Once arriving in Singapore we took the railway system called the MRT to Ben’s apartment. Inside the MRT station in a small room off to the corner was an art exhibit based on some work by Orita Sinclair. Some of the prints were pretty funny:

After at least an hour and a half of navigating the city we found Ben’s apartment building on Bencoolen Street downtown. Ben’s father and mine work together at Neophotonics and our dads connected us via email some weeks before Kris and I arrived. After getting the OK from the apartment owners, Chris from New York and his wife Debbie from Indonesia, Ben graciously invited us to sleep on the couch while we were in town and greeted us with a bottle of wine on the patio. Ben is a young professional who recently graduated from Princeton and is working as a structural engineer at a British architecture firm in Singapore. He has a ton of insight to Singapore culture, economics and politics and was a fascinating person to talk to while we stayed. Chris works in IT at Symantec and is based in Singapore. He has been an expat for 20 years and has flown all over Asia on business hundreds of times. He too had a lot of insight and advice about Asia and we gained a lot of interesting knowledge from talking with him. Here is a picture of Ben, Kris and me:

The apartment is very nice, sitting on the top floor of a 20 story complex, and has a quadrant of the roof as a large private patio. From the patio you can see much of the Singapore skyline. Here is my camera’s expressionist interpration:

In the morning we set off to see the city. After getting off the MRT at Raffle to walk the Marina we saw someone selling ice cream sandwiches – using slices of bread. Why don’t we do this in the US? It is delicious and makes me happy.

The food in Singapore is an eclectic mix of Asian cuisine and Western chains. One truly Southeast Asian experience is to eat at the hawker stalls and food courts that are all over the city. Hawker stalls are basically small cubicle kitchens that sell classic Malay, Thai, Chinese, Indonesian and other dishes for very low prices. Most people in Singapore eat out instead of cooking for themselves because it is cheaper than buying fresh ingredients, cooking and storing. The food courts are smelly and busy and usually somewhat dirty. Don’t be fooled by the seeming cleanliness in this picture. It is not the way things are.

My favorite food was a Malaysian dish called Mee Goreng. It’s basically a noodle- or rice-vegetable stirfry with meat.

You can also get simpler dishes like this rice and meat plate, with rose juice.

One evening Ben took Kris and me to an upscale central market place with lots of bars and restaurants. It is open-air with a rain cover and lots of giant air-conditioners and fountains.

We sat down for some drinks at one of the bars. The drinks were very expensive which seems par for the course in Singapore.

Besides downtown there’s a fair amount of cool architecture in the city. I have no idea what the first building is, but the second is an art school.

Another way that Singapore seems to have an East-meets-West environment is that the government endorses economic freedom but not much political freedom. It is best described as a quasi-regime. There is effectively one political party that controls everything in a rather authoritarian way. There is censure in media and arts regarding oppositional stances to government policy. Many government posts are given to hand-picked officials and their sons instead of a fair voting system. Despite leaning away from democratic practices there is very little corruption and most personal success is based on a system of meritocracy where you have to earn a position based on experience and previous accomplishments. This way of governing works very well for Singapore because it is so small. Things are easier to manage than in a country like the United States; the Singapore style of government and central control would not work at all back home.

Singapore has possibly the highest execution rate in the first world, most of which are for murder and drug trafficking. At immigration you are warned multiple times that there is a mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking convictions. Because of this there is a very low drug presence in the country. Even in upper-middle and upper class social circles where privelige and wealth make it easier to get away with that kind of activity it is somewhat taboo and generally not pursued.

Everyone has heard that Singapore will fine you for just about everything, and it’s true that the laws are on the books for police officers to fine you for spitting, chewing gum, jaywalking through crosswalks when the light is red, and hundreds of others. However, in practice these tickets are rarely given out.

The income gap between the upper and lower classes in Singapore is very high, but the gap in living conditions is not. Sure in the nicest places your toaster is synchronized with your alarm clock and there are saunas in the living room, but even for the poorest people there are no slums. The government subsidizes housing and they take a lot of special care to make sure that living conditions are satisfactory. These buildings, connected by bridges on several floors, are an example of subsidized public housing.

Across the street from Ben’s apartment is the Sim Lim plaza, a six floor technology superstore. Half the merchandise can haggled over since most of it is knockoff brands. I bought a iPod Nano knockoff for about $30USD from a stall next to the official iPod retailer that was selling the real ones for $180. All I can say is you get what you pay for. Kris bought a laptop and a mouse. I don’t know why he passed over buying this mouse, I think Cool Family sounds like a totally reliable brand.

Kristof and I were debating which was cooler, the USB powered LED fans or the USB power strip. I took a picture and both were immediately trumped by the mulleted store clerk who had been ignoring us so he could sing along to his favorite J-Pop tunes.

Kris also bought an iPhone stand called iStand for his girlfriend Irene. The box displayed excellent Engrish.

Our last night in town we had a barbeque on the patio. As with everything else the food was very expensive but we had a really good time and Kris and I are extremely grateful that we could have a local to show us around and let us stay with him. Thanks Ben!

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