I Like My Cities Gritty and Chaotic, But I Loved Singapore Anyway

Singapore buildings

Before going to India a few years ago my India-phile friend Joe said to my clean-freak wife, “You will HATE it. Hate it. HAAAAAAAAAAATE IT!!!!!”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because it is filthy.”

Fast forward to last week.

“You will hate Singapore. HATE it! HAAAAAAAAAAATE it!” My wife said to me.

“Why?”

“Because it is so clean.”

Sometimes in life, opposites attract. My wife loved India; I loved Singapore.

Instead of being put off by the order, I was actually mesmerized by the cleanliness, intoxicated by the organization, and just flat-out impressed with the efficiency of Singapore. After a year in Bangkok, I appreciated a place where crosswalks are more than decorations, stray dogs don’t rule the town, and the air isn’t a miasma of diesel fumes, frying garlic, and fetid swamps.

Aside from the cleanliness, I was impressed with the inventive yet unpretentious modern architecture, the well-preserved colonial buildings and the use of trees and greenery on the highways and buildings. Even more impressive, Singapore manages to be this clean and organized in Southeast Asia! With sister cities like Hanoi, Saigon, Bangkok, Yangon and Jakarta, Singapore is the oldest child who graduated with honors and has a good job while the rest of his quirky family is living a Bohemian lifestyle. It reminds me of this:

arrested development

Being in Singapore was an adjustment. Pedestrians actually approached intersections and waited until the little man turned green, and cars actually stopped for them! This was too much for me. If I saw space, I went. I put on a master class in jaywalking.

Speaking of roads, they were not jam-packed with traffic! This probably has something to do with the fact that the subway goes everywhere, and modern double-decker buses ply the wide avenues in abundance.

Of course, all this comes at a cost. Dinner with drinks in Singapore costs roughly the same as a 4-year degree from a private university. You have to fill out a credit application before they let you in the door at Starbucks. Even a plate of dumplings, something they practically give away for free in other parts of Asia, set me back 10 USD for 10 dumplings! I will have to cash out our retirement savings to pay the credit card bill next month.

The worst part about Singapore is that it is ground zero for the Smart Phone Zombie Apocalypse. It seems that everyone is walking along mindlessly texting, surfing the web or watching movies on their phones. This is possible in Singapore because the sidewalks are as wide as boulevards and as perfect as an airport runways. If you try this in Bangkok you will either fall in a manhole, step in dog poop, run headlong into a street vendor or break an ankle on the buckled sidewalk, or if you are talented, do all four at once!

Even though I thoroughly enjoyed Singapore, I was happy to return to Bangkok. After all, I didn’t want to get used to the cleanliness and become a clean freak myself. If I did, my wife might get rid of the housekeeper who comes by once a week and I’d have to clean up after myself.

Singapore litter

The only piece of litter I saw in 5 days!

Singapore street cats

The only cat I saw in 5 days. Where are the dirty street kitties?

Singapore beer

A couple enjoying two beers while trying to decide if they should get a 2nd mortgage on the home or sell their children into slavery to pay the bill.

Singapore buildings

The three skyscrapers with the cruise ship on top is the only truly pretentious building I saw.

Singapore cityscape

Cityscape from the quay.

Singapore crosswalk

People actually wait at crosswalks.

Cell phone zombie

The Smart Phone Zombie Apocalypse is starting!


How do you like your cities? 

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57 Comments on “I Like My Cities Gritty and Chaotic, But I Loved Singapore Anyway

  1. haha, I have a love-hate relationship with my country. People are warm and welcome, they love caring for others but sometimes it’s a little too much. A conversation to get to know people usually like this: How old are you? Are you married? Why not? ….:)))

    • Those questions are pretty typical all over Asia I think! Everyone I encountered was very nice and friendly. It is a very diverse population of people living there too, I thought.

  2. Wow! The opening image is amazing! I’m with you, visiting absolute cleanliness is great, but I want to live with more chaos. And, I certainly don’t want to have to pay for all that cleanliness with my last dime.

    • Paying for it was the hard part. At the airport on the way home, I had 22 Singapore dollars left. I went to a hotel bar and bought one beer – ONE BEER! – for 19 Singapore Dollars, or $13.50 USD.

      Would you consider Manchester a chaotic or dirty city? Boston?

      • Well. I call Manchester -Slumchester. I enjoy visiting Boston but wouldn’t be caught dead living there. I’d say it’s probably midway between chaos vs. clean. As with most cities, it depends what part of town you’re in.

  3. It’s nice to be in a city where things actually work well, isn’t it? Especially being residents of such hustling and bustling metropolises like Bangkok and Jakarta. I always enjoy visiting Singapore, although I don’t think I can stay there for too long. So, to know that you actually liked the Lion City, albeit startling at first, shouldn’t come across as unexpected at all. 🙂

    • It is truly a model of how all cities should function. I’ve never been to Japan, but I had the feeling it was like a Japanese city with its efficiency and cleanliness. Is that a fair comparison?

      My wife was saying she’d like to live there someday. I wasn’t quite ready to say that yet! Like you I don’t think I can be there too long – it would make going back to the real SE Asia too difficult.

  4. That description sounds like my last trip to San Francisco. When I travel half way around the earth, gimme the grit of Bangkok, or any of the other “Sisters” you mentioned.
    I remember the chewing gum ban when we passed through Singapore thirty years ago, but the outstanding memory was a trip through one of their museums that showed what the Japanese did during WW2 to Southeast Asia (and specifically Singapore) . It sticks with me to this day. Thank god we’ve moved on and have accepted Japan back into the fold. I wonder how the “World Order” will evolve in another thirty years.

    • If I’m gong half-way around the world, I want squiggly writing, veiled women and strange foods! 🙂

      We recently went to the death railway museum in Kanchanaburi. It was a shocking example of how cruel humans can be to each other. I hope in 30 years we can travel to Syria and Iraq. I hope we can all travel anywhere! If you can travel to a place, that usually means it is safe and free.

      Thanks for your comments!

  5. Love the whole post, but the analogy with Michael and the Bluth family won me over big time. Haha! I think I’d rather visit chaos and live in cleanliness if I had to choose.

    • That is not a bad way to go. Even in my relatively quiet Bangkok neighborhood I nearly get run over by a car at least twice a day!

  6. Jeff, this is so funny! I think I would lean towards a clean environment if I had the choice but would not be uncomfortable somewhere in the middle. I mean, who want to have to cash in their life savings for a beer!

    • At the airport on the way home I bought a pint of beer for 13 USD, or 19 Singapore dollars. It was a nice way to get rid of that extra cash I had 😦

  7. Wow!! Those pictures are amazing, and liked very much the way you described the city.
    Even if not truly comparable, the Netherlands also enjoys this cleanliness and super good organisation when it comes to public transport, regulation of traffic, etc.
    I appreciate this a lot and I really would like my future city of work to have these features 🙂

    • I could see the comparison to the Netherlands in many ways. Amsterdam has more character I think, but still similar. Thank you for the comments!

  8. Ahhh too funny. Anytime someone TELLS me I am going to hate or love something I usually try to “prove” them wrong. Yeah, really, you think you know me? Haha.

    We recently had a day in Singapore. We were enroute from Jakarta to Hong Kong and were exhausted so we just got to walk the few blocks around our hotel. Food was good but yup pricey. Foot reflexology was good to but again on the pricey side.

    There is a lovely botanical gardens though. Did you get to see that? Very nice and very huge!

    Peta

    • I never made it over to the botanical gardens. That gives me a reason to go back! I didn’t even bother to look at the massages since I can get one for $6 in Bangkok!

      I think I liked it in part because I did expect not to like it! That is a great thing about travel – it breaks down or preconceptions and prejudices.

      Thanks for commenting.

  9. One of my friends lived in Singapore for years, and constantly complained about the cost. So she moved….. To London. Some people never learn.

    And… You should visit Seattle. People follow crosswalk signals religiously. I think the only people who jaywalk are me and the tourists.

    • That surprises me in a way that Seattleites follow the rules. I just imagine a little spirit of anarchy there, but I guess I’m wrong. Glad you are showing them the way!

      • I never thought about it, but yeah, it does seem against the Seattle stereotype. It is after all, a city that became famous for the world bank protests. Portland and Victoria are the same, so maybe it is a NW thing?

  10. Thanks once again for my morning laugh! “Ground zero for the smart phone zombie apocalypse”…too funny. I kinda wish Vancouver had a few of those Bangkok street obstacles to keep this apocalypse at bay. I enjoyed my visit to Singapore a few years ago when many warned me that it’s BORING. On the contrary, I found it interesting and loved all the different neighbourhoods.

    • I hear it is boring too, but I thought it was a cool place. The quay with all the restaurants and bars was a fun spot, and was very photogenic in the evening when the colonial buildings and skyscrapers were lit by the evening sun. My wife wants to live there someday, I don’t think I’m ready for that level of commitment though!

      Everyone in Bangkok is on their phone in the subway, but I think those that walk and look at their phone have already been removed by natural selection.

  11. I’m with you on the cleanliness Jeff. Hope the credit card bill isn’t too shocking but some things in life are worth it. 🙂

  12. After nine months of living in Jakarta, I completely understand where you’re coming from. It’s a whole lot like Bangkok, minus the stray dogs (they seem to be a rarity here). I was in Singapore a couple weeks ago for work and had much the same reaction you did – the cleanliness and order was just mesmerizing. I couldn’t believe how beautiful (and spotless) the highway from the airport was: both sides were lined with impressive rain trees and the well-tended divider was full of flowers. The prices though were a shock. A one-way fare from Changi Airport to the downtown area was about US$22, which is basically double what you pay in Jakarta.

    • All the trees and landscaping really impressed me too – a lot of planning and care has gone into the city. The roads are perfect, I guess that is why we pay $22 for a taxi to the airport. That same ride would cost about $5 in Bangkok, of course there would be no seat belts in the cab and you’d have a 50-50 chance of actually arriving.

      Singapore reminded me of Hong Kong in many ways. You were born in Singapore, right? Do your parents ever make comparisons?

      • I was, and both my parents have very fond memories of Singapore – my mom has always said it is one of the best places to raise a family. On the way from the airport I actually passed the seafood center where they often went for chili crab with their friends. Of course, it isn’t all positive. Here in Asia, Singaporeans have a reputation for being stingy and easily upset at the smallest thing. My dad once told me about a Singaporean friend of his who lived in Hong Kong for many years – on one of his trips back he told his local friends that the subway was much better in Hong Kong, and they got really mad!

        Hong Kong and Singapore are similar in some ways, but very different in others. Singapore is much, much cleaner, and its government does a far better job running the place. Also the urban planning (and heritage conservation) is miles ahead of Hong Kong. Then again Hong Kong does have its charms – as you know it is really gritty in some areas and often feels like a film set at night (because it is so cinematic). Also I love all the hilly terrain – there are all these hiking trails, beaches, and outlying islands to explore. You can go paragliding, rock-climbing, kayaking, windsurfing etc., so Hong Kong is superb if you’re into the great outdoors. Singapore doesn’t have that kind of dramatic landscape… there are beaches too, but they’re definitely not as beautiful and most are artificial, like the ones on Sentosa.

      • Thanks for the interesting insight into two cities. Your dad’s friend either had lots of city pride or is easily upset! I know I’d prefer to live in HK because of all the nature. It makes sense that Hong Kong, with that incredible natural harbour, would be a trading center. Singapore was built out of a swamp! I enjoyed both places for sure. I get to go to Saigon next month so I’m slowly getting to see all the cities in the region which is very eye-opening.

  13. I also like my cities gritty and chaotic, but after our most recent trip (Yucatan, Guat and Cuba) I’m beginning to think I too would enjoy Singapore. Maybe I’ve just had enough of third-world chaos and garbage. I know I’m enjoying being back in clean well-organised Vancouver. As usual your photos are wonderful, especially the opening one. I have so much to learn . . . . . .
    Alison

    • I can understand the need for cleaner, more organized cities after your trip. I have to say that I found the cities of Mexico to be relatively clean, but Guatemala City is a dump and Havana is falling apart in places. The countryside in Guatemala is filled with trash too, which is a big disappointment.

      For the opening shot I did as long of an exposure as possible and just sat my camera down on the ground for a tripod.

      • Really? You used the ground as a tripod? Why didn’t I think of that?! Facepalm! Will definitely be trying it. Thanks for the tip.
        A.

      • I often find railings, chairs, benches, etc, for tripods on cities. Sometimes this makes composition a challenge. I have a mini-gorrila pod that works pretty well if I remember to take it. A beanbag can work very well too.

  14. Pingback: Singapore you’re in the list! – The world through your eyes!

  15. My brother lives in Singapore and we went to visit him last month. He hates it. If it weren’t for him, I would never have the chance to see this super clean country as this was never on my list of countries to visit. The first time I was in Singapore was about 3 years ago, also to see my brother. There, I discovered its hawkers and hawker food and from then on, I got hooked. They are still pricey though compared to Thailand but I can never have enough chili crabs! 🙂

    • I did find a few cheap stalls to eat and the quality was excellent. I am not sure if I’d like living there – my wife loved it and would be happy; me, not sure. It would be an easy place to live for sure.

      Why does your brother hate it? Does he want to move somewhere else?

      • I don’t want to sound like a racist here but let’s just say he doesn’t get along well with certain groups of people. And it’s not just him. The same observation is shared and felt among his friends too. He is living there because he and his wife have nice jobs that pay well. But if you were to count the happiness factor, I would say it is close to the bottom line. You are right to say about the “zombie apocalypse” because indeed people there are so stoic and appear to not care at all just going about their daily business looking at their electronics. It is sad, really. And yes, they have been planning to move somewhere else.

      • The vibe there is much different than the rest of Southeast Asia I think. I met a lot of nice people, but I can see what you are saying. Maybe he can work in Bagnkok or Alaska?

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