Singapore; we were in! Ermmmm… except not just yet… Passports and carnets all stamped: check. Fully road legal with 28-days insurance and ICP (costing almost $300 each @ exchange rate of $1.7 SGP = £1): check. Now just one more thing; we needed an Autopass card @$12. This is a sort of credit card that covers road tax and grants the holder 10-days free access to Singapore’s roads but then accumulates a $4-per-day charge thereafter. It was starting to feel like someone had snicked the corner of my wallet leaving me wandering around customs bleeding cash…
“So that’s it?” we asked, “After Autopass we’re free to go?”
“No; still need ERP,” was the reply.
ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) is a congestion-charge (on top of the road tax) for accessing certain busy central areas. The system works off gantry-mounted cameras that read car number plates and charge accordingly. The penalties for ERP infractions are severe; $70 fine per gantry. It’s OK for cars as you can pay this with the Autopass but for bikes (with no standard front number plate) you need to mount an electronic unit @$125 rental deposit + $5 daily usage charge + all accumulated ERP charges. They were talking about finding units and getting someone to wire them onto the bike! At this point we declined; we confirmed the route to our Workaway was ‘ERP free’ and decided to just hide the bikes for the duration of our stay on the island. Packing our documents away to finally leave the border, I checked the passports and noted that the newly inserted immigration card bore the legend “DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPOREAN LAW.” As the closing act on a stressful border crossing it all seemed so aggressive, unnecessary and unwelcoming.
Motorcycling in Singapore proved to be about as exciting as riding around Birmingham except all confined on an island. The ride to Azra’s house took us through a mess of conurbation and traffic with nothing much to look at other than repeat visions of high-rise tenement blocks, shopping malls sploshed in the familiar heraldry of the big chains, industrial units and a plopped-on-top spaghetti mess of carriageway. I was sure I had seen this landscape before… A few days later, riding around on the impressive MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) system, it struck me; this is surely a prototype for one of the Mega-Cities from Judge Dredd in the 2000AD comics. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, where the planet has been reduced to a nuclear wasteland, people are confined in huge Mega-Cities where space is at a premium and the only way to build is up; Singapore with its Mega-Bloks and Malls! To put this in perspective, the islands of Singapore cover a miniscule land area of only 720 km2, yet have a whopping population of 5.4 million people. To give you an idea of how cram-packed that is our homeland, Northern Ireland, covers an area of 14,000 km2 with a population of around 1.8 million (that’s almost twenty times bigger with only a third of the population). Even other big cities like London have nowhere near this population density. Another startling fact is that the increase in Singapore’s population has been relatively recent. In 1980 the population was just under 2.5 million souls. By 2000 it had reached 4 million and now this… A March 2016 article in the Economist, comparing cost of living indices, rated Singapore as the most expensive place to live on the planet for the third year running, topping Zurich / Hong Kong, Geneva, Paris, London and New York who hold 2nd – 6th places respectively.
So far I’m not painting a very good picture of Singapore, a muss of fuss and hassle, unfriendly border bureaucracy and petty rules with whopping fines; overcrowding and congestion with nothing much to look at and premium prices for everything thrown in. But Singapore had one supremely redeeming feature that would end our recent purgatory and reward us with some of the finest travel experiences of this trip to date; its people. Singapore, you see, is rather like a hedgehog; all the pricks are on the outside…
The GPS took us to the east of the island where we pulled up outside Azra’s town house in a rather pleasant leafy suburb. Her father, Afandi, greeted us with the breaking news of the day; Donald Trump had won the US Presidency. We hoped against hope that this was some silly Malay joke but sadly it was true; the muppet with the mop was in. Then we met Tin-Tin, the Indonesian maid, who showed us to our ample room at the top of the three-storey house. Later Azra with Nicholas, her Belgian husband, returned from work to bid us a very warm and smiley welcome to their house with apologies for not being there earlier to greet us. Their three children, Danish, Leah and Luc joined us for a tasty pasta dinner and we had a pleasant evening discussing our Workaway roles.
Azra works as general manager for a local charity called Free Food For All and next day we met the members of the board. The gentle Faiz, the experienced and kindly Karim and the chief and founder himself: Nizar, a great big bear of a man with a heart of corn. The meeting, in true Malay fashion, was conducted over a vast mound of food in a café in one of the tenement blocks where the charity had a lot of beneficiaries. Outside a horrific monsoon storm brought a deluge of rain with violent smacks of thunder and whiteout sheets of lightning. With introductions made, we sat down to ‘just-a-snack’ of Murtabak and some ‘John’s Bread’– delicious variants of stuffed hot roti breads. We’d already eaten lunch but this was too delicious to pass on so we found ourselves tearing into the steaming bread with everyone else as we learned the whys and wherefores of Free Food For All.
Most expensive place to live on the planet…? Why would anyone need ‘free food’ here? Well, as we all know, lives change and people suddenly find themselves in dire straits. A partner walks out, you get fired… made redundant; you are diagnosed with a long-term illness and cannot work. Suddenly there is a clutter of young mouths to feed with no money coming in. One of the first things to suffer is food and nutrition, as the household budget is drastically restricted. That’s where the charity comes in. To start they provide a decent cooked meal once a day to qualified beneficiaries, removing at a stroke the worry of where that next dinner is coming from. But this is just the start. The free food is an inroad to other services, including counseling and planning services, to help get the beneficiary back on track, into employment and helping them to once again become a contributor to society. To date FFFA has delivered over 200,000 cooked meals to members of all communities across Singapore and, we can vouch, they are dong a sterling job.
Our first activity was a forthcoming “Meal for a Meal” event where individuals purchase a $10 lamb biryani as part of a 2-for-1 deal, providing a free dinner to a beneficiary. The target was to sell 5000 Biryanis in a day and a caterer was onboard to cook the food. Many individuals had already pledged to take dinners and we spent several days on the phone securing donations and chatting with chirpy Singaporeans. It seemed that people were happy to make an event of the occasion, organising ‘Biryani parties’ with friends and families, whilst others placed substantial orders and simply gave it all away to the beneficiaries. Then came the weekend of the epic cookout. Kick-off was 7pm Friday evening in the public meeting space in the Chai Chee tenement block, with over twenty huge cauldrons set up on industrial sized gas burners. Marinating meat was set to stew and rice was washed and cleaned before mixing with vegetables and spices. Steaming cauldrons were stirred with oars, the entire set resembling the giant’s kitchen from Jack and the Beanstalk. Cooking continued throughout the night and by early morning everything was ready.
A legion of volunteers had arrived to undertake the logistics of feeding this five thousand. The area was a hive of frenetic activity and we willingly threw ourselves into every aspect of it. The production line was soon rolling with containers loaded up with rice, a serving of meat and a jollop of sauce, lids on, all labeled up, container sealed and then stacked. Stacks were then boxed into area orders and couriers dispatched for delivery all over the island. The air hung rich with the smell of good food, high notes of cinnamon, cardamom and curry leaf, wafting from the rich gravy that was lovingly ladled into each serving. I stopped for a moment to contemplate how on earth our travels had led us to this point and realised there was another gravy going on today; a gravy of community and humanity. Scanning the scene before me I noted beautiful smiling Malay and Indian Moslems, ladies in hijab, working side by side with grinning Chinese, Buddhist, Christians and Atheists all towards one end; to give someone less fortunate a decent dinner. There was no demarcation, no us and them, just us… all of us, doing this act of kindness, right here and now. I never felt so alive in my life and a look across at Maggie in a throng of willing hands round a table, busy sorting the next orders, told me she was feeling the same elation. By 3pm, after an exhausting night and day we were all sold out; the five thousand had been fed!
The rest of our Workaway time in Singapore was spent helping draft web content for the charity. We also helped to cook a barbeque in a children’s orphanage, reciprocating help with some friends of Azras who had been in the thick of it at the Biryani cookout. We learned (while chatting over the coals at the barbeque) that the event was simply organised by a bunch of old school-friends who decided that instead of holding an annual reunion, they would cook a treat for a bunch of orphans. It was such a simple and beautiful consideration and once again we felt privileged to encounter the great spirit of community that exists in Singapore.
It’s so funny but with the overcrowding and population density noted above you would expect a fair degree of chaos and disorder to reign here. Journey into the mega-blocks and you wouldn’t be surprised to find slums, graffiti, maybe burned-out cars and trash piles everywhere all of this a veneer for a seedy life filled with crime, petty and serious, a place where decent people hide unseen for the most part. But Singapore is nothing of the sort. We visited one of the blocks with Azra and all of these things are notable by their absence; there is no trash, no graffiti, no slum. My guess is that the only way to live in such a packed environment is to have strict rules (such as we experienced trying to enter the country) and for everyone to stand by them, with stringent penalties enforced for all infractions, such as transgressing the ERP gantries (we later noted a ‘no fishing’ sign in the Marina Bay area with warning of a $3000 fine for transgression!) Any relaxation, any permission to just do what you like, would simply lead to chaos. But more than that, such an environment seems to breed a caring community such as we had witnessed in our charity work here, where everyone is ready to pitch in and either contribute or participate. Free Food For All certainly gave us food for thought.
Our bikes sat in Azra’s yard unused but certainly not uncared for. We needed replacement tyres and some of our riding gear was in need of some attention. We put out a call for recommendations on Facebook, which was answered by two fellow bikers, YemPaul Antonio and Elmy Ahmad. They turned up on their off day to drive us around town to source tyres, gloves and other bits and pieces. Again, in true Malay fashion, they introduced themselves with smiles and the stock question, “have you eaten yet?” We had learned by now that there is no negative answer to this question and a huge nosh-up lunch ensued.
Considering all the kindness and hospitality we had bestowed upon us during our stay in Singapore and indeed participated in, it came as no surprise to learn that Singapore ranks as the 22nd happiest country in the world and No.1 in SE Asia, according to the World Happiness Report 2016 published by the ‘Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations’ (the same report identifies Denmark as the happiest place to live out of a total of some 165 nations). We can attest that that ranking is well warranted. Singapore had been a tough nut to crack but the filling proved to be both delicious and nutritious in every way! It had been hard to get in; now it would be even harder to walk away…
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Singapore