Back to Malaysia

Leaving Singapore, we were turning our backs on some of the best days of the trip. It had been fantastic living with Azra and getting involved with the Free Food For All Charity. Azra and Nico had already gone on a short vacation so that sad goodbye was at least over us yet it was still quite a wrench as we packed the bikes and rode to the border and another encounter with the wrong side of the ‘hedgehog’ (see last post).   Given the mass migration of two-wheelers that takes place every day at this frontier, there are custom booths for motorcycles at the border with a toll-type office on one side and then a knee high kerb on the other. Once committed on our laden mules, we were stuck in a one-way track, with no possibility of dismounting as there was simply no way to prop the bike to get off. I went first with the passports, to get them stamped and Maggie could then follow on through.

I moved forward, retrieved the passports from down the front of my jacket and slid them through the mouse-hole in the window. The frumpy girl on duty tutted and lifted each of them by the corner, like they were a pair of dead mice and frowned ‘what’s this?’ I explained the second passport was my wife’s who was just behind. She opened one of the passports, Maggie’s; ‘and who is this?’

‘I just explained, it belongs to my wife’… another tut.

‘Give it to her.’ She flung the passport back at me. I looked around. How the hell was I supposed to do that?

‘I’ll just set it here’ I said leaving the passport on the counter to the side of the mouse-hole. Another tut, this one louder. Maggie was listening to my end of this over the intercom. ‘Hey! Be patient. She’s just doing her job.’ ‘OK missy,’ I whispered back. ‘Can’t wait till it’s your turn…’

Troglodyte customs lady was flicking through my passport. ‘When did you enter Singapore?’

‘About a month ago?’ I replied, ‘the date is stamped in the passport.’ I sensed she was now looking for some reason to delay us. I really couldn’t see the point, as we just needed to stamp out and leave. She sat there in her air-conditioned booth, picked up the phone and made several calls, discussing something about my passport, while I sat outside slowly stewing in the rising heat off my engine. After about ten minutes of this, she stamped the passport and returned it with a dismissive wave. I moved on through the booth and waited for Maggie. A few minutes and she was stamped and through but her face was like thunder. “Ignorant cow! What was all that about?” she said as we sorted the carnets for stamping out. “I have no idea my dear. Just a minion flexing her pathetic power.” The contrast when we crossed back to Malaysia was incredible. Smiling officers, efficiently checking our documents, before granting us a 90-day visa, giving us directions to the carnet office and dismissing us with a singsong “enjoy your ride in Malaysia!”

The customs office, where the carnets were processed…

Singapore – a pointed finger instructed us to leave the carnets in the in-tray, then we were shooed away by a flick of the officer’s fingertips with ne’er a ‘good morning’ or any such pleasantry dispatched. Trying to find the office, we had been wandering around outside. When Maggie got up to go find the loo, the officer snapped ‘where are you going?’ Maggie explained she needed to find a bathroom. ‘Must be escorted!’ and a lady auxiliary marched with her to the bathroom and waited outside.

Malaysia – seats were cleared and provided and we were asked if we needed some water while the officers recorded our details, stamped the carnets and asked us about our journey. It was all done in a few minutes attended over a bevvy of beaming smiles that cost nothing but were priceless to receive.

We rode to the UNESCO world heritage city of Malacca, where we spent Christmas and the New Year. We had found a great deal on a Condo and spent a month mooching around this charming little city. Malacca is a layer cake of Malaysia’s colonial past; founded by the Portuguese, taken by the Dutch and finally handed over to the British after the Napoleonic wars, it was soon eclipsed as a trading post by Singapore one hundred miles to the south and George Town up in the north. Spices brought the Europeans to these coasts with Nutmeg, Mace and Cloves passing through from their sources in Indonesia. Then white gold followed by black gold and finally today; orange gold. The ‘white gold’ was tin, found in abundance on the Malay peninsular. International demand rose steadily in the nineteenth century due to the application of tinplate in the modern canned food industry (why we refer today to a ‘tin’ of beans, the biscuit tin, etc). By the end of the 19th century, Malayan tin exports supplied just over half of the world output with Singapore now a major centre for refining the ore.

Tin mining brought considerable prosperity to the country but it was clearly a non-renewable resource so it was with incredible good fortune that, in the early twentieth century, Malaysia’s ‘Black Gold’ came to the fore when demand for rubber as a raw material escalated for new industries in the West, notably to supply tyres for the blossoming automobile industry. Rubber originated from the output of scattered trees growing wild in the jungles of South America, an arrangement that offered poor yields. So, in the 1870s, the British government organized the transport of specimens of the tree Hevea Brasiliensis from Brazil to colonies in the East, notably Ceylon and Singapore, where the trees flourished and within the five years it took the initial batch of trees to mature the rubber boom began and fortunes were made. By 1921, Malaysian Peninsular rubber plantations covered an area of around 1.34 million acres, and accounted for some 50% percent of the total world production. As a result of this boom, rubber quickly surpassed tin as Malaysia’s main export product, a position that it was to hold until 1980.

Both of these industries were to have a massive impact on the population of Malaysia. The indigenous Malay people were few in numbers and scattered in villages across the country. Many were descendants of Arab traders who brought Islam to the region and introduced the Sultanates that are still present in the Federation of Malay states today. Yet these new industries needed manpower, both for the open cast tin mines and for the rubber plantations, where the process of bleeding the trees and collecting the latex run-off was very time-consuming and labour intensive. This manpower would be provided by a rush of Indian and Chinese immigrants, who flocked to Malaysia to satisfy the demand and whose descendants make up a huge proportion of the population today. All of this industry made a massive impact on infrastructure with a good road and rail network implemented to move product around.

Today riding, through Malaysia, this entire environment has largely disappeared. There are a few scars left on the landscape from the tin mines but the rubber trees are almost totally gone as the ‘white’ and ‘black’ have been replaced by ‘orange’ gold; palm oil. Vast tracts of the countryside are totally given over to palm tree plantations, which cover a staggering 77% of agricultural area in the country, making Malaysia the world’s second-largest producer of the world’s most common vegetable oil (after Indonesia). Since the 1980’s palm oil has become one of the world’s most versatile raw materials and palm oil based ingredients are found in approximately 50% of products on our supermarket shelves ranging from simple cooking oil and margarine to lipstick and soap.

Malaysians today, be they of Malay, Chinese or Indian descent, are some of the friendliest people in the world. They are mildly inquisitive, without being intrusive and keen to offer help at the first sign of confusion or hesitation. Yet we have suffered a rather curious confusion over our accents, which has left the pair of us baffled. Now we are no strangers to misunderstandings of the North Irish tongue, most notably in the French phrase for explaining where we come from; ‘Nous sommes de Irlande du Nord.’   At school I was taught to pronounce this as ‘Nou som de Ear-lawned du Nord’. I spent two hours in a campsite in Avignon one evening listening to a guy who, on hearing where I was from, told me how he had visited my country and loved it, especially the waterways and the flowers.  Now there’s me thinking ‘gosh the Newry canal isn’t that impressive but has clearly left an impression here’ and ‘he must have visited at the 12th July to see all the orange lilies.’ He went on and on and what could I do but agree? It was only about an hour later when he started talking about windmills and how flat the place was that the penny dropped and I discovered that to the French ear ‘Ear-lawned’ sounds remarkably like ‘Ol-lawned,’ which is of course Holland.

Yet here in Malaysia the latest confusion concerns the numbers ‘two’ and ‘three.’ Even speaking in our harshest ‘Norn’ Irish’ accents we find it amazing that the word ‘tu’ in the Ulster vernacular could sound anyway remotely like the word ‘three.’ The first occasion happened when we ordered ‘two’ cups of tea and ‘three’ arrived. ‘I thought you said three,’ explained the lass as she took the extra cup away… Then, shopping for some contact lenses, both of us clearly heard the young lady quote a price of two hundred and seventy Ringgits (the Malay currency). Seemed a reasonable deal only to be shown a bill for three hundred and seventy at the till, which suddenly made the lenses very expensive and we declined with a little embarrassment. It has happened five or six times now to the point where we spell the number out each time to avoid confusion.

Monsoon is upon us although we have only yet seen a few heavy showers arriving early in the morning or late in the afternoon. We made a few exploratory trips on the bikes along the coast to Cape Rachado and on to Port Dickson. The coastline is fairly developed and not particularly scenic but the halts for white coffee and the odd Nasi Lemak have made it a fond memory. Our condo became a little haven with a few hawker stalls just outside the door complemented by a brilliant fishmonger stall, where the owners and customers have competed to show us how to select the best, fresh, seafood. Our table has been finely adorned with juicy prawns, succulent squid and seared seabass several times a week. We found contentment in wandering Malaccan streets and the fine riverfront with yet more of those fantastic wall murals endemic to Malaysia. We mooched shops stuffed with Santas and Snowmen in the windows just like home only we were clad in shorts and flip-flops rather than parkas and welly-boots. Supping a beer at a pavement table outside the splendid ‘Geographer’s Café’, we listened to Christian Christmas carols played in a Buddhist bar (in the heart of Chinatown) in this Moslem country. What a mélange of race, colour and culture… It was some compensation for missing friends and family over the festive season, which is never an easy time to be away from home.

2017 ushered a move to the big smoke; the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. After Bangkok and Singapore it wasn’t a place we looked forward to but duty called, as we needed to organise visas for Indonesia at the embassy there. And once again Malaysia would provide yet another delightful surprise in one of the most easy-going, laid-back big cities we have ever visited but that will have to wait for next time…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: ‘Back to Malaysia’

Singapore – Feeding the Five Thousand…

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



‘Singapore – Cannot!’

“Sorry Singapore cannot. You go back M’laysia,” said the smiling customs officer, a slightly chubby chappie. A quick scan of his nametag disclosed that we were dealing with (and I kid you not) Mr. Wee. The obvious question arose… was he taking the piss? This morning was fast unraveling into a right nightmare at what was proving to be the most horrific border crossing yet in accessing over sixty countries around the globe. In principal the formalities for entering Singapore are the same for anywhere else; you get your passport stamped ‘in’ for immigration and then proceed to customs where the ‘Carnet de Passage’ gets stamped, to permit access for the bikes. Some countries require vehicle insurance and sometimes vehicle permits with everything more or less procurable at the border. Normally we try to arrive early to fill in the necessary forms and allow for possible delays but generally the business can be conducted in anything from thirty minutes to a couple of hours, but not Singapore, oh no, this was going to take a couple of days.

We were up with the birdies and outside the hotel in Johor Bahru (JB in local parlance), Malaysia, loading the bikes by the dawn’s early light. Panniers on, bags strapped secure across seat and tank, water bottles full, check out of the hotel and a final farewell wave to the charming Malaysian staff. Ten-minute ride to the Woodlands border crossing, an exit stamp in the passport from Malaysian immigration where we explained we also needed to process our carnets. The guy vaguely waved us on to customs somewhere up ahead. 8am; so far, so good… The air was buzzing with the sound of small motorcycles whizzing through on the daily commute from JB, where living is cheap and easy, to Singapore where it’s… well… not. We filtered into a steady stream of 2-wheelers, missed the pull-in for customs (it wasn’t marked) and, before we knew it, were out on the causeway over the Johor Straits headed for Singapore ‘unstamped’. We joined hundreds of little bikes all headed one way using the filter lane especially for ‘Motosikal’ and it was impossible to turn back. The road widened on the approach to the imposing Singaporean frontier post that looked like the control tower of a beached aircraft carrier and then split, offering the choice of one of four marshaling yards, each stuffed to capacity with little bikes seeking access to the island. Thousands upon thousands of bikes were backed up and slowly edging forward, feet down, towards some invisible portal way in the distance.

This was one of nature’s great migrations… Forget your David Attenborough ‘Wildebeest hordes on the plains of Africa’; forget the bison herds of bygone days or the great salmon runs in the Americas. We learned later that anything from seventy to one hundred thousand small bikes cross the border every day! It was the one occasion when arriving early at a border crossing was actually a very bad idea. On a day that was pre-destined to go down the pan, we followed one of the streams into yard No.2 and were immediately packed into the crush. Suddenly a customs guy appeared from god knows where and informed us of our error. “You have to turn back! Yard No.3! This one for locals with autopass.” Like Moses parting the Red Sea, he cleared the way for us to make a somewhat precarious U-turn amidst thousands of turned heads watching the two idiots on the monster bikes wobble our way out and on to Yard No.3, where we were immediately encased in a similar throng to the one we just left. This was the immigrant yard, mostly Philippinos, Indonesians, Tamils and many from Myanmar, they make this crossing every single day to perform all manner of tasks in Singapore. In the momentary silence, dust motes twirled in the sunlight above the herd. I have never seen such a collection of patient folk, everyone calmly waiting their turn. Thankfully the sun was still low in the sky and we were afforded some shade from its equatorial heat. No horns parped (can you imagine if this was in India?), indeed engines were switched off and folk were calmly catching up with events on their mobile phones or sitting with hands draped across handlebars in silent contemplation of the day ahead. Here and there a newspaper was sprawled across a bike and every now and again there would be a spasm of movement as we all lurched forward.

We contemplated Singapore up ahead. It was reputedly a mega-clean, no-nonsense, hi-tech metropolis; modern success story and jewel of SE Asia. It had history too from the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, who recognised the strategic significance of its harbour as the essential trade hub for this part of the world, through to the infamous WW2 surrender – the biggest single defeat in the history of British arms when 120,000 British and Commonwealth troops surrendered to an Japanese force of only 30,000. We had also contacted a fabulous ‘Workaway,’ corresponding with a lovely lady called Azra, who needed help with a free food charity, providing food for those in need through forthcoming charity events that would happen while we were there. We had been in two minds as to whether to bring the bikes at all having been warned that accessing Singapore could be complex and expensive but we planned to stay for a month and had also been warned that JB, the Malaysian mega-city on the other side of the straits, was a hotbed of crime (including bike thefts) so we decided to bring them anyway.

Finally we arrived at a small customs booth where we explained that we needed to go back to Malaysia to have our carnets stamped. Our passports were confiscated and we were told to move on through into a yet another holding area. Here another officer snapped at us to move the bikes across the yard to the offices. We started the bikes to ride across and he went ballistic, yelling at us to turn them off immediately and insisting that we must push them across. He then demanded the keys to both bikes; I have no idea what he thought we might attempt, as any further progress was obviously impossible. With keys and passports now confiscated we were marched into the office where we explained our predicament.

We sat around for nearly two hours while dozens of customs officer milled about doing bugger all. Outside the mass exodus of morning rush hour had subsided, the flow of little bikes had stopped, the big yards were closed and silence reigned over the post. Mags asked for the nearest toilet. “Are you sure?” is not a terribly reassuring reply… The toilet was a portakabin affair, the portakabin no more than a dust cover over a place of filth and excrement instantly dispelling one of the myths that Singapore was some ultra-clean haven. Eventually the necessary paperwork was dispensed and we were escorted through a gate by some armed officers and returned back over the causeway to Malaysia, where we quickly found the correct office, aided by the ever so helpful customs people and had the carnets stamped all correctly to show the bikes had now left the country. Back across the causeway, back to Singapore. Now, rush-hour over, we filtered to a small customs booth where we where our passports were stamped for a 90-day stay; great stuff… Now for the Carnets and our encounter with Mr. Wee. We were directed to the LTA office (Land Transport Agency) and explained we needed to process our Carnets. Two middle-aged ladies manning the desk were ever so friendly and explained they had to call in someone from Customs. Oh! and if we didn’t have the right documents they would send us back. “Polish couple tried same-same last week… No have insurance, no have ICP. Send’em straightback M’laysia.”

By now we were grown accustomed to listening to the corruptions known as Minglish (Malay English and now Singlish; the Singapore variant). Sometimes it just sounds like bad ‘Benny Hill’ Chinese that raises a smirk, but it also has a way of simplifying entire sentences into one of two words… ‘Can’ and ‘Cannot’. In the UK we are terribly polite. The answer to the question “Could I possibly borrow your newspaper” will invariably be something like “of course you can, no problem at all. Just let me tidy it up a little for you and there you are. I’ve finished with it anyway so just bin it when you’re done.” In Minglish this response would simply be abbreviated to one-word, one-syllable; ‘Can.’ It is a staggering application of brevity, the more so devastating for us when Mr. Wee arrived and looked at our carnets, shook his head and said another word; ‘Cannot’.

“Sorry?” we gasped “why not”.

“You need Insurance and ICP (Internal Circulation Permit) from Singapore AA”.

“Yes we understand that but can we get these here?”

“No. You must go AA Singapore. Get documents!”

“OK then can we can leave the bikes, get a taxi to the AA and get sorted? We’ll only be an hour or two at the most…”



“Leave bikes here one hour, bikes get clamped. Very serious problem” he frowned.

“Sorry Singapore, cannot. You go back M’laysia.”

“What, are you crazy? Why do we need to go back there? We just left the place. We just need insurance and ICP. We’re not trying to take our bikes in without the correct documents.”

“Cannot. You go back!”

By now I was close to totally losing it. Mr. Wee really was taking the piss and was sending us back. I threatened him that if we went back we would strike Singapore off our list of countries to visit on our ‘World Tour’ and just stay in Malaysia. Singapore didn’t know what it would be missing if it dared turn us away… OK, a rather pathetic threat, I’ll give you, but all I could come up with in that moment of rage, short of stamping my feet, shaking my fists and throwing a paddy. “You go. Come Singapore by taxi, get correct documents, go back M’laysia, get bikes. Then we let you in.” We were dismissed. A typed ‘rejection note’ was raised for the Malay authorities, our passports were stamped out of Singapore and a posse of armed contract security police arrived to escort us off sovereign territory.

“Push bikes all-way back,” the unsmiling, slightly plump, lady sergeant in charge said.

“How far?”

“Maybe 1km, maybe 2. No ride bikes. Cannot.”

Now Mags lost it and point blank refused. When they looked at the loaded bikes they realised what they were asking us to do. A compromise was reached…

“Wait here…” Half an hour later a trio of expensive looking mountain bikes in customs livery appeared and they saddled up to escort us back once more. It was a fair way but certainly not one or two kilometers. A section of barrier was removed and we once more exited Singapore and went back to Malaysia. Beaten.

We were both hopping mad at the intransigence and ludicrous stance taken by Singapore customs. It was all exacerbated by the fact that most of the staff had been overly officious, impolite and downright rude in the transactions. We were being sent back for not having two documents we could only obtain once we were in Singapore! In the time we had been messed around, we could easily have collected the damned documents and returned to gain lawful entry. We decided that if Malaysia granted us new 90-day visas we would forget about Singapore forever. We would be devastated at missing the Workaway for sure, but if we couldn’t even get into the country…?

It was now well into the afternoon but the nightmare continued. On reviewing the Singapore reject note, Malaysian customs decided we could only stay until our previous 90-day visa expired… the next day!!! Then we had to fly home or to another country for a month before we could return. “But what about the bikes?” They didn’t know. We had one day. We spent over seven hours up to our necks in bullshit border shenanigans today and were mentally and emotionally exhausted. A sleepless night followed as we contemplated our position. In the end we decided that the only sane option was to go back to Singapore.

4am alarm for a 5am taxi pick-up. The taxi whizzed us through customs where we were again granted a 90-day stay and dropped us off at the AA Singapore office just as they opened. We coughed up $225 for 28 day’s insurance per bike and $60 each for the ICP (@1.7 SGP dollars to the pound). Another taxi back to Malaysia (where they forgot about yesterday and now gave us new 90-day visas!!!), pick up the bikes and finally head back to Singapore. Mr. Wee was smiling as he came in to the office to greet us. He surveyed the mighty ensemble of documents arrayed across the table for two little motorcycles. “Everything now good”, he declared. “Singapore… Can go.” It took another grueling twelve hours today but we got the desired result; Singapore was go!

To be continued…