowd.

Singapore's evening cityscape as viewed from a boat
Singapore’s evening cityscape as viewed from a boat

“THEY’RE CUTE,” RHEA tells me.

The girls are still on the floor waiting for the self-timed camera to go off.

Click.

“Do you think they would mind if I take their picture?” I ask.

Still delighted by the strange absence of seriousness from Singaporeans she has grown accustomed to from her three years of working with them, she never takes her eyes off the girls.

“Of course they won’t,” she says. “Go ahead, ask them.”

But I don’t. I mean, I can’t. I just stand there frozen. “This is why I won’t ever land a job at National Geographic,” I sigh.

Rhea approaches the girls and asks what I have wanted to ask. They look at me, smile, and nod their heads. And then they pose.

Click.

First published in TravelBlog on May 18, 2011.

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