The running (pun intended) joke of my first trip to India was one of our group member’s morning outdoor barefoot jogs. While some of us headed to the hotel gyms, this unnamed participant dazzled us with stories of sprints-sans-shoes. Westerners jogging in Asia has caused some controversy beyond my 2014 Dialogue. You can find an example of this in Mark Zuckerberg’s recent “smog jog” in Beijing. Aside from India’s comparable air pollution, the heat in the country in May is oppressive, the humidity even more so.
After considering a dash of my own in Singapore, I couldn’t help but think of bare
feet, Indian cities and naiveté. Although I was nostalgically hesitant, Elisa clued me into the running paths along the Marina Channel. My morning run, on my final day in the city, was sweltering and I sweat more than I thought humanly possible. However, the run was safe and easy. In the US, when I go for jogs, I sometimes worry about getting hit by an aggressive driver or passing through a tricky area.
However, Singapore was wide open, clean and absurdly safe. I felt a sort of supreme confidence about passing through the sidewalk. At night I knew I could walk freely through the streets without worry.
Let me provide a bit of context. In Singapore, there are cameras everywhere. Some refer to the place as an advanced surveillance state, with stringent rules that provide protection at the cost of freedom. The Pink Dot movement, which seeks to legalize homosexual sex, was subject to even more restrictions during our time there. Despite the many thought-provoking conversations I had, we were there for a week. We understood what we could and left the rest behind.
Our tour guide, who was notably hired by the government, explained Singapore’s
harsh penalties for rape. If a woman was drunk, he would not even dare to enter an elevator alone with her. This respect for strict laws was echoed in other spaces, like during a panel in which we heard from local Singaporeans like a pilot, entrepreneur and chef. All of the panelists we heard from agreed that gender discrimination did not exist in the small country of Singapore.
The city-state has a population of only 5.5 million people. I could not help but be struck by how empty and quiet the streets were. There is barely any traffic because the government makes it very expensive to own a car. During a drive back from a museum, our bus actually turned around in the middle of the highway. None of the cars that were stopped by our bus honked. They just waited patiently and came to a slow stop. Where else in the world does this happen?
Singapore invented the food court, called “hawker centers” there. It is a country where lunch felt like the most celebrated meal of the day, smack in the center of working time. I struggled to find distinctly Singaporean activities, cuisines or art – everything felt borrowed from somewhere else.
By my last day, however, something inside of me switched. If the smartest, most wealthy people dreamed up city it could have been Singapore. That day, I had my first-ever, delicious Malaysian meal. Afterwards, I stopped into an Arabic store where the perfume I tried smelled eerily like Pink Sugar, what I wore in middle school based on an answer Zac Efron gave in a Tiger Beat interview. From my short time, my read is that Singapore is a beautiful but ultimately empty city.
I flew out of the place with so many questions, while admiring an airport that was two years into the future. (The Singapore airport lets you rate every experience, from walking through its cactus gardens to the security line wait time. I waited for maybe 2 minutes in the security line. Now that’s what I call vision and planning.) What is the value in striving for perfection? Can you mix multiple cultures to create a new one? Should we really be criticizing a country that achieved great wealth and great success in just a generation?
Riddhi, one of the members of our trip, urged the group to engage while criticizing and criticize while engaging. I think this is an apt mindset to have. Here in Jakarta, two of the group members stayed back in Singapore because of a passport snafu. They just made it back and rejoined the group.
In their absence, I continually asked myself if I was jealous of them for staying there. I remembered the unreal Gardens by the Bay with fondness, the mystical Marina Barrage. Then, I thought about rickshaws and street stalls with smoke coming out of the top. I thought about the Jakarta McDonald’s worker asking Mason if he bought his shoes at Zara. It felt something like relief.