Sunday, October 28, 2007

Re: public space.

I am writing this on the 20:40 Air Asia flight from Singapore to Bangkok, having flown in the opposite direction fourteen hours earlier.

A day in Singapore to perform some essential tasks gave me an excellent opportunity to look at the island republic with fresh eyes, not having visited the city for almost eight months.

There’s something very pleasant about Singapore. My business finished at about 3pm, leaving me about four hours before having to start on the journey to the airport. I didn’t do anything particularly spectacular, but what I did do was very pleasant indeed.

Some observations, totally unrelated to each other and in no particular order; as well as some comparisons with Bangkok:

A mocha ice blended at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf outside Borders in Orchard Road with a couple of old friends was something I don’t get the chance to do every day in Bangkok: first of all because Coffee Bean hasn’t yet opened in Thailand, but also because pleasant al fresco spaces for coffee are pretty hard to come by in the Thai capital.
There seems to be more public space in Singapore. Astonishingly vast amounts of underground space have become subterranean piazzas: Citylink Mall stretching from Raffles City to Suntec, and from there to the Esplanade, reminds me of the soldier in HG Wells’ War of the Worlds and his plan to build an entire city underground. Although much less sinister, obviously.

Green abounds. The journey from the airport to the city literally feels like a ride through a tropical forest; even though, having lived in the place for enough years, I know that behind the trees lie army bases and condominiums. Even Tanah Merah, the interchange station on the railway to Changi Airport from the city, offers an overwhelming view of green from the platform. To enjoy anything similar in Thailand, you’d have to go a very long way out of Bangkok indeed.

Everything is incredibly seamless. The taxi queue in the airport is in air-conditioned comfort, and a steward directs you to the correct cab. I estimate the average time per taxi departure to be about four to five seconds, as opposed to Bangkok’s criminally slow taxi queue where not more than one group of sweltering, carbon-monoxide poisoned travellers makes it into a cab every minute.

The MRT is quite incredible; entire underground districts snake out from each city centre station. The train journey to the airport must be the cheapest of any city in the world. And once you do get to the airport, yet another spotless train whisks you to the right terminal. Everything is just so… integrated, unlike Bangkok where even nearby underground and BTS stations don’t link up, Silom MRT and Sala Daeng BTS being one quite ridiculous example.

The people are friendly. Every shop you go into, you’ll get a smile and an acknowledgement.

And it’s a joy to be able to go into an ordinary Marks & Spencer, ask if they have any rosé wine, and get an intelligent response as well as some other recommendations for hot weather drinking.

The bookstores are good. Particularly Borders and Kinokuniya. The music stores are vastly superior to anything in Thailand. I finally managed to pick up the Code 46 soundtrack, which I copied onto my I-tunes in the airport and which I am listening to as I write this. And there are some quirky DVDs to be bought, which show evidence that someone somewhere is making a genuine effort to provide an interesting variety of viewing; and that there is a populace discerning enough to make their efforts worthwhile.

The English language isn’t just a façade for the benefit of tourists and businesspeople; you hear Singaporeans everywhere speaking English to each other. Disorienting.

The air is fresh. You could run for miles and never have to endure anything unpleasant. Most roads are lined with trees, sidewalks are wide and even, and traffic seems to be quieter, as if cars sold in Singapore are fitted with silencers more effective than those in other countries. Certainly a contrast to Bangkok’s tuk tuks, roaring trucks and taxis with exhausts hanging off.

People sit outside at lunch. Not hunched over noodles at makeshift stalls set up along the sides of roads, but in properly designed outdoor spaces, overlooking lawns and fountains, eating goat’s cheese salad.

And yes, the airport. I could spend hours in Changi, trying on watches, listening to live jazz, watching ESPN in comfy lounges, sipping coffee. It seems like another town: just one that happens to have aeroplanes leaving from it.

I’m aware that a lot of people have differing opinions on Singapore. But nobody can deny that the people there are a unique breed, and that they have certainly created something.

Singapore was probably the original prototype for the world city; where everything is in English and a population from around the globe lives and works in businesslike harmony. Shanghai and Dubai today certainly owe at least something to the original Singaporean vision of a modern day Venice, a fortified city state whose borders are open to all who come in peace.

For somebody who has convinced himself that he is happy in Bangkok, for all its chaos, noise and filth, it’s really all quite unsettling.

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