LATELY — 20 February 2001

Singapore, Malaysia, Home


It’s funny being back in Melbourne. You walk around and hear an Aus­tralian accent and go, “Ooh, Australian, run, run!” But it is nice to be home (even if I’m think­ing of going away again).

I spent the last week or so in Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia, vis­it­ing friends and relatives. I had a great time there, but I don’t know if I’d rec­om­mend a visit unless you know people there.

I didn’t see that much of Singapore, just some shop­ping areas… (This is partly a product of what my rel­a­tives thought I’d like to do, and what there is to do in Singapore.) I walked down Orchard Road, through the Suntec Center, and through another less flashy shop­ping center I can’t re­mem­ber the name of. There are two “Metropolitan Museum of Art” (the New York ones) stores in Singapore–Singaporeans are very image conscious. You also see things like multi-million dollar houses (ridiculously tiny) with junk in the yard–plastic buckets, bits of metal, broken-down swing sets etc. I think this is sup­posed to say: “Not only do I have a yard, but I’m so rich that I can afford to store junk in it.”

I think there is sort of stuff to do at night in Sin­ga­pore but my cousins weren’t into that sort of thing and so, both nights I was there, I walked down the road to a hawker center and drank Tiger Beer (ugh), took photos, smoked a few fags, read Blake, and talked to a fas­ci­nat­ing old guy with no teeth.

[I’ve been reading the clas­sics mostly because they were cheap, the idea being that I would give them away or dump them when I’d fin­ished with them. But as it turned out I couldn’t bear to part with them, except for that ridicu­lous Henry James. So I ended up ar­riv­ing home with a stack of books about a foot high. I ac­tu­ally had 30kg of luggage, al­though about 10kg of that was clothes I was taking to my mother from my aunt.]

Sin­ga­pore traffic lights have this feature (for pedestrians) where as soon as the little red man starts flash­ing to in­di­cate that you can finish crossing, but shouldn’t start to cross, a big red display lights up that counts down the number of seconds left before the light goes com­pletely red. I ini­tially thought this was a neat feature–no longer do you have to guess how long you have to cross the street–but after a while I re­alised that the count­down display, though os­ten­si­bly helpful, was ac­tu­ally un­nec­es­sary and unwelcome: in other words per­fectly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Sin­ga­pore itself.

Sin­ga­pore is a city that’s re­lent­lessly planned and ordered: nothing is left to chance. (The people are like this too: my cousins had trouble with the idea that one could travel quite happily without an itinerary.) There is merit in having the traffic lights that count down (so you know whether there’s time to cross the road or not), just as there is merit in having the trains stop behind au­to­matic doors (so you know exactly where to wait). These are good ideas, and prob­a­bly got someone a promotion. But they remove a little un­cer­tainly from life, and with it goes a little bit of life. Every time you are not given the option of trying to dash across the road before the light turns red, every time you’re not given the chance to stand wher­ever the hell you want on the platform, a de­ci­sion is taken from you, and you die a little inside. I want choice, dammit.

(My friend Trevor was de­lighted to find that in Burma (?), it’s per­fectly ac­cept­able to dig big holes in the pavement, and then just leave them there, without ad­ver­tis­ing their pres­ence in any way. Coming from a country in which walking on the pave­ment doesn’t gen­er­ally lead to your death, this was a revelation. You feel more alive, he said, because at any moment you could fall into a hole and die. I un­der­stand this feeling a little better now.)

So I don’t think I could ever live in Singapore, not for any long period of time anyway. It’s psy­cho­log­i­cally stifling, but it’s also phys­i­cally sti­fling in terms of the weather, and per­sonal space. I also dis­trust a gov­ern­ment that, among other things, makes ab­solutely no attempt to make their apart­ment build­ings vi­su­ally appealing. Or do people just not care? They care about their phones: Nokia are trying to sell a phone with an ad saying that theirs has a blue display.

(Another note on dwellings: private de­vel­op­ers put up build­ings that are slightly more at­trac­tive than the government’s efforts, but then have the im­pu­dence to give their estates grand names such as “Versailles”.)

Kuala Lumpur is more rough-and-tumble than Singapore, which was welcome. I liked the cheery dis­re­gard shown by the Hugo Boss and Ermenegildo Zegna stores for the pre­vail­ing weather conditions: the window of the Boss store fea­tured a heavy knee-length coat whilst a poster in the Zegna one pushed cashmere.

Walking around the streets of KL you see a sur­pris­ing number of white people, but about 90% of them are either sketchy-ass white guys (by them­selves or in pairs), or retired couples (desperately trying to enjoy the experience). I can un­der­stand why the latter are here, but the former? Guys, you creep me out.

After KL I went to Ipoh, where my aunt lives. I also went to Penang for a couple of days with my cousin, where I got sunburnt, but patchily, because I can never seem to apply sun­cream evenly. Why am I the only one with this problem? It’s over 30 degrees today, but I’m wearing jeans to cover my embarrassment…

There are a lot of slightly odd things about Malaysia. You see cars with (big) stick­ers stuck onto the back window that say “PROUD TO BE MALAYSIAN”. The radio carries civic an­nounce­ments ad­vis­ing lis­ten­ers on how to be a good friend. (Another de­scribes how the colours you wear affect your mood, and the mood of others.) Star­bucks is almost as ex­pen­sive as London, though the average income is prob­a­bly at least 10 times less. You can buy really cute seven packs of Marlboros.

I’ve also taken a lot of Po­laroids over the past two weeks. I bought the camera in Ed­in­burgh mostly to take photos of people–I have a 35mm camera, but it doesn’t have a flash, so it’s not very useful indoors. Also, when­ever I take pic­tures of people with that camera I somehow manage to capture their emotion, but not their hu­man­ity (if that makes any sense) so I end up with pic­tures that work like that scene in the Matrix with the lady in the red dress–there are people there, but their hu­man­ity is somehow ir­rel­e­vant to the shot. But I can take photos of people with the Polaroid. I have three por­traits of the owners of hawker stalls that worked out pretty well, as well as some shots of people smiling sweetly to alcohol, etc. I also have six rolls of 35mm film to develop, and nine to scan.

I have to finish (really do have to this time) my thesis by the end of March. I’m very much looking forward to finishing, so I can start the first day of the rest of my life.