A tale of two cities: Singapore/Bangkok

Singapore: “Even the trees know to behave here,” said a friend only half-jokingly as she drove us to her apartment from the airport. Indeed, the pristine sidewalks and the immaculate topiary lining the road speak of a force of will that transformed a Malay fishing village into a model city-state that sets an example of modern urban planning.

We spent touristy time at the Jurong Bird Park, Sentosa Island and the Night Safari, but the highlight of our trip was a conversation we had with several expat Indian friends one evening. After 8 years of the Bush administration in the US, we really didn’t have much of a leg to stand on, but we still vigorously defended the institution of democracy, messy though it is in practice. Yes, Singapore is a democracy, with regular elections where the ruling party wins overwhelming support cycle after election cycle, but there’s more than meets the eye. Dissent is ruthlessly crushed by the simple expedient of bankrupting the odd brave soul who dares to stand in opposition. This is done (according to friends who whispered to us sotto voce) by analyzing every single pronouncement and speech made by the candidate during campaign season, finding the odd discrepancy or inaccuracy in their statements and then suing their pants off. The logic (and this applies to any criticism leveled against the State) is that since the State is doing such a great job for its citizenry (an unarguable point) any criticism must be false. The Supreme Court, of course, heartily concurs.

Our friends were completely on board with such actions, even though to us they smacked of dictatorship, benevolent though it may be. “Democracy is just oppression of the minority by the majority or of the majority by a minority,” said one. “The man on the street is just not capable of making an informed decision,” said another. To us, freshly emergent from an election where we saw the likes of Sarah Palin almost make it to commander-in-chief, that hit uncomfortably close to the bone.

It’s not hard to see their point of view, especially when things work so well in Singapore. The government of Lee Kuan Yew has made few missteps since it came to power over 4 decades ago. English has been adopted as one of the official languages and nearly every Singaporean is a polyglot as a result, well equipped to respond to international opportunities. When there was some clash between the various races that inhabited the island (Chinese, Malay, Tamil) public housing was structured with quotas for each race, so people wouldn’t ghettoize and would learn to get along with their neighbors. The education system, considered to be among the finest in the world, separates achievers from drones( my word) very early and fast tracks the former. Average students still have the potential to earn a decent living in jobs that are more suited to their capabilities (late bloomers – too bad!)

To an outsider, there is something awfully Big Brother about it all, but Singaporeans appear to revel in the safety and prosperity of their city. When I questioned whether such authoritarianism stifled creativity, it seems the government has realized that eventuality too, and encourages immigration as a way to get fresh blood and fresh ideas from the outside. Yes, free speech of the American sort is a casualty – friends would only hesitatingly mention the strictures and constraints they operated under, as if they were afraid it was being recorded somewhere. But if greatest good of the greatest number is the objective of any establishment, then one can unequivocally say that Singapore is a terrific example of governance.

Is it replicable? I doubt it. Experience has shown that dictatorships and authoritarian regimes are more likely to misuse their power than genuinely work for the public good. Witness Mugabe, Kim Jong Il..the list goes on.(Even China, which is often cited as an example of how a centralized, opposition-free government can make quick decisions, has shown a disturbing tendency towards disregard for human capital, corruption and environmental degredation). The rest of us will just have to muddle along in our flawed democracies. As Winston Churchill said, “… it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Bangkok: Krung Thep or City of Angels is its Thai name, but Bangkok lives up much more to the seedy connotations of its farang moniker. Steamy in every way, Bangkok is the yin to Singapore’s yang. It is colorful and gaudy, with streets full of cars in shades of neon pink, green, yellow and orange. All the wats( temples) are generously plastered with gilt and the many Buddha statues in a multitude of poses all gleam with gold and scraps of gold flakes pressed on them by devotees. The sidewalks are crowded with hawkers selling everything from fried meat( of nameless animals) to pirated DVDs( really high quality!) to cheap clothes and brand knockoffs.

We reached Bangkok a few weeks after the protests that had shut down the airport. Apparently this is one of the worst years for Thai tourism, but we were still cheek to jowl with other tourists in every excursion we took to explore the city and its environs. Buddhism with its message of stoicism is a perfect fit for these laid back, indolence-loving people who shrug off any disruption to their lives with admirable insouciance. (Also, you would need to be a Buddhist to put up with the traffic on Sukhumvit, an arterial road that cuts through the entire city and can jam up even during off-peak hours.)

Bangkok is also a city of hustlers with approximately 50 percent of the people out to cheat you and the other 50 percent warning you against those very same cheats. “Don’t let the taxi driver charge you more than 150 bahts from the palace to the hotel,” said our kind concierge and sure enough, on the way back a taxi driver nonchalantly asked for 500. When we asked for directions from the Grand Palace to Wat Po( the temple of the giant reclining Buddha) a helpful guide warned us, “No matter what anyone tells you, the temple is open.” Predictably, on our walk we were stopped and assured that the temple was closed for an afternoon siesta and we could see a “lucky Buddha” instead!

John Burdett’s thriller series is an invaluable read for tourists planning a visit to this garden of earthly delights. I read Bangkok 8 and gained a much better understanding of all the middle-aged white men with their nubile Thai companions, all of whom appear perfectly content with their respective bargains. I learn that somtam is a spicy papaya salad that has 12 varieties of chilies ground into it and can consequently blow the roof of your mouth. And most importantly, I had an insight into these beautiful people who have never been colonized and are so fiercely patriotic that not understanding English is almost a badge of honor.

Yes, it is an inexplicable fact, but very few Thais have even a working knowledge of English. Considering how much of the economy is dependent on tourism, they somehow get by with hand gestures and lovely smiles. Forget about making special arrangements or accommodating special needs in Thailand( unless they are needs of a certain kind, in which case nothing is impossible) and live as they do, enjoying life one day at a time, making up for their sins with acts of generosity and compassion( the karma all balances out) and philosophically accepting (what in the Western world would be termed apathy) of whatever life has to offer them.

Bangkok is not the first destination that comes to mind if you are family with little children, but there’s plenty of fun for them for a couple of days. I would recommend the canal tour to see the houses built on stilts( surprisingly unsmelly), a visit to the Tiger temple outside the city( a full day tour) and a tour of the Grand Palace and some of the more important wats. Of course there are the many gorgeous beaches which can be reached within a few hours from the capital where the kids can have a glorious time in the warm water while you get every part of your body massaged for incredibly low prices in USD.

The city is a complete contrast to the staid and successful Singapore. The government is constantly in a state of instability (though the king and queen are universally beloved), the police are famed for their corruption and the traffic is permanently snarled. People in the rural areas live in abject poverty, which is why so many young people show up in the city to participate in the flesh trade. It is still a joyous and vibrant place that welcomes the visitor with open arms. It is exciting, amoral, colorful and unpredictable.

Which city would you prefer to live in?

One thought on “A tale of two cities: Singapore/Bangkok

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