SINGAPORE—I used to like Singapore. I really did. It was a soothing, calming, well-mannered tonic to the chaos that was Pakistan. Whenever I visited, Singapore was like a gleaming, neon beacon in the wilderness, promising good bars, great food and a chance to let worries about security slip for a bit. Here, that’s the government’s job, after all.
And boy do they take it seriously. After a few days in the Lion City, Singapore’s cloying nanny state has gotten under my skin, like bedbugs. Walking the streets now, with the innumerable construction detours, droning warning signs and pedestrian barriers that herd us like cattle where the city deems we should walk, I find it all tedious and tiresome. Too often these last few days, I’ve had to walk a circuitous kilometer, almost, just to get to a taxi stand that I can see across the street with my own two very eyeballs. Eyeballs, by the way, that—thanks to their frontal positioning—provide binocular vision and allow me to estimate the speed and distance of oncoming objects like, say, a car. Yes, Singapore: I can cross the street on my own because of thousands of years of evolution that allows me to judge oncoming traffic.
My irritation extended to my bank, whose bureaucracy forces me to use some electronic gadget that allowed me online access to my own bank accounts. Again, all in the name of my own security. I guess I’m not responsible enough to keep track of my own PINs and credit cards.
It even crossed over to the good doctors at Tan Tok Seng Hospital, who graciously treated me with four units of sodium chloride solution when I was sick with flu and running a high (39.2 C/102.5 F) fever. When I said I’d had enough treatment, that I was feeling better and that I wanted to go home, the nurse steeled her eyes at me over her surgical mask and said, “We’re not supposed to let you go if you’re running a fever.”
“Hm. Well, that’s a problem, because I’m leaving and your security guard is going to have to forcibly restrain an infectious guy in full view of everyone.”
OK. I didn’t actually say that. Instead, I said:
“But if you sign a waiver, the doctor may let you go.”
Now, admittedly, people do stupid things. (Like, say, walking out of a hospital with a fever.) But at some level we should be free to do stupid things. I’m not suggesting traffic laws should be abolished and it should be every man, woman and child for themselves. Nor am I suggesting the banks shrug and say, “whatever,” if someone calls up with my credit card digits. But come on, Singapore! We’re (mostly) adults. With binocular vision! We should be allowed the random left turn or the occasional screwup.
(I also am fully aware the good people at the bank and the hospital were doing their jobs—and well. They probably loathe the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy required more than I do. And they’ve never been anything but kind and helpful. Traffic and city planners on the other hand…)
And don’t get me wrong. Singapore’s still a fine place. The food is good, the climate is nice, and the girls are pretty. But Singapore these days lacks the feeling of possibility that I felt a couple of years ago when I first started coming here. The cost of living is higher—a mediocre 12-inch Margherita pizza set me back SGD$20 tonight—the construction is annoying and every step I took felt planned, pre-mapped and predestined. It didn’t matter where I put my feet; I would go in the direction city planners wanted me to go. Given the futuristic feel that pervades a lot of Singapore, the days began to take on a creepy Huxleyan feel, where everything down to the number of gray hairs I would end up with had already been determined long before I had even set foot on the path to the taxi stand.
Perhaps these are just the grousing of a tired, sick guy—one who should have gotten more sleep. But I know that I look forward to the open sea tomorrow with an anticipation I’ve not felt in a long time. Yes, the captain of the White Sea is sovereign on the vessel, and I will be his subject, but the lure of the wide horizon, the cleanliness of the gray, blank slate of the sea… I think I begin to understand the call of the sea, the voyage, that people have felt since they first lashed branches together and hoisted their sails to chase the wind.