The megacity as social experiment

By Richard Turen
RichardTurenSINGAPORE -- Well, I'll say this for the Singaporeans during this visit: No one asked me how many Americans are in prison.

I've always been asked that question in the past, usually on the way into the city from the airport. The query is important because you have to ask back, whereupon they relish in explaining that they have about 37 folks in prison because they have "good order."

That's true, but I must point out that there is a price to pay for having "good order" in Singapore. You've probably heard about the ban on chewing gum. In fact, you can chew gum in the city; I tried it on Orchard Road just to see what would happen. It is the sale of gum that is illegal, the city's response to wads of sticky on public conveyances.

The important thing was not if you chew it but how you get rid of it. I had to be extremely careful to place it in a trash can. And though I can't prove it, I just know someone from the government had to have been watching as I did it.

Americans love how clean this city is, and they ask why we can't have such clean streets at home. Actually, I think we probably can. We just need to adopt the same littering law -- namely, drop a piece of paper on the ground and face a $1,000 fine and some forced community labor.

They have a sort of three-strikes policy in Singapore when it comes to littering. If you are caught dropping trash on the ground three times, you are forced to wear a sign that basically says, "I am a litter pig." It's a pretty big sign.

I saw police checking public toilets after locals had used the facilities, enforcing the "flush" law. But as with many things, the Singapore city fathers take it one step further. You can receive both a fine and a public caning for failing to flush. So again, when tourists from the States marvel at how clean the public restrooms are in Singapore, there is a bit of a price to pay in the form of making dirty restrooms a punishable offense.

You can list the fabulous things there are to see and do in Singapore, but I feel that a trip here can be totally justified by one simple culinary truth: You can feel comfortable dining at the hawker stalls in virtually all of the outdoor food courts. The city is that clean, and food standards are that high.

While highly sophisticated young urbanites are lining up to grab some grub off food trucks in America's trendiest cities, Singapore has perfected the outdoor stall mall with communal seating. It is an innately inquisitive and rewarding way to sample some of the best food on the planet, and you have to imagine that using ingredients that aren't fresh and hygienic must violate any number of Singapore laws with really terrifying penalties.

I can personally vouch for the mushroom minced meat noodle in the Chinatown Smith Street Food Centre: incredible poached egg noodles topped with a flavorful mushroom sauce with minced pork pieces and boiled meat dumplings.

Even CNN managed to discover the Chin Hut Live Seafood Restaurant on Clement Street, where they do crab feasts featuring crabs from most of Asia.

Of course, you might conclude that you prefer the black pepper crabs at the Leng Heng BBQ Seafood shack in East Coast Lagoon Village.

The major purpose of any visit to Singapore ought to be compiling your own personal list of outdoor food-stall favorites.

After enjoying, say, the incredibly light and juicy pork buns served at China La Mian, you might be tempted to go up and hug the motherly woman working the wok. Don't. Hugging folks without permission in public can get you charged with "outraging modesty," and that can involve jail time.

As I wandered the food courts, talking to nearly everyone within earshot between heavenly bites, I had to censor myself a bit because you can't speak badly of, say, organized religion. That is rather serious, and you can be cited for sedition.

You've also got to be fairly careful about speaking with strangers. You see, if you meet someone and introduce them to someone else, speaking highly of their character, you can be cited for abetment if any of your words turn out to be false. Imagine if they enacted that one at political fundraising events in the States.

I have one other bit of advice for clients newly arrived in Singapore. Make certain that your hotel shades are closed. You see, pornography is very illegal in Singapore, and nudity is equated with pornography. This means that you best not walk around your hotel room (or home for that matter) in the buff. If someone across the way should happen to see you, authorities could be notified.

Since I've always thought that the primary purpose of staying in a hotel has a lot to do with nudity, I decide to keep the drapes drawn.

One of the things I like to do is scour local blogs while I am traveling abroad. That is how I learned that Singapore has a government that, while the envy of many urban planners, is a tad, shall we say, intrusive.

There is a "Try a Little Kindness" national campaign. The signs are everywhere. There is also a Social Development Unit of the government, which is essentially a dating service. And, since this is Singapore, you had better not lie on the application, which is sent to every unmarried citizen over the age of 30.

Earlier today, I stood in an impossibly long line. I didn't know what the line was for at first, but I knew it would lead to some worthwhile discovery. It turns out that bubble tea stores are all the trend, and locals will literally stand in line for an hour to get a drink.

That long wait left me with time to ponder that perhaps Singapore is a country created just for travel writers with an appetite for exotic and beautiful locales, world-class, easily obtainable food and some of the world's finest hotels. And it doesn't hurt that you'll likely be arriving on one of the world's few five-star airlines.

Standing in that line, and learning that locals are discouraged from gambling by having to pay a $100 fee each time they enter a casino, I began to feel guilty about staying here. Singapore is just too easy. Glance in any direction and you might see a maid cafe where young girls with fake lashes spoon-feed guests, or look the other way and see the symbol signs that prohibit making out.

Enough. Singapore is a really fascinating social experiment and well worth visiting. But the manipulation is so heavy-handed that one yearns to visit a place with "good order" decades away.

For me, that place will be Myanmar.

Contributing Editor Richard Bruce Turen owns Churchill & Turen Ltd., a luxury vacation firm based in Naples, Fla. He is also managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales training and marketing consultancy. Contact him at rturen@travelweekly.com.
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