Chapter 34: Singapore and Malaysia--Land Travels
Lighthouse at Raffles Marina in Singapore with Bridge connecting to Malaysia in Background
When I last wrote (see Chapter 33), we had had a disastrous few months with boat problems and Joe having to have emergency back surgery just a few days after our arrival in Singapore. Well our life has “settled” now and we are adjusting to our decisions of giving up our circumnavigation and returning home. Joe is now 3 months post op from his spinal surgery (see last chapter), but he is still not even close to being at 100% on an activity level. Although the surgery relieved the nerve compression and the pain, numbness, and loss of strength in his leg is resolved, he still has a lot of pain in his back and hip area with only minimal walking or activities. He needs medical follow-up in the US and a vigorous treatment of physical therapy before he will get better, so that will be our first course of action upon our return. That said, he has been a real sport and we have both made the most of our last few months here in SE Asia traveling to 3 other countries (Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand) besides doing some exploring here in Singapore.
Our boat was repaired (over a month’s worth of work in the yard “on the hard”) by a 1st class boat repair facility, and they did a wonderful job with our mast/rigging/compression post now better (and stronger) than new. We have recently listed Mi Gitana for sale (with so far, several seemingly very interested prospects, but still no money on the table yet). We will leave her here in Singapore in the care of a boat broker, who hopefully will do their job and sell Mi Gitana, so that she can continue to do what she was built for — to sail the 7 seas with new owners who are not as worn out as us!
Mi Gitana at Raffles Marina in Singapore
I have decided to keep our journal and website going for a while and to continue to write about the countries that we visit — their people, the history, the culture, and about our land “adventures,” for those of you who are still interested. Joe and I do not plan to be beach hermits stashed away in our wonderful ocean house in Mexico for 12 months of the year (although that does not sound all bad!). In the past 5 years, we have been cruising 7-8 months of the year and then home (during times that we could not cruise, the cyclone / hurricane season) 4-5 months of the year. Now we intend to reverse that sequence, i.e. we will still travel 4-5 months of the year to foreign countries on our list of “places to see,” and be home for the rest of the year. And we may even do some sailboat “cruising” the easy way — chartering boats in exotic foreign lands where we don’t have to do the maintenance, repairs, and it is not as physically challenging to our getting-older bodies. We’ll see… there’s a lot of world out there still for us to see and experience!
So for now, I will back up a bit and write some about Singapore — our “home” since May.
Singapore Skyline at Night
Singapore is a city, an island, and a country, located at 1 degree north of the equator (meaning it is tropical, HOT and HUMID sauna all year round!). They have thunderstorms 40% of all days and almost 60-70% of the days in April and May (when we arrived of course!) It is a tiny country/island — only 25 miles across and 14 miles from top to bottom, located just across from the tip of the southern Malaysian peninsula (See the maps on the website for location) and so close to Malaysia that it is connected in 2 locations to Malaysia by bridges. From its southern shores, there is a good view of Indonesia, which is easily traveled to by ferry.
Because it is so tiny and now with it’s soaring population of almost 4 ½ million (one of the most densely populated countries in the world), and there is so little land to live on, Singapore has been utilizing land reclamation processes to add on to their island with amazing success. Today over 1/3rd of its land mass is reclaimed land. Where there was only sea water during the colonial time, today stands huge high rise buildings and condominiums! Also to house so many people on so little land, 87% of its residents live in high rises.
Singapore’s ethnic population is made up of 3 main groups: Chinese 77%, Malays 14% and Indians 8%. Because of its predominant Chinese population, Buddhism and Taoism, account for 51% of the resident population’s religion with Muslims (15%) and Hindus (4%). Christianity in the last decade has increased and is now at around 15%
During the 18th century, the British saw the need for a strategic half way point between India and China in its trade route to refit, feed and protect the fleet of their growing empire, as well as to forestall any advances by the Dutch in the region. They sent Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles to the island of Singapore in 1819 and that was the beginning of what was to become one of the worlds largest shipping ports, as it is today. The entire island of Singapore when Sir Raffles showed up had a population of only around 150 fishermen and a few Chinese farmers. The British colonized the island and made the port a “free” port status-- a policy that attracted merchants from all over Asia and the Middle East. The population swelled and in just 2 years, the population was over 10,000 with Sir Raffles as the new and very popular Governor. [Today All over Singapore today the name “Raffles” is still present (famous Raffles Hotel, Raffles Marina where we are located are just 2 of hundreds of examples).] The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the advent of telegraph and steamship increased Singapore's importance as a center for the expanding trade between East and West.
It was the scene of significant fighting during World War II. Singapore was considered an impregnable fortress, but the Japanese overran the island in 1942. After the war, the British were welcomed back after Japan’s surrender in 1945, and Singapore as well as Malaysia became a Crown Colony. The Malaysians still had many sultans that all had their area of “rule” and the British in their plan to set Malaysia free and independent had the hard job of getting these many sultans to give up their sovereign rights and to get them to agree to a union. They proposed that a parliament be set up with the sultans being “paid advisers.” However the proposed union also was to give all it’s territory occupants (Malays, Chinese, Indians, etc.) equal rights, abolishing the special privileges of the Malays. This caused a revolt and although Malaysia (with Singapore) got its federation status (still not independence though) from Great Britain in 1948, the new federation upheld the sovereignty of the sultans and the special privileges of the Malays. Obviously the Chinese residents who had lived there now for over a century and had fought hard to fight off the Japanese felt betrayed. Finally though, in 1957, independence was awarded when the federation finally presented an alliance of Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese population convincing Great Britain that they were now a racially harmonious group. However, constitutional rights and privileges were still given to the Malays and denied to its other populations. The problem with the sovereignty of the sultans was solved by each of the 9 “state” sultans agreeing to “take turns” in being the “leader”–each having a 5 year term. In 1963, Singapore, and British Borneo was added to the union of Malaysia.
1965 to Today’s Government:
The Malaysian “marriage” with Singapore however never really worked. Singapore with its huge Chinese population, refused to extend the constitutional privileges to the Malays in Singapore insisting on equality to all its people… so essentially Malaysia kicked Singapore out of the Union just 2 years later in 1965. Singapore with no natural resources of its own might have been doomed for failure, but its leader (and prime minister for 31 years!), Lee Kuan Yew, decided that industrialization, and Singapore’s potential for increasing its port facilities would be its future. He also developed the island nation into a financial hub, adopted a pro-business, pro-foreign investment export-oriented economy. He also helped in the development of a highly educated workforce with the Chinese ethics of “work harder than everyone else” and today the country is the wealthiest and most well educated of South East Asia.
Singapore today has a largely corruption-free government (very rare for this part of the world!!), a skilled work force, and its advanced and efficient infrastructure have attracted investments from more than 7,000 multinational corporations from the United States, Japan, and Europe. Foreign firms are found in almost all sectors of the economy. Multinational corporations account for more than two-thirds of manufacturing output and direct export sales. Singapore today is a leader in shipbuilding and repairing and has the busiest port in the world with over 600 shipping lines sending super tankers, container ships and passenger liners to share the busy waters with coastal fishing vessels as well as small insignificant sailboats like us. (Read the last chapter in our journal for our experience in Mi Gitana crossing all these shipping lanes!) It also has one of the world's major oil refining and distribution centers. Additionally Singapore is a major supplier of electronic components and has also become one of the most important financial centers of Asia, with more than 130 different banks.
Prime Minister Lee also fashioned a government heavy on strict social order and the suppression of political opposition… controlling the country with discipline with a very firm hand. Note: many Americans remember in the news the story of the American who did graffiti in Singapore, was tried and found guilty and was caned (beat with a cane) as part of his punishment. Caning is still part of the punishment system today. For many years punishable offenses included spitting in the street, chewing gum, and long haired “hippy” type travelers were not welcome in the country. Today although still referred to as a “nanny state” and there are still very strict rules, there has also been some relaxation of the rules that at one time controlled every aspect of Singapore life. For example, sugarless gum can be found now but only in pharmacies!
But also as a result of Prime Minister Lee’s setting up of a tough civil order stance, especially with regard to hard-line criminals, Singapore is a very safe country with low crime rates. Today there are still harsh penalties handed out to offenders, and hundreds of suspected criminals are held in jail without trial simply because the government does not have enough evidence to convict them. The importation of drugs carries the death penalty, which is regularly carried out. Since 1991 the Singapore government has executed over 400 murderers and (more commonly) drug-traffickers, giving the tiny nation the highest execution rate per population in the world.
Although I’m sure there is more crime than we as temporary visitors were aware of, Joe and I just had a feeling of being safe here. Even taxi drivers would expound to us how it was totally safe for a woman to walk around alone at night. [We seldom went out at night and if we did, I was never alone… but I think I would have felt safe!] And speaking of personal safety, of interest, this is the only country we’ve visited in SE Asia that is strict on seat belt wearing in cars (most places in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand we visited did not even HAVE seat belts — especially in the back seats!), helmets for motorcycle riders, and no smoking in ANY public place. After coming from Indonesia where it seemed most of its population smoked, we seldom see anyone smoking in Singapore, which is wonderful.
In the 1970’s and 80’s the Singapore government encouraged birth control to try and limit (and decrease) its booming population (and not enough land space for homes), but it was so successful that the population growth, especially in the Chinese community, dropped off alarmingly. So the government again tried to reverse this trend, and for a while, in attempts to increase “intelligent” children growth, they introduced tax incentives for university educated women who produced children, as well as financial rewards to non-educated couples willing to undergo sterilization. This radical policy has since stopped.
Now for more of our own observations of Singapore:
First it is not a place I would put high as a must-see tourist destination. It does not have the exotic different ASIAN feeling that you get as your first impressions of Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bali, Seoul, etc. Singapore appears shockingly modern in both looks and attitude, and almost anonymous… for most “tourists” it is just a quick stopover enroute to somewhere else. I had last visited Singapore in 1986, and other than going to the famous Raffles Hotel for its famous “Singapore sling,” I have no real memories of doing or seeing much here although I remember I spent 3 or 4 days here! Although they are building a casino (big thing in the news here now to attract more tourists), and are developing an island with real “imported” white sand beaches, about the main tourist attractions here now is the zoo (ho hum, compared to San Diego’s zoo), the orchid and botanical gardens (if you’re into beautiful and tropical flowers), and a walk around Little India and China Town. Also shopping is a big thing here and food and eating out seems to be a national past time here. So if you come to visit Singapore as a tourist (and you’ve already visited the other above mentioned cities in Asia) and are expecting more of the same, I think you would be disappointed.
However that said, Singapore is a beautiful country/island and would be a wonderful place to LIVE —and in comparison to other SE Asia places (and even in comparison to the USA) very safe with law abiding (for the most part) citizens. And because of this reason, it has a huge ex-pat community mostly due to the large amount of foreigners employed here who all bring their families to live for multi-year business contracts. It is a nice place for foreigners to live, with wonderful education (each country seems to have it’s own school, for example there is “the American School”, “the Australian School,” “The Chinese School”, etc.) And in comparison to US, very little drugs (as it carries a death penalty), and alcohol is so expensive (another of the governments way to control things) at 40-60 dollars to buy a fifth of scotch, vodka, etc… that makes it hard for teenagers to get in trouble.
So instead of exotic, Singapore is almost “normal” looking for an American–however in general, much cleaner looking and feeling. We have noticed not one bit of graffiti anywhere, and trash or other signs of littering on the roadways are not noticeable. No one eats or drinks (against the law) on public transportation so even the buses and trains and their terminals are spotless. The streets (even the major “highways”) are tree lined with beautiful shade trees. (They’ve imported some type of tree that grows to huge sizes in only 3 years, are umbrella-like in producing shade, and do not shed leaves! They feel not only do these trees provide beauty for all their streets, but they also serve to keep some of the tropical 95-100 degree heat down!)
Singapore has made cars very expensive for locals to buy with outrageous import taxes (even a small Kia, one of the cheapest cars in the US that can be bought there for under 10K, cost over 65,000$ here!), in order to keep the traffic under control. So because of this there is not only very little traffic (and no one here seems to blow their horns! — VERY unusual for Asia!), there is also a wonderful transportation system with MRT (mass rapid transit, that is both above ground like a monorail, as well as in parts of the city, underground, like a subway) and an extensive bus system. And if you are in a hurry, there are also thousands and thousands of taxis (where in comparison to US prices, are very cheap). So in general it is very easy to get around without a car, and most lower and even middle income people do NOT have cars.
One other wonderful thing about Singapore is that it is a country that would not accept the elitism of Malaysia with one culture and race being held above another, hence its departure from the Malaysia union. And to Joe and I, it is definitely obvious that people live here peacefully, that laws are abided, that mixed cultures (Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese predominantly) live and work side by side not only tolerating each other’s religious and cultural differences, but with true acceptance.
I mentioned above that food seems to be part of the soul of the local people. I read in the paper that so many people eat out here for the majority of their meals that the condos and houses of the locals put very little square footage into building kitchens. Meals can be had at what they call hawker centers for under $2-$3… so they feel “why cook?” Singapore claims to be the food capital of Asia. The hawker centers are areas where dozens and dozens of outdoor food and drink stalls set up under one roof with food specialties of Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian, and even western foods are prepared for you in the matter of minutes. Some of the local dishes that are popular are:
Satay ( bite-sizes shish kabob pieces of chicken, lamb, pork or beef — marinated in a sweet spicy mix of lemongrass, ginger, cumin, chili, sugar, coriander, etc, cooked over a grill an then served with a peanut sauce);
Chili Crab (considered Singapore’s own specialty–a crab served whole with a very spicy sauce poured over it–messy to eat but very good);
Chicken Rice (steamed or roasted chicken served with rice that has been cooked in chicken stock served with side sauces of chili, garlic, soy to dip the chicken in),
Roti Prata, Another favorite, showing the Indian influence on food which is like a flakey pancake-like bread that is used to dip into curry “gravy;”
Carrot Cake: this is a really weird one. Not only is it not a cake, is not a sweet desert, but does not even have carrots in it! It is made of white radishes that are grated then mixed with rice flour and steamed. The resulting “cake” is then cut into pieces and stir-fried with eggs, diced garlic, spring onions and radish flakes.
Ice Kachan: another “weird” one, by American standards. It is served as desert and consists of shaved ice, topped with evaporated milk, flavored red syrup, bits of candied fruit, red beans (this is where it gets yucky) and then usually creamed corn. The whole thing is then topped with a strawberry sauce! I will say one thing for it, it is colorful!
And of course, Singapore has its share of American fast food, with KFC at the top of the list of favorites. They also have McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Dunkin’ Doughnuts and of course, our favorite, Starbucks!
Although we did not do a lot of sightseeing while here in Singapore, mostly due to Joe’s immobility, for anyone who is interested, these are the things we did do/see that we thought were worth while:
For sure everyone has to at least walk around the infamous Raffles Hotel and have their famous Singapore Sling (actually a pretty foul concoction– a cloying mix of brandy, pineapple juice, gin and Cointreau... --but a require check in the box of things-to-do in Singapore). Raffles hotel in Singapore is the stuff of legends. Since opening in 1886 with only 10 bungalows, the last Singapore tiger (legend or truth?) was shot underneath the Bar and Billiards room (1902), the first Singapore sling was mixed at the Long Bar (1915), and beauties Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor have called it home. Writers that you might associate with the waning years of the empire–Joseph Conrad, W Somerset Maugham, and Rudyard Kipling–have lived here. English colonels gathered here to sing “There Will Always Be an England” after Singapore surrendered to Japan in 1942. In short, Raffles embodies all that was glamorous about the Far East in colonial times.
The hotel was renovated in 1991 but still managed to maintain its old-world charm and new-world comfort. Although we would have loved to spend a night or two there, I was told the rooms start at over 600$/night for the BASIC rooms up to multi-thousands for the suites. They advertise 2.5 staff members per guest so I guess part of that price is for their renouned service.
The area around the hotel (the “colonial district,”) merges with the central business district, and the riverfront area of Singapore and is worth a walk around for a real collage of architecture, sights, museums, and just absorption and awe. (It is amazing from the courtyard of the Raffles hotel--which in the colonial style the hotel is not very tall-- and to look up at the surrounding 30 and 40 floor skyscraper buildings.) Along the riverfront is a host of open air restaurants, and also the newly built Esplanade — Theater On The Bay, a 600 million $$$ theater and arts performance complex, that looks like an exotic popular tropical fruit, the durian. So locals call actually call the complex “the Durian.” (For those of you not familiar with the durian, it is also the foulest smelling — between urine and dirty feet–fruit in the world!)
New Performing Arts Center -- "The Durian"
Another outing we enjoyed was a trip to China town. Here you can actually get a little feel of “Asia” out of Singapore. The streets are lined with small individual mom and pop venders with all their products labeled in Chinese characters, ancient remedy herbal stores, small old shop house type stores restored to look like they did during the 1800’s trading day, and of course, lots of good eateries. We also went to the Chinatown heritage center, a museum crammed to the rafters with displays of how the old Chinese traders worked and made their livings and sample 1-room homes showing the crowded conditions the Chinese once had to endure.
Right in the middle of China town we went inside the very ornate Thian Hock Keng Temple — which seemed out of place as it is a Hindu temple–the oldest and most important Hindu temple in Singapore, built in 1839--It houses the shrine to the goddess of the sea from whom sailors in history have come to pray for safety in their passages.
With encouragement from some locals to “not miss,” we went one night to the Night Safari — It is a large forested park next to but totally separate from the Singapore zoo. It opens after dark and houses only nocturnal animals. You can walk or travel by tram around and it seems like in the dark there are no barriers between you and the nocturnal animals (lions, tigers, etc.) that seem to be wandering out in the wild. Unfortunately Joe had eaten a Bongo Burger (at the Safari restaurant when we first arrived) and somehow it had explosive results to his intestines, so we sped through our “safari” and sped home (to the marina) in a taxi — not doing the Night zoo complete justice!
So those are some of our impressions, and our experiences in Singapore. All in all, we have enjoyed our time here and are glad we have had the extended time to get to know the place as well as we have.
3 Week Visit: May 25th -June 9th, 2006
2 weeks after Joe had his back surgery, we had Mi Gitana hauled out of the water to have her boat repairs started here at the Marina repair facility. We were told by the manager of the “yard” that they would greatly appreciate it is we did not live aboard while they were doing the repairs as not only would the boat be a total mess inside, but also we would slow down their work schedule by being in the way. So for this reason, we planned a month of trips to be away.
Our first trip was to the East coast of Malaysia to a beach resort in the town of Cherating. Joe and I took an overnight 1st class bus (8 hours) from Singapore. We decided on this type of transportation as although long, for his back we thought it would be the most comfortable as the seats on the bus fully recline, it is airconditioned, and mostly to have flown there would have required much walking in the airports (3 airports to get there) and handling of luggage, etc. Anyway, at the time of our departure, Joe was actually feeling pretty good and he made the bus trip without any problems. Unfortunately several days after we arrived at the resort, he ended up in severe pain with great difficulty doing any walking at all. However we didn’t have much walking to do… we made one trip a day to the resorts restaurant for breakfast, and from there to the pool, where we spent hours and hours reading books and doing not much of anything. Then we would usually spend the afternoons in our room or outdoor porch which looked over the South China sea, playing cards, reading or resting. Frequently we just had room service for the rest of our meals. We had traded 9 days from a time share we own for this place so we had the nicest room they had — actually a 1 bedroom, 1 living room, 2 balconies with 2 outside seating locations, kitchen, etc. with spectacular views from our balconies. It was a wonderful get-away. We only left the resort once on our last night there to go into “town” (really a village) to have a dinner out. So it was about as relaxing and restful of a vacation that Joe could have had for his back, and for me — NO cooking or cleaning to do!
After that, we headed (this time flying) to the opposite side of Malaysia to the N.W corner to a resort island called Langkawi. We originally were supposed to sail there and meet up with our cruising “buddy boat” (Pacific Bliss) and friends aboard, Lois and Gunter. But since that plan fell through, we committed to visiting them anyway and spending a week with them on their boat. They had just been on a 3 week vacation/package tour to China and had barely had a chance to unpack from that trip before we arrived. But our timing was based on the 4 of us had already booked a 10 day trip all together going to Vietnam. And our flights to Vietnam were originating for us from Langkawi (also already booked in advance on the plans that we — Joe and I and Mi Gitana–would have already arrived in Langkawi). But anyway, Lois and Gunter graciously and quickly, readied themselves for us to come and stay with them using Pacific Bliss as our home base for sightseeing around Langkawi. Mostly we ate out a lot (great food), explored the island by circumnavigating in a rental car, and even took a cable car up a mountain (near the marina they were at) which offered us great panoramic views of the island and the seas around us. We were still limited somewhat in activities by Joe’s back pain, but we managed to have a good time — mostly because we were in the company of good friends.
Beautiful White-sand Beach on North Side of Langkawi with Many Off-shore Islands
On June 9th, the 4 of us departed Langkawi for our trip to Vietnam… and that adventure will follow in the next chapter!
It is now July 31st and we leave to return to San Diego tomorrow... we hope to see a lot of you as we return to our life on land as "dirt dwellers" again.