I woke up to a melodic, saccharine voice. “Fasten your seat-belts, please. We’ll be landing at Changi International Airport in about 15 minutes,” announced a flight attendant onboard Cathay Pacific B777. The sky was partly cloudy. The sun peeped in and out of clouds floating past, the rays glinting off my window. Down in the Singapore Strait, bulk freighters and gigantic cargo ships looked like small paper boats. Changi airport is one of the best in the world — but in Singapore’s equatorial downpours, it sometimes becomes a dangerous airport to fly into.
We landed safely. In stark contrast to Karachi’s Quaid-e-Azam International Airport, Changi’s ambience exuded affluence. It is the diversity of greenery here that truly leaves one amazed. Terminal-I has a cactus garden, showcasing dozens of species of cacti and succulents from Asia, Africa and North and South America. The fern garden at Terminal-II is landscaped with giant Tasmanian tree ferns, featuring tropical ferns from the oldest rainforests in the world. The Changi Airport Orchid Garden features spider orchids, Singapore’s famous hybrid butterfly orchids, and moth orchids from the Orchid Island of Taiwan.
As I was looking for the exit, I ran into a young, smiling airport staffer. “Can you please guide me to the main exit?” I asked. “Are you going to some hotel?” he replied in sing-song tonal English (in Singapore, the English accent is peppered with Mandarin, Malay and Tamil words — some people call it Singlish). “We offer tourists a free ride,” the young man continued, pointing to a counter some 50 yards away.
And so my journey began. The bus cruised through busy downtown districts, serene, sleepy residential neighbourhoods and refreshing botanical gardens. The architecture is a unique mix of pre-war styles: traditional Malay houses, temples of Chinese immigrants, and classical colonial architecture. After World War II and as Singapore began to emerge as a major global sea lane, its architecture, too, began to be shaped by international trends such as brutalism and postmodernism.
Singaporean society is a vivid portrait of diversity, a multicultural kaleidoscope. It was an idyllic island of Malay fishermen until 1819 when British colonial administrator Sir Stamford Raffles, the architect of modern Singapore, arrived. Subsequently, merchants and migrants flocked in from the southern provinces of China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Ceylon and the Middle East in search of a better future here.
I was in Singapore for a three-day seminar hosted by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). The day after I arrived, I met with nearly two dozen invitees to the seminar from South, Southeast and East Asian countries and as far as Fiji. At the WIPO’s head office, top local businessmen proudly told their success stories, while WIPO executives fed us as much information as they could. They wanted us to swallow and digest as much as we could in the brief time that we were there.
Around 2 pm lunch was served. A small canteen at the WIPO offices offered dishes completely strange to my taste buds. Like its ethnic diversity, Singapore serves up a true melting pot of flavours and food. Chinese cuisine is a major player in the local gastronomy as Cantonese dim sum, Hainanese chicken rice, Peking duck, Hokkien mee (fried noodles) and popiah (spring rolls) are some of the popular Chinese dishes. But you will also find halal Malay food, South Indian vegetarian thali and North Indian biryani in restaurants across the country.
For the next two days we had the same schedule. A commute to the WIPO head office, a long session of presentations, lunch with WIPO executives and then back to our hotel. After we returned from dinner on the second night, fellow journalists Rhaydz Barcia of The Manila Times, Revolusi Riza of Indonesia’s Trans 7, Vijay Narayan of Communications Fiji Ltd and Jacqueline Wari of Fiji’s The National — who had become friends by now — decided to go on a sightseeing trip.
I’d already seen the legendary Mermaid of Denmark, and wanted to see the famous Merlion, the half-lion, half-fish must-see icon of Singapore. Merlion symbolises the country’s humble beginning as a fishing village when it was called Temasek, ‘sea town’ in Old Javanese. Its head represents Singapore’s original name, Singapura, or ‘lion city’ in Malay. It was built by local craftsman Lim Nang Seng and unveiled in September 1972 at the mouth of the Singapore River. However, when the Esplanade Bridge was completed in 1997, Merlion could no longer be viewed clearly from the waterfront. In 2002, it was relocated 120 metres away to Merlion Park.
The next day, we went to the iconic Raffles Hotel for dinner with the WIPO family. The most famous luxury hotel in Singapore, Raffles, named after the city state founder Sir Stamford Raffles, epitomises the island’s colonial history. The hotel’s main building, designed by RAJ Bidwell, is a beautiful example of neo-Renaissance architecture with tropical touches like high ceilings and extensive verandas. The hotel is said to have played host to literary legends like Somerset Maugham, Herman Hesse and Rudyard Kipling.
Before I departed Singapore, I wanted to buy something for my son, Mikael, as a souvenir. My Indonesian and Vietnamese colleagues promised to take me to a market before we left for the airport for our long journey back home. The next morning, we set off for Bugis Street, the island’s famous retail shopping market. In the 1950s, Bugis Street was the sleaze pit of Singapore where flamboyantly dressed transvestites would parade themselves, attracting sailors and servicemen from overseas. Today, Bugis Street has undergone a massive facelift, and houses nearly 800 shops selling inexpensive clothes, shoes, accessories and food, and offering beauty services.
Shopping in the narrow alleyways of this undercover market crammed with shoppers was fun. Surprisingly, Bugis Street resembles Karachi’s Zaibunnisa Street in more ways than one. I bought some T-shirts and chocolates for my son and some gifts for my wife — all for less than 100 Singaporean dollars. My colleagues also shopped for friends and families before we returned to the hotel one last time. Back in the hotel, we quickly packed and left for Changi airport. I left Singapore that day — but a part of me refused to come back.
Naveed Hussain is national editor at The Express Tribune. He tweets @navidjourno
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 18th, 2015.