Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sling Shot

Last week I had to go on that familiar of missions, the Singapore visa run. Armed only with my passport and a few dollars with which to pay my visa agent and buy some duty-free falling down water at Changi Airport, I set off at some ungodly hour of the morning in order to catch the first flight of the day.
After steaming breathlessly into town and dropping off my passport, lest I should miss the Indonesian Embassy’s midday visa application deadline, I began to stroll up the iconic Orchard Road. It had been several years since I last visited the island state, which is little more than a sandbar in contrast with its huge neighbor. It was therefore time for a bit of compare and contrast.
Jakarta’s shopping (if nothing else) has improved enormously over the last decade, so there isn’t the same pressing need as there used to be for Jakarta’s moneyed sophisticates to hop across the pond for a splurge. On the other hand, I noticed that recently deceased former Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas chose to croak out his last in a Singapore hospital, a somewhat less than resounding vote of confidence in the Indonesian health-care system.
Starting at the Dhobi Gaut end of Orchard Road, my first interesting find was a sex shop. Now I certainly can’t see one of those opening in Plaza Senayan anytime soon, especially in the current climate of prudish sex-o-phobia. I decided to take a look inside, purely in the name of research, you understand.
All of the usual battery-powered companions were on sale although, interestingly, there were no movies; the complete opposite of Jakarta in other words. When I spied the Edible Male Gummy Undies I knew it was time to beat a hasty retreat. After all, these days even bras are considered by some in Indonesia to be an evil creation of Satan.
I headed out and continued my stroll down the street. Ah, the simple pleasure of being able to walk along a sidewalk; so different from the Big Durian. A stroll in Jakarta could see you run over by a motorcycle, scalded by flying noodles or falling down a gaping hole in the ground. One can amble with ease down Singapore’s wide boulevards, however, just watch out for the anti-jaywalking Nazis.
The whole street scene in fact seemed like some vision of urban utopia to this long-time Jakarta resident. It all runs like clockwork in Singapore, in marked contrast to here, where a “lack of coordination,” is the familiar, ready-made newspaper quote supplied by the city administration. This is basically bureaucratic speak for, “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand’s doing,” and is supposed to explain why much of Jakarta resembles Beirut after a heavy shelling. In Singapore, the buses don’t asphyxiate you, the workmen actually wear hard hats, the tourist center actually contains leaflets printed in grammatically correct English and even the toilets have helpful signs in them such as, “Please mind your step, squatting pan.”
Singapore is a mercantile island though and its comparative wealth is at least partly propped up on the relative poverty of the surrounding nations. It’s therefore a pretty materialistic place when all’s said and done, a fact reflected in the slogan printed on a T-shirt that a passerby I saw was wearing: “Saw it, wanted it, threw a tantrum, got it.”
I still had a couple of hours to kill before picking up my visa and so I made a beeline for the nearest 7-11. I approached the fridge in search of liquid refreshment and … bingo! I had once again found something as yet unavailable in Jakarta’s mall-ocracy. It was called Amsterdam Navigator beer, it came in large cans and it was 8.4 percent strength.
I purchased three cans and headed off for a sit down in the park.
Possibly I was rebelling against the ostentatious displays of consumerism and designer labels at street level by making myself look as much like a homeless street drinker as possible. On the other hand, though, being able to sit in a park larger than a glorified traffic island and listen to the birds singing as I drank my malty floor cleaner made a pleasant change from Jakarta’s gray, concrete jungle.
After a pleasant hour I attempted to relocate my visa agent’s office (the Navigator beer I had drunk was perhaps slightly misnamed). An hour later I was back at Changi Airport. I’d enjoyed my day in Singapore, although if tried to live there for any length of time, I think I’d end up feeling like I was on the set of a Chinese remake of “The Stepford Wives.” Later, as I sat on my Garuda flight, the pocket of air turbulence that we hit indicated that we’d passed back through the parallel universe portal into the land of chaos.