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.