Destination: Singapore (1981)

A short hop from Kuala Lumpur and we were in Singapore - a flight of around an hour. There was a proposal to use the railway train from Kuala Lumpur. We were given to understand that it was very comfortable where one could book one’s specific seat or berth. The first class of the train reportedly offered far more comfort than the similar class of railway compartment in India. Somehow the plan had to be dropped as berths for so many people were just not available. We, otherwise, would have had a chance to see a bit of the Malaysian jungles. Famous all over the world for its facilities and services, the train is likely to be speeded up soon as a decision is in the offing to make it a high-speed line with trains touching more than 300 kms per hour, nipping off some hours from the current 7 hours’ travelling time

Singapore has a long history but its modern avatar took birth in 1819 when it was acquired by Sir Stamford Raffles to function as a trading post for the East India Company with the permission of the Johor Sultanate that had sovereignty over it.  Eventually, in 1824 the Sultanate yielded sovereignty over the territory to the British and in 1826 Singapore became one of the British Straits Settlement territories. (One can see shades of Indian history) Occupied by the Japanese during the World War II, it was recaptured by the British who later withdrew from the Settlements in 1946. Singapore joined the Malaysian federation in 1963 only to be expelled in 1965. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the then Malaysian Prime Minster, pushing for affirmative action in favour of “Bhumi putras” (sons of the soil) could not stomach the multi-culturalism of the Singapore patriarch, Lee Kuan Yew. Lee was against ghettoisation of ethnic communities – Chinese, Indians and the native Malays. Contrary to Malaysian expectations, the new City State of Singapore started taking giant leaps towards progress and prosperity after its expulsion.

We landed not at Changi Airport but at the old Paya Lebar airport. The airport at Changi was still in the works. We were told that the area around the airport had potential for urban development but projects could not be undertaken due to the air traffic passing over it. Singapore is hungry for land and any land that could be used for residential or commercial purposes could not be allowed to remain unexploited. Even in 1981 the authorities were planning for an airport at Changi where the planes would have to approach the runway not over land but over the sea. Perhaps, that’s what they have achieved by creating an airport at Changi.

Put up in the Oberoi Imperial, a five star affair, we again faced the same problem of inadequacy of funds. With the split rates of daily allowances we could not have had even breakfast at the hotel. While the room had all the trappings of a 5-starred outfit the pretentious provisions of the government for officers on tour abroad proved pretty inconvenient and tiresome. We had necessarily to dine out.

In 1981 Singapore was not yet one of the “Asian Tigers” but, on hindsight, it appeared to be well on its way towards achieving that sobriquet. It was a vulnerable tiny city state and, located as it was on the busy sea lane between east and west, it had always been fearful of being verwhelmed by super and regional powers. And yet within the limited confines of its territory devoid of natural resources export oriented industries were being set up, housing projects were being implemented, and a tough administration had been largely successful in tying up all the loose ends of the administration to optimize utilization of its limited land base, minimize consumption and boost productivity Its main economic activities were in those days were oil refining and banking.
A remarkable effort to industrialise the small city state was in Jurong – an uncharted territory of swamps and marshes not many years ago. Away from central business district and residential areas, the place was found fit for industrialisation. Now it is a thriving industrial estate with scores of industries that were set up along with even low cost housing with all the necessary paraphernalia like schools, hospitals, dispensaries etc for a decent and fulfilling life of the residents. When we were taken around to view the place it was shrouded in dust because of the ongoing frenetic construction activity. Now, of course, things should be much different – built and fully functional and aesthetically pleasing to the eye.
Competence was expected in every aspect of administration and officers were expected to be businesslike. No frills or no beating about the bush, one had to be straightforward in dealing with every matter relating to the state. A small incident was very illustrative. At tea at the Singapore Institute of Public Administration I asked an Englishman sitting by my side what he was doing at the Institute. On being told that he was teaching English to officers when I said that it was an English-speaking country, he said that was true but Lee was very finicky about the language used on paper. If even a secretary wrote pompous or archaic English he would land up at the Institute for a brush-up. Seems inconsequential but tells a lot about the man behind Singapore’s push towards prosperity. 

The government being highly competent and largely corruption-free the management of the city couldn’t be better. The tough administration penalises for deviations – minor or major – with fines, sometimes very stiff. Lee used to say that Singapore is a “fine” country. One wouldn’t find a speck of dust or any litter anywhere. I had to look for a trash bin to discard my cigarette butts. For us it was an experience used as we are to presence of muck, dirt, litter and trash in our midst. Unlike in India I happened to notice beautiful tropical gardens developed under the flyovers. Even as late as earlier this year I found muck and trash under one of the South Delhi flyovers where migrant families were also living – and presumably multiplying.

 Likewise, the traffic on the roads was excellently managed although number of cars was not negligible. To avoid congestion even in those early days a car could get on to the High Street only if it carried not less than four passengers including the driver. This applied even to taxis. I don’t know whether it was true but we were told that one could own only one vehicle at a time. If one owned a car he/she wouldn’t get another from the government or corporate house or any other source. If a vehicle was allotted by the employer one couldn’t buy a vehicle for one self. The same was true of houses; one couldn’t own multiple houses. One could understand the law in view of scarcity of land. There were definite plans for reclamation from the surrounding seas but mostly for productive purposes.

 In this land-scarce country the Indian High Commissioner had a huge rambling old ill-maintained bungalow with extensive grounds. A batch-mate of mine from the Foreign Service was the High Commissioner who gave the group very welcome samosas and good Indian tea. His tips for shopping were very helpful, shopping having been on everybody’s mind. Singapore those days was known for all kinds of stuff – electronic or non electronic – and was known to be cheap an image Singapore was keen to wipe away.

The High Commissioner had suggested the CK Tang mall which was supposed to be good but one had to bargain rather hard. Situated in the Orchard Road, the heart of Singapore, its facade was not pretentious like the ones we see today. Nonetheless, the insides were something which I found fabulous. It was my first experience of a mall and it was amazing to see a whole floor dedicated to cosmetics and women’s perfumes. From it an escalator took off for the men’s section on the first floor. Different MNC brands had cornered huge areas. The sales persons, generally Chinese girls, were very friendly and persuasive. Packed with electronic stuff and cameras that were virtually non-existent in India of Indira Gandhi it was indeed very tempting. Only the lean purse held most of us back. Within my limited means I shopped like never before. In any case, in 1981 it was a whole new experience in shopping.

I patronised Tang’s food court and enjoyed the delectable Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine. The night time hawker style food market was another experience. As darkness fell scores of hawkers with their colourful lanterns on push carts and offering delectable stuff would converge on the streets. But nothing would ever be touched by bare hands. Like in Kuala Lumpur, none of the sales persons would ever touch any foodstuff with bare hands. Out on the streets also I saw fruit sellers selling pieces of papaya, melons, guavas etc wearing plastic gloves – a practise that has not been adopted in India yet. I tried to persuade the local sweet shop to have gloves or tongs used by his salesmen but to no avail.

Soon the pleasant stay came to an end. We were up one early morning to catch a Cathay Pacific flight for Bangkok where we had a daylong lay-over before hitting Delhi.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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