11.11.2011 - 12.11.2011 26 °C
I left Jakarta for Singapore at about 2:40 am in the morning. My mission? To locate a certain fellow wearing sunglasses and a suit, hand him my passport and a significant number of coins, then wait for this mysterious fellow to conduct his business so that I might procure my 12 month work permit for my stay in Indonesia. The mission was suspicious at best. Why must I travel to Singapore, for example, and meet a random man on the streets? Why not the local post office in Jakarta? I was told that he would be waiting for me outside a certain Mcdonalds. What madness was this? And yet the flight was paid for and approximately 300 American crowns were placed in my pocket. I was going to Singapore. I was not going to complain, and so I found myself arriving there at around 7am with a mission to accomplish and a day to kill.
Upon arriving in Singapore and first leaving the airport, I was immediately shook with an overwhelming feeling of inexpressible dread. Everything is so perfect. I know nothing and care little about cars, yet the taxi which picked me up was immaculate, some kind of Bentley or BMW or whatever. Driving to the aforementioned Mcdonalds, one could only gaze in awe at the pristine condition of the place. The cleanliness is absolute; the super modern architecture is matched only by the quality and functionality of the roads; the roads are secondary only to the underground system, which makes a mockery of its cousin in London at every turn. Even the trees are cut to perfection.
I left the taxi believing I had landed in some kind of sick Utopian fantasy, a feeling which strengthened has the day progressed. In Central Singapore, every wall is covered with some nefarious advertisement, every person is on their way to the mall, every individual is fashionable. I looked about me not without a degree of loathing. This is Singapore? I thought. It is a giant shopping mall, the worst of Jakarta. Everything sickened me, yet it was not long before I became engaged in conversation with a fellow from England. He, too, had come from Jakarta to procure his visa. I told him my feelings. He laughed. "I'm glad you agree." He then told me that he ran his own business in Jakarta and had to visit Singapore at least once a month. It was a Police State, he said, a place without creed or character. There was little here other than the food, which was fantastic, he claimed. He, too, endeavoured to complain about Singapore's perfection. "It is like a giant shopping mall, a Jakartan shopping mall," I said. He agreed and we found each others company amiable, and before long we had discovered ourself a den, whereby we supped.
Can a place which sells Tiger beer on draft truly be that bad, I thought? Long have I supped Tiger beer in the West, yet never on draft. This new discovery had therefore brought me much happiness, and it was not long before I had drowned my sorrows in several pints. This brought me much joy, and it was with great elation that I left the establishment. "So, what is there to see in Singapore?" I asked my friend. "Little India is probably the only place in Singapore with real character." I pondered these words, then hastily bid my friend farewell. "I must travel there." We exchanged numbers. "Farewell for now!"
Singapore is a small place, extremely small. In fact, my friend told me that it is smaller than Manchester. By utilising the underground system, one can easily travel from A to B with little effort, and so it was not long before I found myself in Little India. This place is a peculiarity, a colourful and vibrant place, a refreshing change from the dreaded centre.
I was extremely glad to be away from the horrors of the centre and I explored the various streets, shops and bazaars with considerable excitement. Before long I stumbled upon a small yet aesthetically pleasing Hindu temple. I looked upon the structure for a while and then, not being satisfied enough, endeavoured to enter the establishment. This required me to remove my shoes, which I did. Inside, a variety of rituals were being performed, many people were praying, alms were being offered. I took a seat and watched the spectacle from a distance. It must be noted that this was not a tourist attraction. These were ordinary people going about their business, and seeing such a ceremony was a new experience for myself.
Upon leaving the temple, I had to make my way back to the centre. As already mentioned, due to the efficiency of the underground system, this is a simple enough task. However, in Singapore, efficiency comes at a price.
For those who do not know, the Durian is a popular fruit in this part of the world. However, unlike most fruits, the Durian has a strong scent which clearly upsets the perfect subjects of Singapore. Upon perceiving this sign, I once again felt disgusted, and desired nothing more than to breathe the foul and filthy air of polluted but honest Jakarta. Every time I speak to an Indonesian about this matter, they look upon me with bewilderment and surprise when I utter the words: "I prefer Jakarta to Singapore." Certainly, I can see why this should come as a surprise. Take this morning for example, when I ravished a bowl of Sato Ayam for my breakfast beside an open sewer, rife with the stench of human and rodent faeces. This cannot be found in Singapore. It would upset the locals too much and it would certainly upset the authorities. Without a doubt, it would also upset all of those ugly expatriates, who infest the tall corporate towers like cancer and aids, thinking they are experiencing Asia or the South Pacificic or whatever, when really they are only experiencing the comforts of home but multipled. I can see why Singapore is so popular with expatriates. I suppose it is Asia in Virtual Reality, a taste of the Orient without the drudgeries of the developing world (even the name "Little India" sounds like it belongs to a theme park). Not that I can comment on the individual experience in the developing world. I too am an expatriate. In Jakarta I live a life far more comfortable than the vast majority of its population. This cannot be denied. However, neither can the visibility of inequality, realised most forcefully in the gated communities which reside next to and sometimes within Jakarta's deprived communities. Also, for me, the failing roads and the polluted skies; the overpopulation and rising inequality; the struggle of the mass to get by: these are all a stark reminder of the planet we live on, a planet the urban theorist Mike Davis (in reference to Jakarta) has termed the Planet of Slums. When I finally returned to Jakarta, it was with a sigh of relief. It was good to be stuck in traffic once again! It was good to be home!