Singapore’s had a rather turbulent history, dating back a thousand years from its beginnings as an important trading port in Southeast Asia, to its destruction by the Portuguese in 1613, to a very prosperous century under British rule.
During World War II Singapore was occupied by brutal Japanese troops, who inflicted untold atrocities upon her people, before being returned to the Brits after the Japanese defeat.
Singapore, as part of a federation with Malaysia, gained independence from the British Empire in 1963, but two years later ditched the Malaysians and formed their own independent country.
Singapore is hysterically disdainful of their brothers to the north, viewing Malaysia as backwards, corrupt and uneducated, and a danger against whom they must defend themselves. (Bomb shelters are actually required to be built with all new homes to defend against a Malaysian attack! That’s about like North Dakota installing a missile defense shield in case Canadian Mounties one day decide to charge across the border. Like I said, hysterical.)
This tiny island-nation (the entire country covers an area slightly smaller than New York City) is a republic in name, but a dictatorship in practice. The “founding father” of modern Singapore, Lee Kwan Lee, was a de facto dictator for four decades, and once suggested that Western concepts of democracy and human rights won’t work in Asia, proclaiming “The expansion of the rights of the individual has come at the expense of orderly society.”
Lee ruled with an iron fist until ceding power in 1990. Lee’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, has governed Singapore as Prime Minister since 2004.
Many of Lee’s beliefs are anathema to those of us in the West, yet for Singapore, it seems to work. Though short on personal liberties and freedoms, Singapore is a stunningly successful country, second only to Japan in per-capita GDP among Asian nations, and as clean and organized as any place I’ve ever visited.
It is not, however, the very best place in the world to get a haircut.
Soo and I have been on the road nearly two weeks, and I was beginning to look a bit shaggy, so after my work was finished I popped into the Marina Mall for a trim. I walked into the first place I saw, and the friendly girl at the front asked if I wanted a professional to cut my hair.
I didn’t quite know what to make of the question, so jokingly responded that that sounded better than an intern.
She merely stared at me frostily over her designer glasses, clearer unamused.
“Er, yes, a professional please.”
I believe she actually harrumphed at me.
Once seated a smugly pompous barber pranced over and began fiddling with my hair. He also objected mightily to my calling him a barber, and condescendingly “educated” me on the difference between “any idiot with clippers” and a “style connoisseur” such as himself.
He remarked that my last stylist had done quite a good job, which made me a tad nervous.
I was my last stylist. And I did a passable job at best.
I’ve been cutting my own hair for a decade. I stand in front of my bathroom mirror naked with three-year-old clippers in one hand and try not to make myself look ridiculous. I often fail.
If this was my style connoisseur’s idea of a good cut, I worried I might be in trouble.
Once he was finished – and based on the way I looked he was either drunk, had Parkinson’s or styled my hair with his eyes closed – I went back up front to pay. The woman glanced up from playing on Facebook, said “$166”, and held out her hand.
“$166??? Perhaps you misunderstood. I just got a haircut.”
She sighed deeply, clicked something on her computer, and stood up.
“Yes. Professnal hayrcut. You pray $166.”
“No I don’t pray $166! I ONLY got a haircut. It took 10 minutes, and I think your boy did it blindfolded. You should pay me.”
“You say you wan professnal styrist. You pay $166.”
We argued like this for some few minutes, with each of us getting more heated. I think at one point I actually asked for my hair back.
In the end I paid the $166, and stomped out to the sound of laughter behind me. I miss my clippers.
I was in foul spirits, so Soo suggested we stroll around Marina Bay and take in some sights while I cooled down.
This entire new development is gorgeous, typical of Singapore, and includes the Sands Casino-Resort and, the stylish new Art & Science Museum and the Helix Bridge, all instant icons of modern Singapore
Much of this has been built on “reclaimed lands”, earth dredged up from the sea or moved from mountains in other parts of the country. Singapore’s land reclamation project had expanded the country’s habitable land mass by 130 square km (just over 50 square miles), a remarkable and handy achievement for a small country of five million people.
After exploring the Marina we headed to Clarke Quay, a wonderful area along the Singapore River crowded with shops, bars, clubs and restaurants, where Soo and I enjoyed delicious seafood and even better service at Peony-Jade Restaurant
Our waiter, Frances, quickly decided we were ok, and spent the night whispering bawdy jokes while recommending foods and drinks for us to sample.
It was a wonderful Singapore night, sipping champagne along the Quayside, watching the throngs of happy people enjoying the Sands light show.
I only wished that every peal of laughter from the crowd hadn’t seemed directed at my hair.