The devil and dirt are in the detail

The devil and dirt are in the detail

So Singapore is getting a little bit of love from travel listicles, but the devil's advocate in me asks: "Just how hot will our little red dot remain when the party is over?"

The New York Times has named Singapore as the top place to visit in Asia, and No. 6 in a global list of 52 places to visit this year.

It published this list on Jan 9. Referring to events celebrating the country's jubilee, it said: "It's a year-long birthday party, and the world is invited."

In Lonely Planet's guidebook, Best In Travel 2015, it noted that multicultural Singapore is "always celebrating something" and has more reason to when it turns 50 this year.

It named Singapore the world's No. 1 country to travel to this year.

Then there is the CNN report: It may have listed Singapore as one of the "Top 10 destinations to visit in 2015" for its golden jubilee events, but it also said our country has "a reputation for being pretty and dull in equal measure".

So the organised attractions may be a draw for some visitors.

But the organised ethos is likely a turn-off for others.

Without SG50 events to distract and delight, some tourists, who are ever in search of the authentic, might moan: Where are the reek and roar of humanity here?

Is Singapore, at play, just the polite shriek and excitement of the theme park variety, and Singapore, at work, just the ho-hum purr of machinery?

The British newspaper The Guardian recently described Singapore as a "scrupulously run city - with none of the incomprehensible, exciting chaos of cities found in neighbouring Indonesia or Malaysia" in the article, "The price of life in Singapore, city of rules: 'It's a Faustian deal'".

There is a suggestion that Singaporeans have bought into authoritarianism - sold their souls to the devil - in exchange for the orderly life.

Well, it is possible that the other cities of the world are more appealingly chaotic because they have the luxury of being anchored by a relatively more sedate hinterland.

With the countryside safekeeping a nation's "core" traditional culture, there may be less pressure for those cities to temper their more flamboyant edge.

Singapore, as a tiny country, is a city and has to be its own heartland at the same time.

Countryside? Singapore is a country with no sides. We are a one-pot meal that is pressure- cooked to be all things to all people: Clean, safe and efficient so we can raise families and try to get on with the business of making ends meet; entertaining, and somewhat historical and arty enough so we can try to have fun and dream a little.

So, something's got to give, at least, on the surface.

But there is a lot more that the visitor can get if he digs deeper.

Singapore won't offer her more devilish side up to the visitor just like that. He has got to talk her into it.

Concerns about the shadier bits of life - there are tales of injustice and dirty tricks not enshrined in public exhibits - are ticking over inside Singaporeans.

Start by opening the door to a cab, climbing in and talking to older and preferably grumpier Singaporean drivers, and you might find yourself opening the door to the other side of Singapore.

Toss in something about the cost of living in the conversation and remember to duck as the cabby uncle explodes with the injustice of it all.

We sometimes conceal authentically passionate thoughts.

Squeeze the little red dot hard enough and we might pop.

We pledge ourselves as one united people, but we - the women, men, old, young, poor, rich, gay, heterosexual, Eurasian, Indian, Malay, Chinese - are no angels.

There are things said privately that are so incendiary that they can set the country on fire if they are shouted from the rooftops.

They are getting louder because everyone holds that megaphone called the Internet.

But nobody wins if we all start an open fight in a tight space like ours. The battles happen less overtly and perhaps more smartly.

So don't get distracted by the "fine" sights - those warning signs detailing the amount of fine you have to pay if you broke such and such a rule.

If I had a dollar for every time the signs were ignored by my fellow citizens, I would be as rich as reports breathlessly say Singaporeans are.

By all means, see the fine sights of the country and have fun with the organised bits, but the visitor with the keen eye and alert ear will see and hear more than just those immaculate aspects.

The devil - and dirt - are in the detail.

denise@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Jan 18, 2015.
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