RE: Five Reasons Not to Travel to Singapore: This South East Asian Country is One to Avoid

This old Yahoo! blog post seems to have caught the attention of several Singaporeans on Facebook recently, so I decided to have a read, because the title was interesting enough. I can’t say that I wasn’t ruffled by some of the things that were written, but as an opinionated post, I felt that there was little worth getting riled up about. I was, however, incredibly annoyed by the missing “is” at Point 4, so I pointed that out on the Facebook wall post where I saw this link. In response, I was told to “try looking deeper”, so I will.

Point by point, I will respond to each of the five reasons Cassandra James claims that this country I live in is one to avoid. It is no less opinionated than hers, but it is, at least, the point of view from a hermit-crab fence-sitter who was born here. Which amounts to very little, unfortunately, and will be a massive train wreck…

1. Singapore Is The World’s Most Boring Country – One of the smallest countries on the planet, Singapore has little to do to keep you entertained. Sure, if you like shopping malls, or sitting in restaurants, Singapore has many of them. But other than tacky Sentosa Island with its Universal Studios Theme Park, there’s little else to do except shop and eat.

Half the fun of being in Asia is its lively streets, smells, sounds, street nightlife, food stalls and cities that never sleep. Singapore, on the other hand, is one of the world’s most sterile countries, with all the outdoor food in ‘hawker areas’ (dull, compared to Bangkok), and with none of the street life of most Asian cities. After being in Bangkok, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, I felt like I was sleepwalking in Singapore – it really was that dull.

To be honest, this is something I agree with, but only to a certain point.

Yes, on one hand, Singapore is as boring as it gets if you follow the main road, and much of what some might consider fascinating may have been removed due to the development of Singapore’s built environment. Even the above quote seems outdated as hawker centres are a rare find around the main Orchard Road area.

On the other hand, as accurate as the above quote may be in describing what is fascinating here, it is still inaccurate. Every untruth has a modicum of truth in it, so the reverse is true, and the untruth about the statement that Singapore is the world’s most boring country is this: much of what may make Singapore interesting is gone, but there is still some of it left. As I mentioned earlier, hawker centres are a rare find in the Orchard Road area, but Bugis Street and Chinatown are still standing. That flea street market has been there for a long time, and it will still be there for some time to come. Not much has changed at Pulau Ubin either. I went there on an orienteering excursion in 2008 and, if anything, the recent newspaper reports highlighting it proves that little has changed over there in the past half-century. Shopping malls here are also pretty much standard-issue and all alike, but that there are a few that stand out. Mustafa Shopping Centre has a reputation for selling almost everything and swindling some people, and the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands has a man-made canal running through it at basement level. The author has also mentioned nothing of the parks that are located at the fringe areas of Singapore, particularly the eastern region, or even the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Pasir Ris Park and East Coast Park are great areas for doing all kinds of sports. The latter even has a lagoon where individuals can do water-skiing. What about the Botanic Gardens? The origins of this massive bastion for nature in the middle of the city can be traced all the way back to Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern-day Singapore, and it contains most of the flora and fauna native to Singapore. This same place could very well be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the near-future.

It may also be worth mentioning that current-day Singapore fascinates some people in less overt ways.

2. Singapore Is Expensive – Compared to most other Asian countries, Singapore is expensive. With things like taxis, hotels, shopping and eating on a par with America, I saw no point in visiting an Asian country, then spending as much as I would in America, if not more. For cheap yet amazing places to travel in Asia, avoid Singapore completely, and try Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh – basically anywhere but Singapore.

Yeah, riiiight, like my mum and her modern dance class. Only an individual who relies on a salary amounting to more than S$200 a month can spout such nonsense and get away with it. As an army conscript, I have managed to get by on a meagre allowance and still save enough to buy the computer I used to mash up this blog post.

Every country has its own share of tourist traps, but when it comes to Singapore, these tourist traps are in all the best places, and in this regard, I will agree that Singapore is an expensive place. Orchard Road alone is a huge tourist trap where many things are pricey, as is Universal Studios (S$6 for 150ml of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream; Häagen-Dazs has nothing on this). Taxi fares have sky-rocketed in the past decade, and public transport fares have gone up quite a bit.

However, this author has obviously never been to the food centres around the Bedok area, where decent meals are sold for less than S$4. I personally buy dinner on occasion from a food store located in a residential area and I can feast like a king for less than S$10. I get much more value for money from that store than I do at any fast-food restaurant in this country. Public transport to a location 30 minutes away? Forget it; I can walk there. In slippers, even. I save a dollar off that every time. If an individual wants to find a place where things are sold cheaply, the shopping centres and supermarkets located at the fringes of Singapore may have something to offer. There’s also the tap water, which is free flow and drinkable, but that would be pushing it, really.

3. Everything in Singapore Is Regulated – A society gone mad with rules, you hardly dare breath in Singapore, in case you do something that’s against the law. Chewing gum is against the law and bubble gum and chewing gum are not allowed to be sold in the country. Forgetting to flush the toilet could get you a fine of $500, if you’re a gay man and discovered kissing another man you could end up receiving a jail sentence, and don’t forget people are still caned in Singapore for some crimes, including that really serious one of chewing gum.

I’m sorry, but I absolutely cannot agree to this, no matter how I try. This is not the Army. Rules are there for a reason. The major rules ensure that our infrastructure runs like clockwork; the lesser rules are enforced in other ways. The government will sue people for blunting the country’s reputation to the outside world (because the country’s image to the outside world will affect tourism), but for the most part, they will not care if a simple “no littering, fine S$50” rule is flouted. They are not stupid enough to go after every tourist who does not or forgets to flush a toilet bowl because they are aware that doing so does little for the tourism industry. If they had so many eyes, we would have 0% unemployment. This author may not have read up on the reason why chewing gum was banned here in the first place either. Did anyone ever think about how difficult it is to clean a dried-out wad of gum off a tiled floor? Having done that in primary school, I know how tiring and revolting it is to do so. In a vertical city like Singapore, in a society so heavily dependent on mass transit, you cannot expect anybody, not even the National Environment Agency, to keep sending people to clear up the mess left by other people on staircases in HDB flats or between train doors. Because of this same law that the author seems to be getting riled over, the cleaners the government employs are given an easier task of cleaning flats by hosing them down every other week, and our Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system ran completely unfettered for over 20 years. Without this law in effect, there is no way the flats in Singapore can be cleaned so quickly and efficiently, yet infrequently, nor is there any possibility that the MRT system could run so well from the day it was officially opened in 1991 until December a few years ago.

I would also like to point out that our strict gun control laws mean that shoot-outs are unlikely to happen in Singapore.

4. Singaporean Culture is Conformist – In other Asian countries like South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia, the culture of the country is fascinating as, with less rules, citizens are free to experiment with ideas. In Singapore, due to the restrictive laws, the Singaporean art scene practically non-existent. Not surprising really as, if you stifle a people’s creativity and imagination as the Singaporean government does, then people are socialized to conform and think within the box and not outside it. Not a catalyst for great artwork, literature or any other cultural experimentation.

There has been a lot of talk about the lack of a culture or an arts scene here over the years, and much of it has been negative. There is no denying that Singapore lacks both, but attempts have been made, and they do not give immediate results, nor are they always successful. I would like to point out that the government has, in recent years, been taking baby steps to pursue an education system that encourages more creative thinking. You cannot blame them for taking such a slow approach; after all, they are deviating from an established education model that works. Give them credit, at least, for being courageous, because no other government in the world is as bold as they are in this regard.

5. Singapore Is One of the World’s Most Censored Countries – Censorship in Singapore is rampant. Political, racial, sexual and religious issues are frequently censored, with most TV programs, movies, magazines and newspapers censored by the Singaporean government. Movies have scenes cut from them, certain books are not allowed to be sold, some music can’t be played, cable TV has some shows banned, and newspapers and magazines have to be careful what they publish in case the government shuts them down.

Many people think Singapore’s intense censorship is to keep the People’s Action Party in power, which is done by stopping political dissention and discussion. But, to a tourist or business person thinking of visiting Singapore, why would you want to give your hard-earned money to a country that practices that much censorship and control over its citizens?

The final straw for me though, as a writer, was to hear about the arrest of British journalist Alan Shandrake. Shandrake, who lives in both the UK and Malaysia, was arrested during a book signing in Singapore because of his book “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore’s Justice in the Dock”, a critique about Singapore’s legal system. Now stuck in Singapore awaiting trial, Shandrake will probably be found guilty, if Singapore’s censorship court cases in the past are anything to go by, and could receive a fine and a jail term. All for criticizing a long-outdated legal system and one which has the world’s highest per capita rate of executions.

This is probably the focal point of the author’s post, given its length. It has its merits. Over the years, I have seen a significant increase in censorship here. Pornography is outlawed, profanity in shows and songs is muted and violent scenes from films are cut entirely. This was never the case back at the turn of the century.

However, the censorship in Singapore, while possibly extensive, is not entirely inappropriate. Censors in Singapore are related to the rules outlined by the government, which brings me back to my response to Point 3. This is not the Army. However, censoring major issues, particularly those revolving around race and religion, is a necessary evil to ensure that the society in Singapore does not descend into chaos, as it did so many times nearly five decades ago. Without the censors in place, there is a very real likelihood that Singapore cannot function as a multi-racial, multi-religious society. The older generations in Singapore know this all too well, having been in the middle of that period of dissent, and they have no arguments about it.

I conclude this post with one final retort, in response to this quote:

As a writer, and as someone who travels around Asia often, for the above five reasons plus many others, Singapore is the last place in the world I would ever go back to. Censored, conformist, bogged down with rules, and the dullest place on the planet – Singapore? You can keep it.

I am a 22-year-old conscript who rarely leaves this country and cares very little about local politics or events. However, I am also a writer and a stickler for English. That I can find ways to rebut four-fifths of what this author has written, using my own personal experience at several points and sources I plucked from the Internet, speaks volumes about how little I know about Singapore, so I say: take it as you will, because you do not look hard enough.


The Clock Ticks

I figured it’s about time I wrote in here again. Very little has changed since 29 April 2010, which was the last proper post I made…or at least, from how I see it. That is why the only post I made from then until now was my mentioning of the merger of my Windows Live Space with this blog.

For over a full year, I have not been putting my brain to good use, and I have not been putting a lot of thought into things. Since there is very little else I can do for the next month other than shuffling about with either a crutch and/or a leg that cannot support my full body weight for more than five seconds, I thought I should at least try and think like I used to, because when I do, I cannot stop writing.

With such a massive backlog of boring events to go through, I wonder where I should begin. The start is always the hardest part…

Perhaps I should give the most attention in this blog post to any events involving my left knee.

In April 2011, I attended a health screening in preparation for the beginning of my two-year conscription period. Since I told the medical officer that the old injury in my left knee gave me little trouble when it came to mobility, he deemed it a minor issue but advised me to immediately notify anyone if it gives me trouble before or during my conscription period.

If there is any Singaporean male over the age of 30 reading this post, I will assure you that while Basic Military Training (BMT) has benefited from improvements in technology, the core concept of building the recruit’s body strength through countless bi-daily exercises, including punishment sessions, remains unchanged. It may be a little less tough than it was a few decades ago, but it is so close, you might not notice it. I cannot say likewise for the few companies that go easier on their recruits, but I can say this for almost every other company on Pulau Tekong. It is not as easy as you might be led to think.

BMT also does a better job at doing something that no health inspection can accomplish: revealing physical problems. It trains and toughens every single aspect of the body and demands the whole body to be functioning normally. If even one part of the body has a serious enough problem, there is a high chance that BMT will make the problem very obvious and will worsen the issue if the recruit who has the issue does not sound off promptly. Malingering has nothing on this. If the problem is genuine, the medical officers can spot it almost immediately, as they did in my case…

My first three days in BMT was fine. I took a while to adjust to a new environment, but such is the case for anybody. It’s not unusual. What was unusual was at the end of the third day, when we were told to climb down the staircase at night. As I went down the steps, I heard something in my knee click. I knew it was my old injury coming back for another round of abuse again; I just didn’t expect it to affect the rest of my time in BMT the way it did over the next five weeks.

As per the pre-conscription medical inspection, I was considered fit for all duties, and since I did not submit any NAPFA test results before the inspection, I was supposed to spend an additional eight weeks in BMT to build up my physical fitness to match those who got a Gold award for a NAPFA test session done just before the inspection. The meant that I should have spent seventeen weeks in BMT – eight weeks to build up my physical fitness and nine weeks for the actual training period.

In the end, I only managed five weeks before I dropped out.

I mentioned earlier that BMT does a fantastic job at revealing serious enough physical problems, and it did. The click I felt in my left knee on the third day of BMT was a harbinger of something much, much worse to come. I’m not talking about the area and bunk inspections followed by the punishment session that would inevitably follow, nor am I talking about the regimentation at Pulau Tekong. Those are perfectly normal, and I expected nothing less. What I did not expect was how my knee injury affected my progress through training.

When we were first told to squat in BMT, the pain that went through my knee was still manageable, about as much pain as somebody pinching your thigh very tightly. With every passing day, however, I found that the pain worsened, bit by bit, to the point where, after an exercise session, other recruits around me could visually see that I was wincing while squatting and not doing any exercise at all.

The next problem I encountered was when we did our jumping lessons. Any exercise that requires a lot of hopping on the knee gives me huge problems. It could be hopping in place, leaping hurdles during a shuttle run or even doing the Standing Broad Jump component of the NAPFA test, it doesn’t matter. Whenever I land after a jump, I could feel a surge of pain in the left knee.

While going through BMT, my mum and I also agreed to have my left knee checked, as it was starting to give me considerable problems. Pending the MRI scan, the doctor we saw at Changi General Hospital gave me a slip of paper to pass to a medical officer at Pulau Tekong. This slip of paper certified me fit for light duties for two months and unfit for any running, marching, jumping or squatting activities (my Sergeants took a chunk out of me for that last one). It was enough to drop me out of BMT, and I was given the option whether I want to drop out or not. Deciding that my knee would only worsen if I tried pushing it further, I took it. That was during the fifth week of BMT.

My Sergeants gave me writing assignments during the one week I spent waiting to be transferred out of BMT. They reasoned that, if they were unable to train me physically, they could still train me mentally, so they did. Initially, only my Platoon Sergeant gave me writing assignments, but near the end, even my Officer Commanding waded into the mess and told me to write an essay for all the commanders in my company to see. I’m glad I finished all of the more major writing assignments they gave me when I was eventually transferred out; it’s not nice to leave loose ends untied.

I was transferred to the logistics arm of Hendon Camp as a storeman, and I will not elaborate on anything that happened during the time I spent there since many things that go on in there are classified. Instead, I will tell you what the MRI scan of my knee revealed.

The scan, which took place last October, revealed that I had apparently torn my meniscus on one side. The meniscus is a hard, C-shaped rubber-like substance wedged between the leg and thigh bones. Its purpose is to cushion impacts. In each knee, there are two menisci – one inside, facing the other leg, and one outside, facing…well, outside. The MRI scan showed what appeared to be a tear on the outer meniscus in my left knee, as well as some minor deterioration around the joints. When the doctor went through the scan results with me, he explained that the joint deterioration was probably due to the bones grinding each other or the damaged meniscus grinding both bones. He also told me this: if what the MRI scan showed was true and that there really was a tear in the meniscus, they would need to remove it surgically as it could be impeding my movement. Since I could not decide to do surgery there and then, they gave me two years to think about it.

In February this year, my unit travelled to Thailand for a combat evaluation exercise. It didn’t really involve us storemen as much as the combatants we were supporting were, but we still needed to go there to handle their stores.

During the one month we spent there, I learned much about Thailand’s climate and its people, but very little about their culture. I also learned something that was arguably more important: that I could not go on in life without getting my knee sorted out first. I did not want to proceed with the surgery – I needed that surgery.

I went back to CGH in June to make my decision. The doctor passed me on to my would-be surgeon, who once again went through the MRI scan. He also told me some other things that either slipped my mind or I forgot. What he told me was this: from his look at the scans, he could tell that my menicus really was torn, and that it was probably impeding my movements at some point. However, the MRI scan does not show the extent of the damage, and he needed to know that first before he could decide what to do next. Unlike most decisions, this was just a mundane snap decision: repair if damaged, remove if beyond repair. A decision like this could be done in the surgical room, so he said that, should I agree to do the surgery, he would first conduct an anthroscopy, which is to insert a tiny camera into my knee so that he and his assistants could actually see what was going on inside the knee, then he would decide whether to repair or remove it based on the extent of the damage.

What he said next was perhaps the most important thing I’ve ever heard from any doctor.

The meniscus does not regenerate. If the meniscus was so heavily damaged that it cannot be repaired and must be removed, it will prevent the meniscus from impeding my movement, but it will not prevent my left knee from deteriorating faster than a normal knee. With the meniscus torn and part of the bones already eroded, it is almost certain that I will get arthritis earlier than somebody who has a pair of undamaged legs. With the meniscus gone, the bones will almost certainly grind against each other once they grow to fill up the void that the removed meniscus leaves behind. However, if they grew to accomodate that space, the bones would deteriorate at a slower rate as they have one less thing to grind on.

On the day of the surgery, I booked in for one night’s stay at CGH after the operation. It was the first time I went for an operation. It was also the first time I experienced two other things: having an IV shoved into the back of my left hand and getting pumped with General Anesthesia (GA). The first one was predictably unpleasant (having a straw shoved into the flesh is definitely not the most comfortable thing in the world); the second one was just…weird.

While I was lying down on the operating theatre with a straw inside my hand, I could hear the previous operation in progress. If I was blind, I would have mistaken it for construction work. Drilling works, to be precise. On floor tiles.

Shortly after they wheeled me into the operating room, they started pumping the GA through the IV in my hand. I didn’t feel any different at first, but after a while, the room started spinning quite badly. The two surgeons in the room (one of them as the surgeon I met the previous time) and their assistants kept encouraging me to relax. Although I believe I spent quite some time awake with the room spinning, I eventually decided to let the GA take over and blacked out.

After what felt like one second, I heard a voice say, “You can wake up now.”

My eyes flew open immediately. “Wha? It’s already over?” I asked. My head felt very light, and I was able to turn my head left and right rather quickly without feeling disoriented at all.

“Yes, sir. Your operation’s over,” the voice said. As I looked around, I found that I was in a completely different room. The voice came from a nurse standing near my bed. I spent some time looking around before asking the nurse the time. “It’s…just after 1pm,” she said. When I asked her what time I went into the operating room, she replied, “About 10am.”

I was impressed. Under the effects of that dose of GA administered in the operating room, three hours went by in a single second.

They wheeled me out of the recovery ward (that’s what they called the room I was in) and to the bed where I would be staying for the night, where I was encouraged to shift myself over from the bed-on-the-trolley onto the bed in the ward, which I did. The ward was initially empty, but after a while, they started to wheel in more patients who had also just completed their own operations and had woken up from their GA-induced slumber. That was also around the same time the after-effect of GA hit me: nausea. As it turned out, GA may cause vomiting after it has worn off completely, but rather amazingly, I didn’t. My wave of nausea felt somewhat mild, so I just took to swallowing my own saliva to stave it off, and it eventually went away. My appetite returned in full force six hours later, and as the surgeon had mentioned, I was able to eat rather normally by the next morning.

It’s been a month since I went for the surgery. Time will tell if I made the right decision by removing the meniscus that had hounded me all this time, but I am confident that I did. The rest is up to me.

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