After day at sea we landed, on Friday, in Singapore, which is basically an island city-state with the largest port in the world. On average, approximately 400 ships enter, and another 400 ships leave, the Port of Singapore each and every day of the year.
The activity of these ships is reflected in the hustle-and bustle pace of life in the city. It should be noted that Singapore is, by land area, one of the smallest countries in the world, but the place runs like a clock. The Singaporeans are the Germans of Asia – alles in ordnung(everything is in order). And no wonder. Every tourist entering Singapore receives a Landing Card. On the bottom of the reverse side of the Landing Card, in bold red letters, are the words: THE PENALTY FOR DRUG TRAFFICKING IS DEATH UNDER SINGAPORE LAW. Not a lot of room for interpretation here. A famous T-shirt offered to tourists has the front of the T-shirt covered with “NO” signs – signs with a diagonal slash through them: No spitting, No Chewing Gum (I was told that chewing gum – the product – is prohibited in Singapore, and that anyone caught chewing gum is fined $1,000 Singapore Dollars – approximately US $900 at this writing), No Jay-Walking, No Crossing Against Red Lights, No Littering, No Graffiti, etc. etc.
Everything here is squeaky clean; the subways are fast, quiet, clean, on time and run every 2-5 minutes,
parks are beautifully manicured, buildings are modern, shopping malls are huge (on a par with Hong Kong) and filled with the latest fashions, electronics stores everywhere carry new devices we haven’t yet seen in the USA; and the best part: in all of Asia, Singapore is the easiest place for English speakers to get around because ALL the signage is in English, and only occasionally is there a second language on a sign (this despite the fact that Singapore’s population is about 80% Chinese, 10% Malay and 5% Indian.) Virtually everyone here speaks English as the language of business, although between people of the same ethnic background they only seem to speak their respective native languages. For reasons of language alone Singapore would be, therefore, the easiest Asian city for an English-speaking newcomer to integrate into. The population seems to be quite prosperous as, although goods seem to be a bit less expensive here than in Hong Kong, people everywhere are walking around with shopping bags filled with purchases, whether in the “bargain” districts or in the fanciest, most upscale malls in the city. Singaporeans are definitely consumers and, from what it appears, no less avid conspicuous consumers than the folks in Hong Kong.
Doesn’t this building look like the building in NYC that made all the news during Superstorm Sandy? The building that had the broken crane attached to it?? Must be the same architect.
Singapore is divided into districts, some of them by virtue of ethnic makeup, some by virtue of what goes on in the area. Our first venture out into Singapore was to take a subway (called MRT – Metro Rail Train) to the area known as Little India.
Little India is the center of the Indian population of Singapore, and the largest Hindu Temple in Singapore is located here. I had several reasons for wanting to visit the area. (Understand that Singapore, being only a few degrees off the equator, is humid, as is all of Asia south of Hanoi, so humidity did not play a role in my decision-making). First, I was told that Little India was just like being in India except that it was a lot cleaner and that you had five feet of sidewalk to walk on (this proved to be only partly true). Second, Indians are big buyers of gold jewelry, almost all of it 18-carat (in Indian culture, gold is a symbol of wealth – DUH! – a lesson the US government seems to have forgotten since we got off the gold standard in the 1970’s and started printing fiat currency – paper money with nothing to back it up other than “the full faith and credit of the United States”). Little India is one of the cheapest places to buy gold in the entire world, and I wanted to see what this was about (it also turns out that silver bars and slugs, with 99.95% purity and hallmarked, are also sold in at least one large department store in the Arab district, the Mustafa Store). And third, since many Hindus are vegetarians, there just HAD to be a great collection of vegetarian restaurants located throughout the district.
What I didn’t learn until I got to Little India (remember, this was a Friday) was that Hindus are in the midst of their month-long “Festival of Lights” (Indian Chanukah?), the Diwali Festival (called in Singapore “Deepavali” – the appropriate greeting is “Happy Deepavali”), which meant that these people were on holiday and the temples were filled with worshippers; the Muslim Sabbath is Friday, so many Muslims were not working and/or were in the mosques; and today (this Friday) was the start of the Eid al-Adcha, the 3-day Muslim feast marking the end of Ramadan and perhaps the most important Muslim holiday, so the Muslims were all on holiday, out and about with their families. (“Muslims” in Singapore means not only Arabs but Malaysian Muslims and also some ethnic Chinese Muslims.) In short, virtually every place we went was packed to the gills with people. In Little India tents had been set up for vendors to sell holiday clothes from India (saris for women, male garb for men) and Diwali holiday decorations to Indians. These tents were gigantic (think in terms of 3 circus tents) and put nearly an entire block under canvas, and they were set up in several locations that we saw in Little India, and presumably in other places there that we did not see, and in other locations around town as well. Working our way through Little India, we found many vendors who made the famous marigold flower wreaths, with the yellow marigold color mixed in along with reds and oranges, or with purple orchids. The wreaths are very dramatic in color and evidently play some kind of role in the holiday or religious rites. In Little India most of the street vendors who were selling these wreaths, were actually assembling them from the flowers in front of our eyes.
Walking through Little India we came upon a tourist version of what must have been their 99 Cent Stores – the 3 For $10 Stores. These stores sell all kinds of things, from fans to snow globes (for a country close to the Equator!) to all manner of tourist dust-collector knick-knacks – a tschotschkeh collector’s heaven!
The largest Hindu temple in Singapore, the Sri Veeramakalimman Temple, is located in the heart of Little India, and on the day we visited it was very busy. Removing my shoes before entering, I found many large niches inside the temple, all tended to by Hindu priests, who accepted offerings to the deities whose statues appeared in the niches, and who recited prayers associated with these offerings. People would visit the niches and say their prayers, and the priests would then mark their foreheads with a powdery substance that looked something like liquid Calamine Lotion, that was dabbed on the forehead between the eyes by a priest, using his second or third finger. Outside the temple and all around we saw people with their heads marked all over.
Many of the stores we saw in Little India were virtually identical to those I saw in New Delhi and in many other cities in India – stores selling fabrics for creating saris, stores selling the “dot head” type decorations, salons for applying the most detailed patterns of henna, stores for Indian wedding garb, etc. Signs were in English and Hindi, and some of them were eye-brow raising (for example, one store billing itself as “Nose Stud Experts” Everything in Singapore’s Little India is much cleaner than in India itself, although I had the feeling that Little India was the least clean area of all the places in Singapore that I visited. Still, this being Singapore, even the least clean is still pretty clean.
From Little India we did some additional walking in the area of the Arab District and through a very large shopping mall called the Mustafa Center, where it appears that many of the departments are actually individually owned and the space rented. There was nothing memorable here, although one or two of the stores in the Mustafa Center had available for sale 99.95% pure silver bars or slugs. The shopping mall is open 24/7.
Because this was a Friday and I needed to be back on board early in order to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services, we decided to cut short our visit to the Arab District and stop by the main synagogue in Singapore, the Maghain Aboth (מגן אבות) Synagogue. Singapore’s earliest Jewish settlers were merchants from Iraq who came to trade as early as 1831. The first synagogue that they established was designed to hold only 40 people. However, the expansion of the Sassoon family’s business interests into Singapore attracted additional Jewish businessmen, and in due course the existing l synagogue was too small. The Maghain Aboth Synagogue was built in 1878 with donations from the Sassoon and other wealthy Jewish families. Originally the synagogue was a one-story structure, but as the number of Jewish women in the community increased, a second story was added for the “Ladies’ Section” or ezrat nashim (in the orthodox Jewish tradition, men and women sit in separate areas of the synagogue so as not to distract them from focusing on their prayers). The Maghain Aboth Synagogue is the oldest surviving place of worship for the early Jewish community of Singapore and is built in the form of a classical Sephardic synagogue, with the large, raised amud (Reader’s Lectern) set in the middle of the synagogue opposite the aron kodesh(covered ark containing the Torah scrolls). The chairs and benches in the synagogue face the ark rather than facing the Reader’s Lectern. Today the Maghain Aboth Synagogue still follows the Sephardic prayer rite, although its present rabbi is from the Chabad Hassidic movement. In 1998 the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was designated as a national monument.
Following our visit to the Maghain Aboth Synaogogue it was time to return to the ship, which we did via the MTR. However, Singapore left me with the feeling that there was so much more to see in this vibrant country, that I would definitely like to return here for a more extended visit. And just as a note the prices of “things” in both Hong Kong and Singapore seemed to be about the same as we would pay in any large American city.
The next day, I (Nina) went out with friends to see the other shopping opportunities in Singapore.. Since it was Saturday the subway was PACKED!
We went to Orchard Road.. The main shopping drag with designer malls and came upon a fashion show in the middle of the street.
So many contrasts in this city.
There was a cable car (many) that went from the main island to another.. It went all day long and actually went right over the ship.. They looked like a jeweled necklace hovering over the city.
Our next 3 ports are going to be in Indonesia – 3 stops that differ greatly from one another in this mainly Muslim country: Semarang, Lomboc and Komodo Island (home of the famed Komodo Dragon). I am looking forward to these places very much, starting with Semarang on Monday.