Make that squeaky clean and Technicolor green. Singapore is as antiseptic as it is lush, qualities which are inexplicable, actually, given that this is a highly urbanized and, as I wrote in an earlier post, craaazy-diverse city-state. You’d expect that its ca. 5 million culturally divergent inhabitants, squished as they are on this patch of island no bigger than the landmass of Chicago, would tear up and wear down this place and strip its tropical verdure to a sorry pulp. Our planet’s got lots of examples of that.
(Chicago, by the way, has only half of Singapore’s population. And as much as I think Chicago’s a grrrrrreat town, “clean and green” aren’t the very first descriptors that come to mind.)
Clean and green is what most people say about Singapore when they come here. But you have to see it to believe it:
A big reason behind Singapore’s “clean and green” is a whimsy of nature: There are storms just about every single day here in the equatorial tropics. Things get a good wash. And they grow. But this kind of manicured perfection and hup-two-three-four orderliness don’t just fall like rain. They are the result of strict governmental intervention. They are, in fact, pretty much the invention of a single man.
Lee Kwan Yew, (who was Prime Minister at the time of Singapore’s declared independence from Malaysia in 1965 and who is now serving as Mentor Minister under his son, Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister since 2004) has helped enforce strict laws to ensure clean and green. In his 1968 “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign, for instance, he said that there is “no hallmark of success more distinctive and more meaningful” than being clean and green. In fact, his goal was to be the cleanest and greenest city in South Asia. No one doubts that goal’s been reached. Now Singapore’s goal is to be just that, but for the whole world.
So what is “clean”? Singapore clean is more than Listerine, although Singapore is that, too. The Keep Singapore Clean campaign continues today, educating the public about the vices of littering, of not flushing public toilets, eating or drinking on public transit, dropping gum wrappers or match sticks in the street, jaywalking. To keep things spit-spot, public spitters are arrested, or levied heavy fines. Or you accidentally drop your Whopper wraper and you are sent to “litter rehabilitation” and are publicly labeled a trash felon by wearing a neon yellow vest with the letters CWO (Corrective Work Order) on the back while you sweep or scrub the subway platforms.
Clean also means “smut-and-drug-free”, (as my Singaporean girlfriend called it), and explains why, when we moved here from Munich, we were required by Singaporean law to give an itemized list of every DVD and CD we were bringing into the country. Some official was going to scan through our Pixar, Dreamworks and Disney library, checking for “degrading and pornographic” media. I was amused. And, I’ll admit it, positively so.
The drug laws are even more steely, although they sure don’t sound that way when the powdery Singapore Airlines flight attendants remind you of them as you are circling over the airport, preparing to land:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will soon be landing in Singapore. As a gentle reminder, please place tray tables in an upright position, draw open your window shade, ensure your luggage is securely stowed either under your seats or in the overhead bins, and kindly note that in Singapore drug trafficking is punishable by death. Have a pleasant landing, and we hope you enjoy your stay.”
To tell the truth, I’ve never done drugs if you don’t count Ambien or choking down my fair share of second-hand smoke in crowded Parisian cafés and Norwegian jazz clubs. I also have children I’d like to spare from the whole drug culture. So let’s just say I’m not actively picketing against these laws, notoriously harsh as they must seem.
But whoah, when I was told that chewing gum was illegal, I developed a twitch like that. Luckily, the anti-Orbit law was lifted in 2004, so I can get my fix. But only from my dentist. Who dispenses it under prescription. And from an unmarked car. With tinted windows. Through which the goods are passed. As it rolls down a back alley.
I know that law softened in 2004 and I can now chew my gum legally, but I still can’t help but feel I need to do so only before sunrise and after dusk. And without moving my jaw. Do I have to tuck it under my tongue if I’m in public? Smash it to the roof of my mouth? Suck, instead of chew it? So is it “sucking gum” now? Then what’s the point?
To understand what “green” means, listen to this Singaporean theme song:
And visit these links:
Half of this country is covered with green, there is a serious and expanding park system, and there are gargantuan trees that line the major expressways, originally transplanted from Africa I’ve been told, that look like massive petrified vascular systems doing a head stand. Their sprawling, heaven-reaching limbs make a lacy canopy, underneath which hydrangeas and bougainvilleas grow, lining the highways. Lining the highways. HydrANgeas. BoungainVILLeas. Did you hear that? It’s phenomenal. Green like this is downright mouth-watering. The landscape’s so juicy, you want to scoop a big, thick spoonful of it and slurp it down.
But not so fast. You don’t want to be guzzling your garden just yet. To keep Singapore this green and this livable, there are stringent regulations regarding insect inspection. Every month, a pest control crew must show up at my house to check for rodents, spiders, geckos and snakes. But their prime target is the dengue-fever-carrying mosquito for which they “fog” (or fumigate) our entire premises. If you happen to get a surprise visit from the National Environment Agency and they find even any evidence of mosquito larvae on your property — and they do come, believe me, and they do find — you are (you guessed it) levied a heavy fine. Just one more reason Singapore is called “a fine city.”
Want to see what “fogging” looks like? A shot out my window, right before I escaped:
While they were fogging, I took off for the hills. Er, hill. There is one hill, Bukit Timah Hill, which at 538 feet is the highest point in Singapore, which gets me just above the literal and figurative fog of everyday life. It is bar none my favorite spot on the whole island.
Welcome to my sacred refuge:
Three mornings a week, I go hiking up and around and to its top and down again with my friend Jonna, who first introduced me to the place. She’s a self-confessed hike/travel/photography maniac. (Those were all her shots in the post on food, by the way. Thanks, Jonna!) Over 16 years ago, she was transplanted to the Pacific rim, and is positively percolating with a serious case of Asia fever. She has taught me loads. (If you want to learn from her, too, go to http:travelwithjonna.typepad.com)
When we hike Bukit Timah hill, we’re hiking amongst monkeys and through more species of flora than is found in all of North America. We chug our loop where we always run into clusters of other hikers now familiar to us, including that lone Malyasian whom we recognize by his silent tread, since he always hikes barefoot. We carry pocketknives and cell phones in fanny packs not so much because we fear a human attack, but because of the off chance that we might come face to face with the reticulated pythons reported to be indigenous to these swampy slopes.
To stay away from snake nests, humans scale those slopes by sets of stairs, like this one:
and this one. . .
and then this one . . .
and then you come to this one. . .
before you hit this one. . .
and top it off with this one. . .
. . .which makes the hike a bit more than your everyday stroll through a rainforest.
On those occasions I’ve hiked it alone, I’ve flipped my switch over to Hunger Games mode and have run the loop. Including the stairs. Just about kills me. At my age it’s more Katnap than Katniss. Still. . .
After a major storm (which happens every month or so), the trail gets battered and uprooted trees sprawl across the mudslide, sodden limbs splayed in sudden surrender. The signs asks hikers to give it a rest.
On a particular morning, the gray-blue skies were sagging above the tree line like wet flannel pants sag on a castaway sailor. Light was barely visible through the trees. And with one clap, the skies exploded in a solid, spectacular down pour. Jonna and I ended up drenched to the bone.
And happy as Bukit Timah monkeys. Two of us were shimmering clean. One of us was shivering green. . .with envy. Because the other one of us gets to stay here and have this hill.
But she’ll come visit Switzerland, she says. We’ve heard there’s a bit of hiking there. In a place called. . . the Alps?
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.