The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Only Singapore

Having just returned to Singapore, I realized once more how strange and unique this island is. While the country is increasingly unwelcoming to non-natives of the land, this place still gets closest to something I can call home. Here is an incomplete list of Singapore oddities that never fail to amuse me.

Invasive red-eared sliders basking in the sun

Red-eared sliders basking in the sun in the Singapore Botanic Gardens: immigrants take up every inch of space.

Shops in Singapore will never admit they do not sell an item you are looking for. Try this: enter a lingerie shop and ask for an electric drill. There is only one possible reply you can hear: `No more already.’ They will never tell you that they only sell panties and bras. They always give you the illusion that if you come back in a week, you will get your electric drill. A less extreme version is when I demand a teh tarik at the cold drinks stall, to which the exasperated response is `finished already.’

Shop selling Chinese trinkets

Just walk up, ask for an electric drill, and hear the only possible reply.

The behaviour of Singapore cab drivers is among the most unpredictable and unfathomable.┬áIt is a diverse batch: all ethnicities are represented, some cabbies have been doing business since eternity and speak Queen’s English, others are fresh arrivals from China and speak no English. Cabbies always give you a wide grin if you want to go to Geylang for durians, which makes me believe that there are several sex offenders among their ranks. All of them have an entirely different map of Singapore in their head, so it is much better if you know your entire route by heart, including shortcuts that could bypass traffic. If you just landed and you cannot tell TPE from PIE or ECP, prepare for a long sightseeing tour at your expense. Unions in Singapore do not exist, but that does not keep cabbies from acting in unison: they designate time zones during the day when they refuse to stop for a fare. At 10pm you can wave your hands to your heart’s content, empty cabs will zip by you, with the driver staring vacantly ahead.

The only thing that is more complex than the behaviour of cab drivers is the fee structure. You can never forecast how much you are going to pay, even if you take the same route every single day. There is morning surcharge, midnight surcharge, 1pm surcharge (otherwise known as the I-should-be-having-lunch-right-now surcharge), shift-ending surcharge, Mercedes-cab surcharge, big black non-Toyota cab surcharge, ERP surcharge, expressway surcharge, distance longer than 5km surcharge, credit card surcharge, debit card surcharge, NETS surcharge, cash surcharge, you did not fasten the seatbelt surcharge, you got in the cab on the left surcharge, and the everything else surcharge. Just looking at a cab will set you back $10.

Cabs outside Tudor court

Not to mention the Tudor surcharge.

As packed as the island is, Singapore’s Land Transport Authority performed extensive research to build train stations in areas that are completely void of human settlement or commercial activity. My favourite is the Punggol LRT line, which has several stops with no building in a 5km radius. Another favoured strategy is to put the station in the middle of a green field, with the most nearby HDB being a kilometre away. The idea is that in the future, the land closest to the station will be more valuable, thus ready for sale to private developers at exorbitant prices.

Sengkang LRT line

An ingeniously located train station: an open field on one side, and rain forest on the other. It is frequently used by macaques when they go shopping for groceries.

Hells Angels Singapore are well and alive. The sidewalks in the outer districts of the city are ruled by 70+ Singaporeans riding bicycles in white singlets. Unbuttoned shirts are also popular. They are highly territorial and will not let pedestrians enter their domain without punishment. They patrol their area day and night on their shiny vehicles, so beware.

Silly warning sign outside a mall.

Before this sign, Hells Angels Singapore entered the supermarket riding their bikes. Now they are forced to buy their ramen dismounted or face disciplinary action.

Singapore is the only country in the world that grows its territory without subjugating its neighbours. I will never fail to admire the feat: they have been reclaiming land for the past fifty years, connecting several islands to the main island, and also connecting outlying islands with one another. Singapore’s land mass grew by 25% since independence. A by-product of land reclamation is an excessive level of sediment in Singapore waters, which makes diving a sombre affair. To continue the soft expansion, I propose buying up the rest of Batam, filling up the sea in between, and build an MRT line all the way. Later do the same thing with Sumatra, then expand the land further to the Indian Ocean. When there is no more sea to reclaim on Earth, start space colonization. I see HDBs rising on Mars in the near future, with unqualified property agents inflating rental prices.

Off-shore reclaimed island and refinery

What did Singapore build on the reclaimed land? Oil refineries! If I ever reclaim land, I will build nothing on it but oil refineries.

Singaporeans will queue up for anything that is free, especially if they do not need it. To generate a one-kilometre queue of Singaporeans, follow these steps: 1) Buy a large bag of plastic dinosaurs at a wholesale outlet for $20. Also ask for a hundred product samples from a random toiletries distributor; 2) Put them in paper bags — a dinosaur and a product sample in each; 3) Choose a location exposed to the sun and put up a banner saying “Free goodie bag for first 100 applicants!” 4) Enjoy the sight.

Kids in Singapore have the shortest childhood in the world. By the age of two, depending on the parents’ aspirations, they must master ten thousand Chinese characters, play the piano, win several regional sports competitions, excel in ballet, and solve partial differential equations. There is no time for playing. Naturally, the kids are raised by maids, as the parents themselves are busy taking four jobs each to have sufficient funds to sponsor all the extracurricular classes. If you do not have at least a bloody MBA by the age of three, prepare for hell at home. This is not why mummy and papa paid $40,000 for your after-kindergarten management classes. You must get that MBA. Look, you little brat, Mr Wang’s offspring is barely two and a half, and he already has a PhD in Economics from Harvard.

Indian bloke with spikes sticking out of his back and chest.

This guy had no childhood, and look what happened to him.

Singapore is the idol of all nations. The country is always cited as an example to follow by nations that do not have the slightest chance of replicating its success. No natural resources? No problem, we will follow the Singapore model. Surrounded by water and grovelling in poverty? Sure thing, we will just do what Singapore did. Authoritarian government? Oh, that is just our interpretation of Singapore-style governance. Rejoice, people, no matter how corrupt, hopeless and miserable your country is, if you keep referring to Singapore, you will surely have the highest GDP per capita in fifty years.

"Lift to Lost World" sign at the Gardens by the Bay

Ah, Singapore, you beacon to all nations! How would we find the Lost World without your guidance and infrastructure!

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