Quick glimpses from new and old Singapore
I arrived in Singapore only a few hours before the state funeral of Dr. Lee Kuan Yew, the farsighted founder of this city-state and its Prime Minister for more than three decades. I followed part of the ceremony from the television and then went out to meet my Singaporean friends. Some of them told me that they managed to find their way to the Parliament House, despite the 100,000 people attending the funeral, to pay one last homage to their statesman. Others had been queuing up for hours to view his coffin in the previous days. On March 29th it was pouring, and those taking part in the funeral procession got completely drenched at one point because they all felt they had to close umbrellas to allow people behind them to view the passage of the cortege. Such unexpected acts of courtesy, respect and civic conscience – more and more difficult to find nowadays, especially in hectic cities – have always pleasantly surprised me in the seven years I have been living in Singapore.
It is always interesting to talk to my Singaporean friends, as they come from different walks of life and they have very different views. One of them was praising the Government also for some initiatives that should not be taken for granted: the city districts regularly organize dinner parties for their neighborhood, in order to promote social harmony and friendship among people, and the Government pays for all the food on offer. Other times, they would organize bus tours to the different city attractions, also fully sponsored. The husband had a different view, and he thought hat it was all part of political propaganda, leaving his wife quite upset. I tend to take the wife’s side, as I myself gladly enjoyed some significant benefits as a Singapore permanent resident: in healthcare, or having the right to purchase a flat from the Housing Development Board if I wished so, and – once back in Hong Kong – my children could attend Singapore International School paying lower school fees.
What impressed me most since my last visit six years ago, it was the speed in which the MRT (what we here call MTR) lines have been implemented. They can now reach almost any area of the city. The ultimate idea is – as another Singaporean friend convincingly told me – to have a car-free city. The cost of owning a car in Singapore is very high, due to the COE (Certificate of Entitlement), a quota license that grants the legal right to own a car. When demand is high, the COE can exceed the value of the car itself. Despite that, there is no lack of cars in the city, and when we drove back to the airport, we even found some traffic jam on the highway. It was due to the huge site that is now already creating jobs for the citizen: the Seletar Aerospace Park, catering to the aerospace industries. This project, once completed in all its phases, will ultimately allow a cluster of companies in the sector the design and manufacturing of aircraft components and small jets, together with training, research and development. Rolls Royce has already opened its factory here and it is producing engines for Boeing aircrafts.
Singapore is always one step ahead with new industries and technologies. Manufacturing still contributes more than 20% of the country’s GDP. For this reason, due to the increased use of water by the industrial plants, Singapore not only was able to produce the NEWater (high grade reclaimed water, absolutely safe to drink), but also set up expensive desalination plants. The aim is for the small city-state to become totally self-sufficient, without having to depend on imported water from Johor Bahru (Malaysia).
From this new Singapore, forever growing, planning, building and creating new attractions too (the two huge greenhouse-like buildings, full of plants and flowers of any sorts and called ‘Gardens by the Bay’ are quite impressive), it was nice to take a walk, step back in time and have a feeling of ‘old’. During my brief trip, I also met my Italian friend Cristina, who has been living in Singapore for 18 years and just recently purchased an old apartment in one of the ‘Art Deco’ buildings, in Tiong Bahru district. I admit that – were it not for Cristina – I wouldn’t have known that such a gem existed. The low-rise structures of the Tiong Bahru estate were part of one of the biggest public housing projects in Singapore, constructed in the Thirties and based on a distinctive Art Deco style called ‘Streamline Modern’, with simpler and more functional design, mimicking the streamlined and aerodynamic features of cars, trains, planes of the pre-war era. Some of the buildings even incorporated nautical elements. All these decorative purposes were well coupled with functional ones, like ventilation wells, green glazed windows as a shield from the tropical sun and perfect sanitation system (this was the first neighborhood to have proper sanitation in Singapore).
Unlike the modern high rise lego-like buildings, these old flats spot a rounded balcony (often enclosed to make the apartment bigger) and shuttered windows. They overlook quiet streets with some palm trees and little tidy public gardens, because in Singapore urban landscaping is never left to chance.
The whole area is a pleasant discovery of small lanes, old shops and restaurants, new cafes, galleries and a wonderful independent bookstore, where I could have spent hours browsing known as well as unknown interesting books of all kinds, fiction and non-fiction, along with vintage wares and strange stationery.
This ‘new and old’, so well blended in this ever-changing city is all part of a country that is only fifty years old, and it stands as a testimony of Mr. Lee Kwan Yew’s legacy. As Lee Hsien Loong (Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s son and current Prime Minister) said during his father’s funeral: “To those who seek Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s monument, Singaporeans can reply proudly: ‘Look around you.’”