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The Lure of Singapore


If you are young and enterprising, you can ‘talk’ your way to Singapore or Hong Kong, as they say in the newspapers; if you are word-savvy and can invent a punchline for some hairdye or cooking oil, you can still win a holiday nearer home in Goa or Shimla. Being no longer young and endowed with no special skills, yours truly could only dream of a vacation abroad and hope that manna would fall from heaven. It was a tall order considering that senior citizens, I turned 73 early this month and my wife is 63 are not congenial travelling companions in these days of ‘less luggage, more comfort’.

With these thoughts uppermost in our minds, we had decided that our travelling days were over. The last time we went abroad (then it was to Dubai) was in 1999. We had not taken any steps to get our passports renewed.

Shantha, our guardian angel, willed otherwise.

That is how we interpret the invitation extended to us by our grand-niece Subha and her spouse, S G Chandramoulee, to visit Singapore in February-March this year in the company of papa Harihara Mahadevan. The initiative came from Subha and was followed up by her father: the passports were updated in 45 days and the visas readied. We three flew to Singapore on February 22.

The very first lesson from our Singapore sojourn is this: stop stereotyping people, particularly young people. Our grand-niece and her husband both are office-goers were ideal hosts and took time off to make our three-week stay most enjoyable.

We worshipped at a Shiva temple on Mahashivarathri, a day after we landed in Singapore. We went to the City Hall, Little India and Chinatown, visiting other important places of worship in between, like the Dhandayuthapani temple and the Mahamariamman temple. Wherever we went, whether it was a shopping mall or a restaurant, we were able to use the lifts. Our hosts took turns to escort us to each of these places.

Three weeks is too short a period to have your fill of even a city like Singapore, which, I am told, has 35 museums. Conducted tours may satisfy the compulsive traveller who would like to shine in conversation back home, boasting about the temples, churches, mosques and shopping malls he or she had visited. That is not my way of going places.

You should savour each special moment of sheer delight, communing with the greenery, with the clean air and with the blue sky, trying to remember a face in the crowd or to capture the mood of the moment. Of course, it is no secret that Singapore’s equable climate, with its unpredictable rain and shine, makes it the preferred destination of tourists worldwide. With its well-laid roads and expressways, connected by rail and bus, and streamlined traffic, the city is a commuter’s delight.

Singapore today is a living tribute to its naturalist founder, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826). I do not refer to the metro rail station or other landmarks named after the colonial administrator. Raffles, who also founded the London Zoo and was its first president, would approve of the way the city has developed, were he alive today.

Who knows? He might be, even now, an invisible presence at the City’s famed Night Safari which boasts over a thousand nocturnal animals of about 130 species, inhabiting 40 hectares of dense secondary forest. Despite our age-related handicaps, we made it a point to sit through a 45-minute tram ride covering 3.2 km ‘to catch the endearing antics of rhinos, elephants, giraffes, tapirs, tigers and lions, along with a variety of birds’ – all of it in shadowy half-light.

This is how the official handout describes Night Safari, the world’s first wildlife park with a night view: ‘Here you will discover unusual creatures playing and preying in their lush habitat. The landscape changes dramatically from one of the Himalayan foothills to the jungles of Southeast Asia and Africa. Explore any of the three walking trails on foot. Or take a 3.2km tram ride along two loops that cover terrain ranging from the rocky Himalayan foothills to the grassy plains of Equatorial Africa. Either way, it won’t take you long to discover why Night Safari has been the winner of Singapore Tourism Awards’ Best Leisure Attraction Experience seven times since its inauguration in 1994’.

A visit to the Jurong Bird Park will kindle in you an abiding interest in birds and ecology. The park’s handout mentions over 8000 birds belonging to more than 600 species. The park ‘is one of the world’s best in the conservation and display of birds in their natural settings’. The special shows at the Night Safari and the Bird Park combine amusement with instruction and send out the message of wildlife conservation loud and clear.

The wildlife park breeds rare and endangered species such as the Malayan tiger, the babirusa, the Malayan tapir, the Indian rhino and the anoa – the world’s smallest species of buffalo. The Jurong Bird Park has successfully bred in captivity the endangered 12-wired Bird of Paradise.

The park houses the world’s largest collection of Southeast Asian hornbills and the world’s highest man-made waterfall. We travelled by the air-conditioned Panorail to the world’s largest walk-in lory-flight aviary. At 3000 sq.m. and nine storeys high, the Lory Loft has over a thousand free-flying lories.

Singapore’s Department of Environment is active in promoting a litter-free city and has hiked the fine for littering. The three prongs of policy are education, engagement (of the public) and enforcement. But it has not succeeded in eradicating the practice. By and large, it has followed the advice of the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi to the 12th World Energy Congress (1983). Mrs Gandhi told the congress in her inaugural speech in New Delhi: ‘We should be good guests on earth, neither too demanding, nor disturbing its delicate balance. We should allow it to renew itself for those who are to follow.’

Strong leadership and vision, a shared legacy of struggle to preserve a multicultural identity, and hard work have made Singapore what it is today, a forward-looking nation. The wisdom and goodwill of the Malays (13.9%), hard work by the ethnic Chinese (76.8%) and the enterprise of the Indians (read Tamils) (7.9%) have all contributed to the rapid development of the country since independence (August 9, 1965).

This trade-dependent city-state, now in the grip of recession, has reported bleak results for the first quarter of 2009. The economy is heavily dependent on exports and the service sector. Singaporeans, known for their determination and ingenuity, can be expected to ride out this storm. This too will pass.

- K.S. Mahadevan

The writer is the Retd News Editor, Indian Express who is a voracious reader

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