Thursday, March 31, 2016

Singapore Final Thoughts

A Land of Contrasts

Since returning to Phoenix from Singapore I've been mentally processing the impressions of my visit. My main takeaway is that modern Singapore has advanced from third world to first world status (achieving one of the highest standards of living in Asia) in just one generation.

Damn!

It has done so by embracing a transparent and efficient single party government. A seemingly incorruptible meritocracy, that (of late) offers a stark contrast to America where with its Citizen's United verdict our Supreme Court has reduced our government to a cesspool of corruption where elected officials must now spend 87% of their time begging for political contributions from industry, Wall Street and the 1%.

Singaporeans, with few resources, focus on the creation of a bright future.

Americans, with every conceivable resource, talk of returning to the past.

So in essence, while Singapore looks through a windshield to the future, we seem to be gazing into a rear view mirror.

Sign in Kampong Glam

Singapore sort of reminds me of a modern Asian version of the Netherlands. Similarly land and resource poor, Holland claimed land by holding back the sea. Both countries nurture their main natural asset - their people. Kids in Holland grow up speaking 6 or more languages. Everyone works hard. There is consistently low unemployment and they enjoy one of Europe's highest standards of living bolstered by a real social safety net.

Similarly, Singapore, with limited land, exploits its strategic location by operating the world's second busiest port and finest airport while nurturing its populace. Singapore encourages multi-lingualism, yet has firmly established English as its primary language.

Much of the credit for Singapore's success must be attributed to its first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Under his focused guidance Singapore was founded as a truly multi-cultural society.

Singapore has implemented a wide range of pragmatic long-term social and economic initiatives all grounded in a strong, frequently brutal, rule of law. Justice works fast unburdened by jury trials.

Embracing Multi-Culturalism
(Hijab, Tennis Shoes & A FCBarcelona Bag!)

Singapore cherishes its 100% secular government rebuffing any attempt to inject religion into government. It understands that when religion enters politics one group always disadvantages another.


The Pros:
Housing:
95% of Singapore's residents own their own home. With little land available, most homes are built as point towers built by the HDB (Housing Development Board). As new and refurbished units become available, quotas assure that the national ethnic mix is reflected in ownership.

Healthcare:
In 2014 Bloomberg rated Singapore's healthcare system as the most efficient in the world. It is funded by compulsory savings and payroll deductions. It maintains low prices by enforcing rigid price controls. And, although costs are very low, to curb over-utilization, healthcare services are never provided "free".

Productivity:
Singaporean's typically work an average of 45 hours a week.

Education:
The literacy rate is 96% with 47% of its young going on to achieve a post secondary degree.

Mass Transportation:
Singapore opted not to pave its limited land with asphalt. Its compact space has allowed it to build and operate a remarkably well integrated clean, fast and very inexpensive mass transit system.

Cars:
Each month a limited number of COE's (Certificates of Entitlement) are auctioned. They allow the wealthy to purchase a new car or motorcycle. COE's are good for 10 years (what is considered a normal auto lifespan). Driving is then further subjected to ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) adding tolls for the use of key roads in high traffic locations. Tolls are adjusted in price during rush hours. This has resulted in an ownership rate of 12 cars per 100 residents.

Crime:
Singapore is incredibly safe. Serious violent crime is rare. Much like Japan, I felt completely safe walking and sightseeing. Singapore is also famous for its relentless adherence to upholding intellectual property rights. I applaud that as well!


The Cons:
Harsh Laws:
While I love its low crime, Singapore is known for enforcing overly harsh laws. It canes vandals and outlaws both guns and gum. Forgetting to flush the toilet is a crime and jaywalking comes with massive penalties. Forget any treatment programs for repeat drug offenders, they are executed by hanging.

While westerners find Singapore's drug laws unrealistic, you must remember that while under British rule 40 to 60 percent of Britain's colonial revenue came from the licensing of 550 opium merchants resulting in massive societal damage.

And, it becomes harder and harder to find fault with a nation that has clean streets and almost no homelessness. In a little over two weeks I saw a grand total of three graffiti tags. 

Stifling of Civil Liberties:
Probably my biggest concern is that Singapore is sowing seeds of its own eventual discontent by overly suppressing personal civil liberties. They really don't need to perpetuate it.

As technology continues to erode Singapore's ability to control what people watch, think or read, its tenacious grip on archaic moral values will be increasingly challenged.

In sum, while it may not be utopia, and I strongly caution anyone with any amount of drugs in their blood stream to avoid it, I deeply respect Singapore's people, its corruption-free secular government, its progressive social safety net and its steadfast commitment to multiculturalism.

And, I hope to return there in the future.


Roadboy's Travels © 2016   

Thursday, March 17, 2016

LAX OMG YUK

Still Sad After All These Years

Nearly a decade ago my family toured Japan. And, much of the time we spent was in densely populated, yet remarkably clean, Tokyo.

Our return home through LAX included a significant layover. During the layover my "America is Best!" son (after experiencing very clean Japanese cities, transit and airports) blurted out something to the effect of "Americans are slobs - this airport is gross".

His assessment was a completely honest response to Terminal 1's filthy carpets, inadequate and broken seating and the piles of litter abandoned in any direction.

Fast forward to 2016 and, after passing through LAX, (including its brand new Bradley Terminal) on my journey to Singapore, I could not help but notice how awful LAX is still cared for. 

And my son's comment came back.

This huge airport still has no coordinated sky train. To get from International Arrivals in the Bradley you have to get a cart and maneuver through narrow sidewalks to your next departure terminal. In my case it was to T-6.

LAX is still scuzzy. It is awful from the street to the seat.

And at Gate 60 / 61 I defy anyone to find a single line of seats without broken armrests, wobbly seat cushions and free of seriously ripped upholstery.

And, while I realize the furniture is another overt gesture, during a time of record profits, of how little American Airlines cares about its passengers, when I finally sat down and saw the pile-o-dust under all those broken seats even I, in a state of epic jet lag, was amazed.

Just Gross Neglect
An Accumulation of Dust That is Heroic

Then I looked up and noticed the broken, stained ceiling tiles literally falling out of the grid. They were accompanied by public address speakers and fire detectors that were also hanging down. All electrical outlets were deactivated (God forbid the passengers steal some juice to recharge their low voltage laptop or cellphone). So I went to Wolgang Puck's cafe and used an outlet (Puck's cafe was also dirty).

LAX is America's busiest destination airport.

It should be great.

It is the first impression of the United States (and certainly Southern California) for millions of global visitors.

Yet for decades it has set the bar for consistent awfulness. And, despite the billions being pouring into it over the past decade, once anything is built, LAWA just lets decay begin.

A sweep here, a changed trash can liner there. That is kinda it. Bring travel size purell.

Ugh.


Roadboy's Travels © 2016

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Last Weekend in Singapore

A Lovely New "Old" Hotel and The Spectacular New Singapore Art Museum

With my time in Singapore quickly drawing to a close I had to make my last choices of places to visit. 

First things first, I relocated to the Hotel Vagabond. 

Officially opened in January this little confection has suddenly risen to become TripAdvisor's #2 rated hotel (it was #3 at the time of my booking). This ranking is pretty impressive when viewed from the perspective that this little boutique competes with Singapore's dazzling array of world class hotel chains (with names like Mandarin, Shangri-la, the Four Seasons and Raffles).

I found the hotel to be perfectly wedged between Little India and Kampong Glam.

It provides insight filled little walking maps, an in-room nespresso even a leather clad Roberts radio that easily bluetoothed to my I-Phone. 

It is also the first hotel I've experienced that provides guests with complimentary smartphones (offering data, maps and free locals calls). I was very impressed by how thoughtful (and useful) that was.

 The Hotel Vagabond

 Topiary Pups Greet You

 The Life Size Golden Lobby Elephant

The Free SmartPhone

 Rooms Are Cozy And Filled With Photos and Art

So my first evening I grabbed my little cell buddy and walking map and dove into the sights, sounds and smells that define Little India. I found a district so full of life and energy that it simply overwhelmed my senses. And, of course, I made the obligatory stop at the blocks long multi-story (plus basement), open 24-hours-a-day, Mustafa Centre. This is Singapore's mega store offering anything you could ever want (from gold to sporting goods).

The next day I opted to visit Singapore's majestic new National Gallery. On the way I walked past a nearby Mosque. 

Malabar Muslim Jama'ath Mosque

My little walking map noted that behind the mosque I'd find an abandoned Muslim cemetery and the ritual space where the recently deceased are washed before burial. That was far too interesting to bypass, so I walked around the Mosque and sure enough there was a cleansed body in full drape. 

The washing must be done an odd number of times. And after the body is thoroughly clean it is rinsed, anointed and draped. Only after washing and draping may the corpse be buried. In contrast to western traditions where we hire out funerary preparation while distancing ourselves from the dead, I found this ritual to be the ultimate sign of love and respect to a loved one.

Ritual Body Cleansing Area Behind The Mosque

And then as I walked on further, right in the middle of one of the most densely populated cities in the world, there was indeed a major abandoned cemetery.

  A View Into the Abandoned Muslim Cemetery

From here I walked through some shopping malls in search of gifts ultimately arriving at the National Gallery. 

First off, this is truly a world class gallery in every sense. Opened in November 2015 it was created by combining two of Singapore's finest and historic buildings (the former Singapore Supreme Courts and City Hall) into a single new gallery venue. The resulting space is inspiring.

The section formed between the two building forms an atria / performance space with pedestrian bridges flying above that connect the two buildings on the second and third floor. 
Another wonderful feature is its rooftop garden and a viewing deck. The deck offers (IMHO) Singapore's very best view over the its legendary Padang (Malay for "Fields") cricket grounds.

The new national gallery emphasizes important art from throughout SE Asia. The collection, the meticulously restored buildings, the viewing deck and the superb quality of the new highly sustainable design for the expansion was exceptional. 

Details: There is a admission charged to non-residents who wish to visit the galleries. However, if you do not enter the galleries, the building complex itself may be explored free of admission.

 Galleries Created From Former Courtrooms

I noted that gallery spaces were carefully created by building new exhibit partitions just in front of original courtroom paneling to completely preserve intact all of the buildings original fine wood working.

Dawn On A Farm 1958
Nguyen Duc Nung - Vietnam

Forest Fire 1849
Raden Saleh - Indonesia

This painting was an enormous and richly detailed oil on canvas. I had to get a close-up of the skill in which the tiger's terror is captured as all of the animals have been forced by a fire to edge of a cliff. 
 
To Me The Desperation of the Tiger 
Evoked Direct Comparison to the Tiger in The Life of Pi  

 Rooftop View Over The Padang

The Padang was created under direct instructions to create an open public space from Sir Thomas Raffles in 1819.

Rooftop Reflection Pools Have Been Created as Skylight Lids Over 
Original the City Hall's Original Courtyards 

 The New Central Atria Creates a Performance Space With Bright Acoustics

After my day at the Gallery the sun was starting to wane so I completed my walk through a shopping center to look for gifts. Then I crossed the street to view the CHIJMES entertainment and dining complex (built by re-purposing the (circa 1842) Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus) and sidetrack through Raffle's Hotel so I could peer into its famous Long Bar where they invented the wickedly strong "Singapore Sling" cocktail

I passed on buying one due to its wickedly strong price ($38 SD).  

The final stretch back to the hotel included a wonderful detour through Singapore's Kampong Glam (Malay Muslim) district. I window shopped on Haji Road. That included a chance photo op of Dwight Yorke from Man U. 

 Fan Moment with Dwight Yorke

I double back on Arab Street and took a quick photo of Kampong Glam's beautiful Golden Mosque. 

 The Golden Mosque

 Kampong Glam is Filled With Unique Shops and Restaurants

My last stop was the dinner at a Halal Taqueria called Afterwit. I ordered a (I am not making this up) a beef biryani curry burrito. 

While no one would ever accuse it of being anything remotely Mexican (except in name -I live in Arizona - I know) It was quite tasty. 

True Singapore fusion!


Roadboy's Travels © 2016

Friday, March 11, 2016

Orchids!

A Day at Singapore's Botanic Garden

Well after another four very full days of work my colleagues departed early Friday morning to return home to Virginia. 

As for me I opted to postpone my own journey back home to Arizona until Sunday morning to give me Friday and Saturday to do my final sightseeing. I began by changing hotels to the Hotel Vagabond on the edge of Little India and Kampong Glam (more about the hotel in a later post).

Singapore has been a full sensory experience. In some ways it conjures up some of the wonderful memories I have from spent living in Hawaii many years ago.

So with only 2 days left (and with many choices for places to visit) I opted to spend Friday decompressing in Singapores's renowned Botanic Garden. 

I am so glad I did.

So many of the places around this planet still leave me with awe, but (sadly) fewer and fewer places make me stop dead in my tracks and say "this is so amazing".

This Botanic garden was so amazing!
 
 Singapore's Botanic Garden

It dates back to 1859, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, has a Michelin 3 star rating and hosts 4,000,000 visitors a year. Yet, despite so many visitors my visit felt completely tranquil.

Details: The gardens are free, there is a $5 SGD charge to visit its renowned National Orchid Center. Don't miss that. There is a MRT stop at one extreme end of the Garden and a busy bus stop (with legions of buses heading for Orchard Road) at the other.  There are cafes and a couple of nice gift shops as well (with lots of AC to take the edge off the heat).

Enough with the text. Enjoy some visuals.

 A Black Swan at Eco Lake

 Heliconia's
(Related to gingers and bananas)

A Nearly 1 Meter Long Iguana 
(Completely missed by the 40 or 50 texting school kids walking a few feet away)  

 Orchid Eyecandy






Vanda William Catherine
(Dedicated to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge)



Trellises of Dancing Lady Orchids
(A hybrid flowered here in 1939)
 

Throughout the garden are lakes and marshy zones allowing for a spectacular diversity in plant materials.


 The Gardens Feature Areas With Open Vistas
(Right in the heart of the City)

 A Bride Was Posing for Photos at Swan Lake

You will have to walk a lot, the garden is huge. Wear comfortable shoes.
You will sweat through your clothes, bring water, hat, sunscreen and a pack of wet naps. 
You will lose track of time, my planned 1 hour visit ran about 4 wonderful hours.


Roadboy's Travels © 2016

Monday, March 7, 2016

Swimming in The Sky

A Weekend at the Marina Bay Sands

Well after working very hard on Days 5-8 it was time to enjoy the weekend for Days 9-10!

The plan was to check into the amazing Marina Bay Sands (MBS) hotel for two nights. Just to be able to say we did!

 The Marina Bay Sands From Merlion Park

The MBS is a building that defies any easy description. The main hotel consists of three 55 story hotel towers that are all linked at the base by a continuous interior atrium and at the top by a "Sky Park" that spans all of the towers. The Sky Park on the 57th floor has restaurants, bars, an observation deck (the world's longest cantilever structure) and an absolutely dazzling 490 foot long infinity edge swimming pool. 

A Night View From the Rooftop Swimming Pool

The pool alone is amazing. The Sky Park is designed to anticipate 19.68 inches of wind generated movement. And since the towers are all built on reclaimed land they are designed with an expectation of some settling. Hence, the engineers installed 500 adjustment points under the 376,500 gallon swimming pool, allowing periodic fine tune the pool to assure the infinity edge works.

Nearby Gardens By The Bay 
By Day
 (Note the number of ships awaiting time at the Port of Singapore)  

Nearby Gardens By The Bay 
By Night

The MBS project includes more than just the hotel and casino. The complex includes a huge shopping center, various entertainment venues (the Sing Jazz - Singapore Jazz Festival was on while we were there), a full convention center, ice skating rink, the Singapore ArtScience Museum, a full MRT subway stop and the adjacent Gardens by the Bay.

Singapore's ArtScience Museum

After a series of delays and cost overruns, the project was finally completed in 2010 for a budget of $8,000,000,000 (yes that's billion) dollars. Making it the most expensive stand-alone resort project ever.

It employs 10,000 directly and another 20,000 indirectly.

The MBS casino is also unique in that it restricts free access to non-resident visitors. Singapore residents must pay a hefty daily $100 entrance fee if they wish to play in the Sands Casino.

During check in one of the members of our party was upgraded to a truly amazing suite on the 54th floor. Her suite was larger than my entire home back in Phoenix. It included a multiple bathrooms, full business center, a billiards table and butler service.

MBS Towel Art

My own suite was about 1400 SF and included 2  bathrooms 3 giant flat screens and (this is important) different towel art awaiting me each day.

I loved that.

While I really enjoyed my time in the rooftop pool, I had to cut my time short when I realized I was getting one heck of a sunburn even with a hat and swim shirt.

When our splurge at the MBS came to an end on Sunday, We checked into a local business hotel (which is showing kinda major signs of wear and tear) that shall remain nameless.

So for the rest of my free time Sunday I explored some of the more historic parts of Singapore beginning with the Fullerton Hotel. This is a historic rich former government building (the main floor used to contain Singapore's central post office). It was re-purposed into a spectacular hotel complex of its own. Its site is truly amazing. One side faces the Singapore River and the other faces old Singapore Harbor (now the Marina Bay).

The 1928 Fullerton Building
The Re-Pruposed Building re-opened as The Fullerton Hotel in 2001

 Brunch in The Fullerton 
With the Hotel's Postal Service Mascot 

The Fullerton Hotel was developed as part of a total redevelopment package that included numerous projects along the harbor including the redevelopment of the historic Clifford Pier. To immigrants arriving in Singapore this pier was their "Ellis Island". Now it is a stunning restaurant.

The Clifford Pier

The Fullerton tract development agreement requires that no building may ever be built capable of obscuring views from the hotel to the bay.  Part of the development was MerLion Park (the MerLion being Singapore's icon).

MerLion Park
(One of Singapore's Most Photographed Sites)

Across the Historic Anderson or Cavenaugh Bridges you reach a clustery of Singapore's most important Colonial era buildings and the famous statue of Sir Thomas Raffles.

The Anderson Bridge
 Old and New Singapore
The Marina Bay Sands from The Anderson Bridge

The Victoria Concert Hall

The clock tower of the Victoria Concert Hall is a timeless landmark. The building was built in stages with the first stage completed in 1862 and the final stage completed 47 years later in 1909. 

I'll be working through Thursday but will then have my last 2 more days of free time to sightsee before returning home Sunday. So I've still got time to visit the famous Raffles Hotel with its Long Bar. I'll likely take a pass on a Singapore Sling there however with its price tag a little north of $30.

The last photo is the interior of the ParkView Sqaure (where the local architects we are working with have one of their offices). It is a modern building designed by a set designer from Hollywood to be retro deco. The locals refer to it as the "Gotham" Building. 
The lobby bar is named "Divine" and features a vertical 3-story wine cooler. Note the cable gantry above. When a guest buys wine requiring retrieval from the almost 150 high chiller, a bartender clad as a fairy "flies" up using cables to retrieve the needed bottle. 
    Divine at ParkView Square

Just never know what will be around the next corner in Singapore!


Roadboy's Travels © 2016