Friday, December 29, 2006

"A Brave New World", First impressions of Singapore

Everyday, as I get into my Hotel elevator, I see representatives from at least three different nations in that space. The tall, white, stout, bald foreigner in his late 50s wishes me 'Good Morning', the student wearing three quarter cargos, motley t-shirt, colour framed glasses and the spiky hair can be Malaysian, Singaporean or Chinese, and the middle aged couple who keep pecking each others cheeks looks like a mix of Asian and European origin. This diversity is one of the most striking things about Singapore.

The lady who attends to Room Service is Malay and knows all the four official languages of Singapore (she even tried to speak in Malayalam, but gave up). In the MRT (Metro Rail) I met a SriLankan who was educated in Trichy, is now settled in Singapore, but who someday wishes to go back, not to SriLanka, but to India, and settle in Bangalore. He tells me India, especially Bangalore, is doing great.

The Taxi drivers I meet almost always men in their 60s, mostly Singaporean of the 2nd generation of Chinese or Indian settlers. They are a very cheerful and talkative lot - a far cry from the Autowallahs of Bangalore or Chennai. The difference it makes when you are greeted with a - "Good Morning Sir", rather than a bargain on price and on reaching the destination given a print out of the bill, of course paid through card, and told - "Thank You and Have a Nice Day", is unparalleled. It is not to be mistaken as part of a high-flier life-style as a Taxi is a common means of transport in this city. Some of the men work from 6:00 am - 11:00 pm even after retirement age. They also know quite a lot about the world. One Taxi driver, on telling him that I was from India, enquired which part of India I was from and on being told South India, asked whether that place was hot. He had heard of a certain Chennai which was very hot throughout the year! Then there was the 2nd generation Malayalee, whose father settled here after the World War, and looked after his two families, one in India and the other in Singapore - well he said that in a matter of fact manner and on sensing my wonder at his description, told me that that was the way things were at that time. He then showed me a piece of news on those days Strait Times that talked about Kerala Govt's ban on public spitting and blowing mucus in public places. It doesn't take much to brighten my day.

One of my project mates is Chinese, from Beijing and is employed with - Infosys! On questioning he starts to talk about Infosys' operations in Beijing and tells me how a contract won by Infosys India is now being done in Beijing. I was even told Infy was a good option for fresh graduates as it was easy to get into and they were recruiting in large numbers! At work, I'm replacing an Indian, report to a Chinese, work with a Singaporean and an Australian, am part of an African's team and sit in the seat of my Alumnus from Lucknow, India. Not truly Global I know - the South Americans, Canadians and the Icelanders are missing. But am sure they are somewhere in the crowd!

People are in general very courteous, work hard, lead a balanced life - are in office by 9 and leave office by 5, and are not xenophobic. They are at ease with foreigners and are more than willing to help out; and are damn stylish! Women know a thing or two about style and fashion here, and men try hard to catch up. The range of fashionable clothes that women can wear without revealing or being obscene is amazing; and it is impossible to guess a woman's age. It is probably in their genes to remain slim and petit.

It is a truly fascinating city, Singapore. If I were to take any aspect of life and I mean any - from the attitude of people to cycle-rickshaws, or from food in McDonalds to the Central Fire Station - it will be different and more importantly different in a very positive way in most cases.

One of the reasons why The Taj Mahal is so beautiful is because it has a clear blue sky as a background, uncluttered by distractions of buildings and trees. Strangely, this was the thought that crossed my mind when in the light of dawn I first saw the sky-scrapers of downtown Singapore. There they were jutting out into the sky in sheer defiance, like the imperial guards of some Chinese emperor, defying everything that I had seen and experienced till then.

Singapore is a model city - the roads are wide, clearly named and are lined with trees and flowering plants. Sprinkle a good helping of stylish cars and well-dressed people from around the world and there you have your postcard. Above all the city is as clean as a freshly starched pajama. Like a friend describes it, you can see the treads on the wheels of the cars, and you don't have to polish your shoes everyday. Roadside constructions are blinded from the public, like I have seen when the Delhi metro was being constructed. The whole city runs as if it were an automated machine, I have seen a policeman only once in my last 2 weeks in this city.

Shopping is the favourite pastime of Singaporeans, and they jokingly call it the national sport of the country. There are underground malls connecting different parts of the city. You are busy taking in the Starbucks, the Carrefours and the Kopi tiams, and before you know you have covered 3 to 4 traffic junctions.

According to a B-School friend, the Government of Singapore has taken care of the fundamental needs of its citizens, the ones that Maslow talks about. What he meant to say was that the basic 'Roti, Kapda, Makaan, and Sex' needs of every individual in this city have been taken care. The Government provides housing - 90% owned by the individual, social security and health care needs of the populace; and the city has its legal blind spots. Rules and Regulations are plenty, and fines are very hefty - $500 for eating food and $1000 for smoking in trains. It is very clear that the authorities have no intention of spoiling the child by sparing the rod.

Still Singapore is not without its murmurs of discontent amongst its labour class - I have not yet had a chance to talk to the thriving upper class. Like one Taxi driver told me, till a few years back things were great, but now, though the govt does provide for our basic needs, there is no fun. He was for one referring to the many rules and regulations, and for another saying that given the small size of the country, to get away from the city one had to fly to another country. Cost of living also becomes high once you start going after the luxuries. $10 starting for a movie is probably the cheapest form of entertainment. Concerts run into $50 or more and cigarette packs cost $11 and come with gory pictures of patients afflicted with cancer.

I chanced upon a movie trailer that made fun of many of the quirky ways and some of the issues of Singapore (like bureaucracy!!); and it got a loud reception in the theatre. It probably is the biggest advantage of the visual medium that it can sneer the masses on their face, portray them as outright idiots and still get their acceptance and appreciation. Borat is making waves all around the globe and the Black Adder series that I'm currently into rips apart anything British (and French!) over the ages.

It might look a bit childish, but the list of cars that I have seen in Singapore reads something like this - Ferrari, Porsche, BMW, Renault, Jaguar, Mercedes, Alfa Romeo, Lotus, Kia, Nissan, Audi, Saab,Volkswagen, Mazda, Lexus, Volvo, Toyota (like we have the Maruti in India the Toyota is everywhere), Proton, Suzuki Swift, Hyundai and Honda (I have not seen a Lamborgini yet!). Well that is Singapore for starters.

And as far as bikes go Dirt Racers and broad wheeled Hondas rule the roost. I'm told there is a Harley Davidson parade that happens ever Monday - seems the club members just ride around the city showing off their priced possessions.

One is witness to innovation in every part of life and the meaning of the phrase 'by any stretch of imagination' is redefined everyday - there are street side e-kiosks for paying all your monthly bills in single shot (from electricity and water to the credit card charges), there are congestion taxes to dissuade vehicles from taking heavy traffic routes during peak traffic hours and the concept of "On-demand TV" lets you choose, pay and see movies of your choice using just your remote and TV.

It is hard not to wonder why things are so different from back home; but I miss home for sure.