Efficient Singapore

- Tingting Cojuangco () - January 1, 2012 - 12:00am

Last week, I was in Singapore for a short R&R and was very impressed. It had been years since I’d visited a neighboring republic and with a bit of spare time, I took a three-day leave with a travelling companion, Lulu Tanalgo. My desire to “unload” and “breathe in” the scent of the holidays in Singapore was irresistible. In every edifice, fresh evergreen trees emitted the smell of Christmas. It was the same in the Philippines from the ‘50s to the ‘70s when supermarkets sold fresh Christmas trees from Clark Air Base. Having days before my departure, we got discounted business class tickets on Philippine Airlines. A week later, the prices had increased with the incoming peak season.

The Republic of Singapore, just between Malaysia and Indonesia, is a three-hour plane trip from the Philippines. What a tiny islet, with such warm smiles and sunshine dispositions. And of course, smiling Filipinos working at hotels, stores and restaurants we patronized.

Our PMA Mistah Kenneth Paglinawan, the Defense Attaché of the Philippine Embassy, and his wife Tess were with us daily. Kenneth has served three years in the Philippine Embassy in Singapore where trees are considered national treasures like in Malaysia and Indonesia.

We encountered traffic-less wide roads. First lesson I learned: the hunt for parking spaces discourages car owners from driving. The public transport takes care of that convenience. If there’s one word to describe Singapore, it’s efficiency. The size of the city itself makes it practical not to use one’s own private car. Walking is easy. I did it, regardless of the cramp I developed right beside the Rolex Service Center and Cartier. (My husband would find that unfortunate for him: me stalled in expensive surroundings.)

We stayed at the Mandarin Hotel right in the middle of Orchard Road where everyone converges for mall hopping, to buy, eat and gawk, a thoroughly convenient location for tourists. The Mandarin has a staff of very competent Filipinas, tall, slim and pretty, who have acquired intonations like their equally attractive Singaporean counterparts. If it weren’t for the occasional singsong tone I’d think they weren’t Pinay. Joy, a Filipina whose name was appropriate for Christmas, was the first of many encounters with our kababayans who taught her Chinese apprentice how to do guest registration’s extended checkouts, as our flight homeward was going to be at midnight. Quick response. Efficient.

Five minutes inside our room, a bellman we called Uncle Tony knocked on the door with our luggage. For three days he took care of our requests and before we checked out he said he was sad having been retired that day after working 41 years at Mandarin Hotel. “I have been efficient. I can work, I’m not old. I have experience.” Familiar words.

Free spirits, we did some nonchalant window shopping, then made our purchases along with varied nationalities, observing obedient pedestrians and young girls in short shorts and high heels enter the coldest malls where on the higher floors are the expensive boutiques. On the lower levels, you find the less expensive stores until the food court below with Malaysian, Thai, Indonesian and Chinese banquets.

One museum I learned from was the Perenakan Museum that concentrated on history, culture and religion. History’s been my lifetime interest so the highlight of our trip was the museum visits.

Who were the Perenakan?

Migrants, mainly Chinese from Java, who became early Singapore settlers during the 10th century. Southeast Asia has been the crossroads for trade since ancient times and Chinese traders married local women, thereby planting Perenakan roots. Like the Filipino word anak meaning “child,” peranakan means “child of” or “born of” and is used to refer to people of mixed ethnic origins. The Peranakan identity was brought into being by the fusing of Malay, Indian, Chinese, Indonesian and European blood to make a common people, who became Singaporeans. They were divided only by one factor: religion. The Chinese Peranakans were generally Taoists, the Indian Peranakans were Hindus, while the Eurasian Peranakans were Catholics. The Indian Muslims were also known as the Jawi Peranakan and, like others, the Chitty Melakas. The nature therefore of Singapore’s population is diverse, made up of migrant people who did not possess a shared history and were different in their ethnicity, language and religion. By the year 2011, that divide has been blurred. From the census population of 5,183,700 residents, the majority Chinese, 3,257,000 of them, have become Singaporean citizens.

The Singaporean government embarked on a policy of “multiculturalism” to embrace different ethnic cultures within a larger Singapore “nation.” One government policy that addressed ethnicity-related issues in 1989 was the policy on public housing, which was intended to curb the formation of racial enclaves in housing estates.

From the museum we can imagine how elegant court life was in those years from viewing their belongings: furniture, utensils, ceramics, and clothes on display. I’ve been a clotheshorse so the collection of Kebayas over sarongs had me oohing and aahing. Waist-length or knee-length, these kebayas  Malay, Indo and Singaporean native blouses  are decorated generally with lace in front and mainly come in white cotton, rich Chinese silk, vibrant colors, patterns and textures. Most impressive were the 16th-century ceremonial clothes from Gujarat in India that are referred to as baju panjangs. The baju panjang (long dress) was adapted from the native Malay’s baju kurung worn with a batik wrap-around skirt and three kerosang (brooches) and beaded slippers called kasot manek. Sarong patterns will always remain timeless.

By night, Orchard Road was transformed into a wonderland of blue and white lights. Last year, Orchard Road was listed in the Top 10 World’s Best Holiday Lights and this year, they are back with a different motif: “Christmas Blooms. Imagine Orchard Road, such a broad street filled with glowing blue and white flowers of a thousand lights, each flower composed of five little hearts bound together by a star, expressing the spirit of the season.” And my favorite part of the night was when the blue and white lights made evening time seem like day and, while returning to the Mandarin, I listened to the sound of nature: these jumpy crickets who don’t fly over human beings dominated the voices of merry-makers and rushing shoppers. The noise for me was divine music.

All good things come to an end  and after checking out and checking in at the airport, how relaxing it was to sit and stare at nothing. Lulu added up figures and concluded my savings were down to zero. I convinced myself all my purchases were worth it. Right, Lulu and Tess? I had tax rebates for my credit card so I got some money back. By the boarding gates, Lulu and I agreed God is truly kind. Lulu, now cancer free, is organizing a Marines Ladies Club; myself, happy to be in the best of health and busy with my Islamic studies. We agreed we were contented spirits and mothers who accepted Jacob’s hungry whining. Sitting yoga-style, we let other passengers rush to queue up only to be enclosed in what resembles a glass bowl. Every wall is made of glass in the Singapore airport. Perhaps fellow passengers were thinking from their side of the glass, “Why are those two silly women comfortably seated and unafraid of the plane leaving them?” Actually we wanted to stay longer in Singapore!

Finally, ready to board, I lost my boarding pass when only minutes ago I had been holding it. It would take a minute to verify and issue me another pass. Efficient. Then, rummaging in my hand-carry between the clothes, receipts, books, medicines, magazines, makeup  there it was. The self-fulfilling prophecy was taking place. My desire to remain was taking effect! But it had to be goodnight and goodbye to Singapore. For now. 

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