Saturday, August 28, 2010

Nomad in Singapore

A Nomad has arrived in Singapura, City of the Lion. Singapore the front runner of the famed Asian Tigers has made enormous economic progress and is the richest country in South East Asia. Although 5 million strong Singapore is the second most densely populated country in the world (after Monaco), it is also the most globalised country in Asia. It does not bow to any modern western nation, and having the highest standard of living in the whole of Asia, it is in many ways is an example society for it's neighbours. Of course it has not always been like that and since its' independence in 1965 the people of Singapore have worked hard for their remarkable achievements, trying not to fall in the same traps and pitfalls their big neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia got stuck in. In fact Singapore initially joined the Malaysian Federation, until ideological and economical differences in a storm of racial tensions broke the relationship. There must have been fear for discrimination of their Chinese population when they founded the independent Republic of Singapore.

Now Singapore has a Chinese majority of over 70%. But boasts a fully democratic system that garantuees equal rights for their Malay Muslim, Indian Hindu and even Eurasian Christian minorities. Much like Indonesia it strived for unity in their multi cultural country, however never by marginalising their minority cultures. This year the country celebrated 45 years of independence.

The Republic of Indonesia declared independence 20 years earlier and Singapore was able to learn from the struggles of their big next door neighbour, that put 'colonial' European languages low on the educational curricula. Singapore's official languages are Malay and English, together with Chinese and Indian. However most Singaporeans I spoke with are extremely proud to speak their creole language called Singlish, that mixes English with Malay, and Chinese and Indian words. Although the Singapore government is pushing for correct use of the English language, it's fascinating to hear a child say: "Nanti, I do it mum." " Dulu we walk walk see see, lah?"

Within their own communities people will speak their first language amongst each other. Be it a Chinese language, Indian language or Malay. Together they will speak either Singlish and only in semi-official settings, with expats or visitors or unclear situations they speak official English. In the neighbourhood I stayed (Tiong Bahru, an old nestling ground for succesful Chinese entrepeneurs) and Chinatown you will hear Chinese languages, in Little India Indian or Tamil languages and in a Malay neighbourhood like Geylang you will hear mostly Malay.

All in all Singapore is a captivating place where you can simply take the smooth subway system to different Asian villages within the big city. Although the city is pre-dominantly Chinese, in a Hong Kong sort of way, you will find a specific Chinatown, but also places like Arab street, Little India which on a sunday, day off, reminded me of Mumbai. And of course the Malay area of Geylang, which had a huge post Ramadan pasar malam on its busy streets, where street hawkers were selling sate kambing and pisang goreng, very much reminiscent of Indonesia.

I must admit coming from the rougher street scenes of urban Indonesia, arriving in effective and efficient Singapore was somewhat of a culture shock. I admired the cleanliness of the city compared to the terrible waste disposal habits in Indonesia, but also missed the liberating sense of freedom of seemingly unorganised Indonesia. The first days I kept looking for the city's underbelly and felt happy to finally find the Malay mean streets where I could enjoy my 'es teler' and smell the street hawkers 'goreng' and grill. Somehow it was only then that a Nomad could really feel at home.

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