What Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore Taught Me

01/04/2015 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
ROSLAN RAHMAN via Getty Images
Pedestrians cross a street at the Orchard Road shopping district in Singapore on March 12, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN (Photo credit should read ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

It was in 2003 that I headed to Singapore for my MBA degree. As my plane descended into the country, sunlight broke upon the bay and the island was ensconced in a shimmering golden hue. Shiny, I remember thinking, even as I chalked my plans: walking with animals in the night safari, water skiing at SKI360, window shopping at Orchard Road's fashion emporiums and eating snails in Chinatown. It was on landing that I noticed something amiss. There were signs everywhere--gleaming, sterilised and clean (like the country)--instructing people on how to talk, how to walk, how to dress, how to sneeze, how to eat and how to laugh. What was this? Sparta during Milesian times? There was no way I was going to follow any of these draconian measures. After all, I was from India where rules were mere suggestions and signs were a place to spit on.

But, alas, Singapore had seen many like me before. And so I spend the next year in a state of military preparedness, much like the women of Sparta, and learnt--through absurdity--things far more valuable than the paltry rigours of management academia.

How To Speak A New Language

Before moving to Singapore I was told that Singaporeans spoke and understood English. What I wasn't told is that Singaporeans spoke their own version of English called Singlish, which was about as charming as our desi Hinglish. No surprise then that, initially, I could not understand a word that was said to me.

A visit to Starbucks, for instance, went like this -

Me: One Grande Caramel Macchiato, please.

Barista: Chan cha chan chan cha, luh.

Me: Huh?

Barista (thin eyebrows raised): Chan cha chan chan cha, luh.

Me: I ... don't follow. Could you repeat that? Slowly, please?

Barista: Chan. Cha. Chan. Chan. Cha. Luh.

Me (look around in desperation as people behind me shift impatiently): I'm not understanding you.

Random dude behind me: Dis gal ask you 'for here or to go, lah', lah.

Me: Oh! She wants to know if I want to have the coffee here or take it away?

Barista (frowns): Chua, luh.

Me: Okay. I guess I'll take it to go, yaar.

I was served the coffee, not in a paper cup that I could take away, but in a hot ceramic mug that I had to stay there and sip. You see, the Singaporeans don't follow Hinglish either.

rules singapore

How Not To Get Arrested

In Singapore even a minor infraction carries mandatory punishment. Use an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot. Jail. Buy firecrackers. Jail. Download on torrents. Jail. Bungee jump. Jail. Gay. Jail. Graffiti. Jail. Agnostic. Jail. Atheist. Jail. Gather in groups of more than two after ten pm. Jail. Hug someone without their permission. Jail. Smoke a cigarette in public. Fine. Chew gum. Fine. Unwittingly drop a sweet wrapper from your purse. Fine. Eat a durian (ugh!) in the MRT. Fine. Pee in an elevator (some elevators are fitted with Urine Detection Devices, I swear). Fine. Jaywalk. Fine. Spit. Fine. Forgot to flush the toilet. Public caning. Try to commit suicide from all the fining and caning and jailing. Jail.

So much of my time and effort was vested in not getting arrested or fined or caned that I felt like I got a MBA in Non-Incarceration and not Finance.

How To Have Fun

You had to have fun. Not out of choice but as a government decree. I remember commuting by the MRT train where posters urged Singaporeans 'to have fun' and 'to smile'. You see fun wasn't for pleasure or play. It was a task. A job to be done. A goal to be accomplished. A ruling. The irony of this was lost when the locals began to have fun very seriously.

How To Be Fair And Lovely

I realised quite quickly that Singaporeans, like Indians, worship fair skin but I underestimated how obsessed they were. A lot of Singaporeans suffer from something called The Pinkerton Syndrome in which they consider white people superior. Therefore, the service I got in restaurants with Caucasian friends was very different from what I got with Indian friends. Local girls would bat their eyelids around white guys and, once, a girl approached a Norwegian guy in our group and showed him some rather risqué photos of herself. There was a group called the Sarong Party Girl evidently looking to ensnare an ang moh (white boy). Many Singaporeans also liked to do what they thought white people do. This included queuing up outside the Chanel Boutique at Orchard Road because they thought Chanel was American, knocking back cosmopolitans--inspired by Sex and the City--at The Fullerton Hotel rooftop, having yet another insipid conversation about Snooki from Jersey Shore, and changing their lovely local names to Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

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