One of my family’s traditions was a mid-year trip to Singapore. We would stay at Crown Prince Hotel (nearby Paragon Shopping Centre) and besides shopping in Orchard Road and around the City Hall area, we would visit the Science Centre at Jurong East and the Sentosa Island. I quickly understood why Singapore is nicknamed “Manhattan of the East”, as I imagined I was in the Manhattan of The Ghostbusters, Home Alone 2, and Friends.
I didn’t visit the city in early 2000s and on the subsequent visits in mid-2000s, I was disillusioned with the city. People walked so fast and looked so stressed. I stayed in a budget hotel where the staff were cold, and then went to a five-star hotel to meet my American lecturer, where the security promptly confronted me. After the hotel confirmed that I was his guest, they gave me a star treatment. Not because of who I was, but who he was.
Still, I keep coming back. Probably because Bandung does not have a working public transport system and never will. Probably because I wanted to find something I like when going into a mall. Probably because I love walking in the city.
Recently my parents resurrected the tradition for their grandchildren, this time during the Christmas holidays. My sister and me would unleash our inner Monica Gellers, competitively making detailed folders related to the trip and trading notes. How easy is a vacation in 2016! We don’t need to leave Bandung to fly out of Indonesia (a flight to Singapore does the trick), a smartphone or tablet has map, magazines, camera, CDs, and tickets. And roaming service has become cheaper and more reliable.
Our Singapore mood was set in the plane when the woman behind my sister threatened to throw her toddler son off the plane for not sitting still and shut up. Her husband, sitting next to me, spent the entire 90 minutes glued to his PlayStation Vita, and his sister slept soundly throughout the flight, as I was admiring the majestic skylines that Bandung will never have.
Although we stayed in a different hotel this year, like in last year, we experienced a hearty welcome from a Malay porter, who was friendly not only because he expected a bigger tip, but also because he seemed to be happy to be able to talk in Malay with Indonesian tourists. My brother-in-law chatted with the hotel staff over cigarettes at nights, trading stories about the hospitality business.
The first night in Singapore is always dizzying, no matter how experienced I am with the city. People walk too fast – and many don’t hesitate to cut your path – the escalators roll too fast. Shop attendants are too efficient and never hesitate to reject your inquiry in a few words (or even with just a “Out!” or “Closed!”)
At first you might wonder if they seem so stern because of their limited vocabulary, as English is not their first language, or because you’re a foreigner (but then you would see that their communication will be just as laconic and cold with the locals).
This year I’ve seen more Malay and Chinese youth mingling together, which is a good sign. Some Chinese parents also made small talks with my niece when she approached their children. Still, our multiracial family might have caused some confusions. My Catholic Javanese mother still received dour warnings that she was about to consume pork (“Pork!” instead of “This is a pork product, ma’am”), and after hearing my story regarding bathtub, the receptionist told me to speak to the porter in “Indo”, presuming my English isn’t worth of her time.
And the train! I am confident that I could go to any point in Singapore at any time. Inside the train, I love to see how other passengers pass their time with their mobile phones. Texting with Sony Ericsson or Nokia a decade ago, watching anime and playing games on Galaxy S five years ago, and now chatting on WhatsApp with an iPhone.
We also always have some funny stories with the MRT service – this year Mom and I were warned for standing next to a pillar, waiting for the rest of the family to catch up with us (bonus point: the staff used garbled Indonesian as if we didn’t understand English). Also, my sister and her baby were dragged by a staff into the train. He forced a girl to get up from her seat, and then made my sister sit down – all without completing a sentence. Perhaps she took my sister as a heroic mother of Singapore who deserved a priority seat. We hoped the upset girl didn’t badmouth us on her WhatsApp group.
All in all, it was another great holiday. We bought tons of chocolates, Dad looked slimmer after days of walking for kilometers, strangers from all over the world trusted me to take pictures of them, and my family got their shares of bubur cha-cha, yong tau foo, and Pepper Lunch that didn’t feel expensive ($7 is different to Rp70,000, really). Sure, I didn’t have the time to visit any bookstore or anime store, but books and action figures are available online. Pavement and train are not.
Elizabeth Pisani said that Indonesia is like a bad boyfriend. I can’t use the girlfriend analogy on Singapore, since I’ve never lived there for years, working or studying with Singaporeans and experiencing the day-by-day dynamics.
For me Singapore is like a stylish, popular, and capable friend you meet over holidays. She treats people differently depending on how she sees them, she is very smart, but she refrains herself from voicing her personal opinions (you know that she’s a conservative). And she takes pride in getting everything done and organized. Even when you know you cannot really trust her, you can’t help agreeing with everyone else that she’s a great person.
How bad was 2016? Read Mario’s account on that annus horribilis. Follow @mariorustan on Twitter.