Singapore, Where Is Your Soul?

The towel is embroidered with my last name and tied with a pink ribbon. It awaits our arrival on the bed amidst rose petals next to more towels folded into a shape of a convincing crab. The kitsch is definitely in the details.

We’re here in transit, just for a few days, but while some cities instantly make me wish I could stay longer, in Singapore I’m overcome by a desire to get away. Humidity is oppressive. It chokes the air with profound intensity that doesn’t ease even when it rains. But the shopping malls are air conditioned and this is where we spend the majority of our time. The fancy one in the Marina Bay is equipped with an underground canal, flanked on both banks by fashion boutiques. I spot a Chinese family eagerly hiring a boat for a 10-minute ride. They float down the stream, enthusiastically taking photos of the window displays at Louis Vuitton and Dior.

We walk by a Russian couple, both comically clad in head-to-toe Gucci. Note to self: floral applique is not a good accessory for a muffin top. The Chanel store is empty but has a velvet rope out front. A doorman makes us wait our turn behind a pair of Asian shoppers in polos and matching Bermuda shorts. Inside, a store clerk seems to have been assigned to our case. She hovers never more than a foot behind. When I spritz on perfume not labeled “tester,” she angrily leaps forward to reprimand me, and all but tears the bottle from my hand.

There are two gods here: money and rules. You follow the rules to make the money and attain what our expat friends explain are the five “c’s.” Condo, car, cash, credit cards and a country club membership. Having checked all five off the list, they’ve been happily living here for four years. The country is safe and clean and apparently great for kids. With $10K fines for spitting gum, caning as a common punishment and death penalty for drug trafficking, I guess safety is guaranteed. I don’t have kids, but can this sterile environment prepare them for the world outside of the mall maze? Discuss.

I spot a crime alert poster by the bus stop. It states that 150 people have been arrested for the theft of cosmetics since 2017. A hotline to report any suspected crimes is also listed. It’s hard to tell whether this is a major problem worthy of the public’s attention or if the city is proud of the seemingly low number. Regardless maybe this explains why the Chanel store lady was eyeing me like a hawk. There’s something vaguely East Berlin circa 1950s with all the encouragement to report everyone’s wrong doings.

We attempt to get a table at the tea shop with a very attractive display of macaroons at the counter. The staff regrets to inform, but the armchairs by the entrance have been reserved. Who the hell reserves seats at the mall? It’s probably the same family that’s currently gliding on a gondola in the canal.

Begrudgingly we take a seat in the back and browse the menu. Everything’s expensive but one item has got to be a misprint. It lists a tin of Ceylon tea for $900. I ask the waiter about it and get a proud smile in return. The price is indeed correct. This tea is special. It’s flecked with gold. He asks if we’d like to see this wonder of the world and brings over a metallic tin, carefully prying off the lid. The tea leaves sparkle under the florescent mall lighting. I want to know if it’s safe to drink. He assures me it is and indeed the ancient Chinese and Indians considered gold-speckled tea to have multiple health benefits.

Maybe I’m missing something here. Everyone seems to be really happy living in this bubble of opulence. The expat community is huge, taking over entire neighborhoods and dominating the school system. Most people come for a year of two and move on, having tripled their income. Some stick around for 9, 10, 15 years. The life is addictive. Boat parties, hired help, all of South East Asia on your doorstep. Although there’s something slightly sinister about choosing to live somewhere so that you can quickly get away to somewhere else.

On the rooftop at our hotel there’s a Sky Park. There, an impressive infinity pool overlooks the skyline. It’s dusk but the pool is bustling with people, most maneuvering selfie sticks, trying to “capture the picture of a lifetime,” as advertised on the hotel’s website. The scene is striking at sunset, with the skyscrapers lighting up from here to the horizon.

If you stay here long enough, I’m sure the five c’s start to feel normal, like a chronic condition. I can tell this is true by how much I’m into the monogrammed towel. I definitely don’t need any extra luggage but just can’t seem to part with it, so it gets stuffed into a suitcase side pocket.

The symptoms are settling in so it’s definitely time to go. Good riddance, Singapore.