Saturday, January 24, 2004


After ten months in Jakarta I was fully aware of just how comfortable the place could be for an expat, if he or she didn’t worry too much about the poverty and deaths in the slums. In the centre of Jakarta, the sky-scraper streets like Thamrin, Sudirman and Rasuna Said looked clean and safe and even a little green, thanks to the many trees; there were ritzy five star hotels where you could pop in for a coffee or a beer; gleaming new shopping malls were popping up; splendiferous supermarkets could sell you Scottish shortbread, English Marmite, American beef and French wine; there was no shortage of boutiques selling Armani or Patek Philippe or Chanel. At one’s residence there was no need to clean the car, or dig the garden, or wash the dishes; there were servants to do everything from the ironing to the cooking. At school there were lots of Indonesian assistants to prepare and photocopy materials and put up wall displays. It was always pleasantly warm and mainly sunny. And in Jakarta you were not so far from lots of other interesting tropical countries.

When the summer holidays began I decided to take a short flight North to the tropical island of Singapore, ruled at one time by Sumatrans, at another by Indians, and then in more recent times by the British, and even the Japanese. Three quarters of Singapore’s population are Chinese who came to Singapore as labourers in the 19th and early 20th century. The rest of the population are mainly of the Malay and Indian race.

Singapore was, fairly recently, a grubby Third World country with a bit of a reputation for poverty, racial problems and crime. Now part of its fame is due to its great wealth and incredibly safe, clean streets. In Singapore, unlike in so many towns and cities in Britain, you will not see filthy run-down housing estates, you will not normally see litter or graffiti, you will not see drug dealers at street corners, and you will not see knife-wielding teenagers mugging old ladies. There is censorship of nasty videos and zero tolerance of crime. Drug dealers are likely to be executed.

I took a taxi from Singapore’s Changi Airport and studied the scene. At first it was fast traffic, concrete motorway, concrete tower blocks, and neat patches of tropical garden and park. But then we slowed as we entered the heart of the hot, humid city. Slim brown school girls in white uniforms were walking sedately past green shuttered colonial buildings; in the shade of a cool veranda a thin pussy cat stretched itself and fell asleep; glistening Mercedes glid past villas with palladian pillars and gardens of ferns and palms; turbaned Malays were heading towards a mosque; incense drifted upwards from a Hindu temple. Wonderful; but was there something missing? Some colourful graffiti or a cow crossing the road? To be honest, since Singapore gained its independence, too many of the colourful old buildings have been knocked down, to be replaced by modern skyscrapers. And some unkind people have described Singapore as being a police state, where eccentricity and non-conformity have been outlawed.

Lee Kuan Yew, while prime minister of Singapore until 1990, seemed to believe in the idea of a nanny-state run by an elite; he did not entirely trust American capitalism; he supported the ideas of Confucius.

"How’s life in Singapore?" I asked the Malay taxi driver.


"Why’s that?"

"Housing’s expensive. It’s hard to pay all the bills."

"Singapore’s doing pretty well though, isn’t it? Compared to Indonesia."

"You have to work hard here because everything costs so much. All work, no play."

"It must be a good place to bring up children. The streets are safe."

"Yes, it’s safer than most places."

"No dengue fever. No malaria."

"You can get these here occasionally. There was dengue quite recently."

"No red-light districts."

"There are at least four. Want to go there?"

"No thanks." I had heard that the red-light areas were tame and strictly controlled.

I checked into a Malay-run four star hotel and was not wonderfully impressed. A large overflowing rubbish bin almost blocked the emergency stairs. Staff seemed sullen. Never mind, I would eat outside.

At a cheap hawker food stall I feasted on Malay chicken broth and an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes flavoured with shallots, prawn paste, lemon grass and tamarind.

I took a taxi to the enchanting area around Serangoon Road, known as Little India. There I sniffed spices and garlands of flowers; I pretended to be interested in buying cheap watches and Indian jewellery; I visited an elaborate and slightly erotic temple filled with incense.

I wandered happily through Chinatown taking photos of washing hanging from bamboo poles, tall crowded tenements, dusty old shophouses with ferns growing out of their tin roofs, and bald headed men sipping green tea and playing mahjong in high ceilinged restaurants. I stopped for a beer.

"Tourist?" said the young Chinese chap standing next to me. He was wearing a sober tie and looked like a businessman.

"Yes. I work in Indonesia."

"Enjoying it?"

"Very friendly people in Jakarta."

"Be careful with the Malay race. They are the majority in Indonesia, you know, and the minority here."

"Why the need to be careful?"

"They’ll be very friendly and invite you into their homes, but they’re expecting gifts. They’ll take more than they’ll give."

"Interesting." I decided not to argue with him. I was on holiday. "Singapore’s doing very well," I commented.

"I think we are now richer than Britain," he said. "In terms of people’s incomes."

"Why do you think you’ve done so well? This place used to be Third World. Just a muddy swamp."

He smiled, looking very pleased. "Where you have the Chinese people," he said, "and you have honest British-style institutions, like in Hong Kong and here in Singapore, then you get wealth."

"Why is Indonesia not so rich?" I asked. "It’s got millions of Chinese Indonesians."

"No honest institutions in Indonesia," he said. "The Chinese businessmen get away with murder."

Next day, I took the train from Singapore across the causeway to the Malaysian city of Johor Baru which lies at the bottom of peninsular Malaysia. Just before we reached our destination, the Chinese woman sitting opposite me decided to speak to me. She was smartly but soberly dressed, in her forties, and had the face of a kindly and hardworking nun.

"How do you like our Singapore?" she asked.

"It’s pretty clean. No graffiti or starving children, unlike Indonesia. That’s where I work."

"In Singapore you know you get fined if you drop litter? You get hanged if you get caught with lots of drugs?"

"So I’ve heard. Do you find Singapore too strict?"

"For a woman it’s good. You’re not going to get harassed there. You know back in 1959 we didn’t know how well Singapore would survive. We were worried about race riots and strikes. A lot of people welcomed a strict government, so long as it built houses and schools for everyone."

"What work do you do?" I asked.

"I run a boarding house for schoolchildren from Indonesia. They attend the international schools in Singapore."

"What sort of kids do you get?"

"Rich children, the sons of army people, civil servants, business people. They tell me the schools in Jakarta are not good."

"The teachers get paid very little," I commented, "and some of the children are always fighting."
"It’s sad," she said.

We drew into Johor Baru and I set off to find the most interesting tourist attractions. The sky was grey; many buildings seemed boringly Westernised; Abu Bakar’s Grand Palace didn’t seem particularly grand; the Abu Bakar Mosque was a vaguely interesting Victorian building. I settled eventually for a smart Indian restaurant.

While tucking into biryani and paratha, washed down with Tiger beer, I got into conversation with a bespectacled young Chinese who had been reading a computer magazine. He was sitting at the next table and was almost finished his meal.

"Malaysia’s making good progress with technology," I said.

"Thanks," he said, slightly shyly. "Our problem is that we’ll never catch up with the Americans. We just can’t compete with their wealth and their universities. They’re so far ahead." He sort-of laughed.

"Where were you educated?" I asked.

"Sheffield University." His eyes lit up.

"Did you like it?"

"A lot. That was before Mrs Thatcher made foreign students pay more money. You’re British?"

"Yes," I said, "but I’m working in Jakarta. Are there close ties between Malaysia and Indonesia? They both speak the Malay language." I preferred to find out about Asia rather than discuss Mrs Thatcher.

"They don’t speak much English in Indonesia," he said, frowning. "You know about thirty years ago Indonesia went to war with us."

"Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president?"

"Right. Sukarno had a rebellion in Sumatra and trouble in other parts of Indonesia. There was big inflation and starvation. Big problems. To distract attention he tried to grab North Borneo from Malaysia. Britain helped us and Sukarno was defeated."

"The British and Americans didn’t like Sukarno, did they?"

"It’s complicated. The Dutch wanted the islands of the East Indies to be part of a loose federation; the Americans wanted the Indonesian army to have a strong control of all the islands, so as to fight communism. The Americans didn’t seem to mind the Indonesian generals taking over West Papua."

"But the Americans fell out with Sukarno," I commented, to show-off that I knew a little of the local history. "Sukarno didn’t last too long after failing to get North Borneo."

"Sukarno refused to be an American puppet. America replaced him with General Suharto; There was a big slaughter in Indonesia; maybe half a million opponents of the army were murdered. Suharto became Indonesia’s second president."

"Was it the communists who got murdered under Suharto?"

"They were not all communists. Some were innocent Chinese."

"Things seem peaceful and harmonious here, in Malaysia," I said.

"Not always," he whispered. "We’ve had race riots in the past."

"What happened?"

"As you know, we Malaysians are a mixture of races. About twelve million Malays, five million Chinese and one and a half million Indians. My parents remember when Chinese people had to flee for their lives. The police just stood and watched. Chinese Malaysians got attacked by Malay Malaysians. My parents were very, very scared."

"When was that?" I asked.

"1969. A lot of Chinese left the country."

"Sounds like it was racial?"

"It’s difficult. We can’t mix too easily. Sex between the Muslim Malays and the non-Muslim Chinese is illegal." He glanced around to check that nobody was listening in to our chat.


"Some Malays don’t like the Chinese success in business. They don’t like that we Chinese eat pork." He laughed.

"Your government is dominated by Malays?" I asked.

"Yes. The government is mainly Malays. Business is mainly Chinese. The Malaysian government has tried to help the Malays get into business. Malays are given extra help when it comes to jobs, education and owning shares. They set quotas." He gave me a quizzical look.

"So, are the Malay Malaysians catching up with the Chinese Malaysians?" I asked.

"Not much has changed," he said, grinning. "How do you get a rich Chinese family to hand over some of their business to Malays? How do you get a poor Malay family interested in running a big business? I think the Malays now have about twenty percent of the shares of companies. It’s below target."

"But aren’t there now quite a lot of Moslem Malay businessmen?"

"Some of them are just ‘front men’," he said. "You get the same in Indonesia. A company is headed by one of the President’s children or by an ex-general. But the real brains behind the business are likely to be Chinese."

"Why do you think the Malays have stayed poorer than the Chinese?"

"When we Chinese came to Malaysia, when it was a British colony, we came to work in the tin mines and on the rubber plantations. We were illiterate peasants. But we improved our education. We advanced."

"What about the Malays?"

"Some of them suffer from the Malaysian disease." He looked a little bit angry.

"What is that?"

"They want cars and all the modern conveniences. But they don’t want to study hard and they attack the materialism of the West."

"You think some of them want to go back to a simple Islamic way of life? Village life and schools teaching mainly religion?" I asked.

"A few of them do," he said.

"You wondered how you would get a rich Chinese family to loosen its grip on its business. In Indonesia the Chinese run certain monopolies like flour and sugar and they allegedly use dirty tactics, like bribery, to keep the non-Chinese out of business." I wondered if I was being too blunt.

"You are right, my friend," he said. "There are faults on both sides." He stood up, shook my hand warmly, and made for the exit.

Back in Singapore that evening, I took a clean and comfortable bus out to a housing estate near Jurong. The houses looked shapely and colourful and a zillion times better than the spare little concrete sheds lived in by workers in Jakarta. Gardens were well tended and there was no graffiti or litter. (Some of the older housing estates in Singapore are boring shoe-boxes.)

"Nice houses," I said to a Malay shopkeeper with a big stomach and funny little hat.

"That’s true," he said, looking a little suspicious, or even grumpy.

"Is it easy for Malay Singaporeans to get into business?"


"A lot of the top people are Chinese?" I said.

"It’s changing," he explained, relaxing a little and looking proud. "My second son goes to university. A good boy. We now have Malay accountants and lawyers."

"Your other children?" I asked in the Indonesian language, which is borrowed from Malay.

"My first son is a taxi driver," he said in Malay, grinning. "My third son’s a bit of a problem. He just drives around on his motorbike." He laughed, perhaps to show he wasn’t worried.

"Do you miss living in a kampung?"

"What?" He looked as if he hadn’t understood.

"Is it good living in one of the old Malay housing areas? With the little wooden houses?"

"It’s relaxed in the kampung. You can sit with your friends and watch the fishing boats or the children playing. No worries."

"Sounds nice. Got a big family?"

"Where my brother lives, in the kampung in Ponggol, we have lots of uncles and aunts, grandparents, cousins, nephews, nieces. We’re never lonely there. Everyone looks after everyone else."

"What about the new housing estates?"

"Some of the people in the new apartments never meet their neighbours. They’re working in an office or watching TV."

I decided that Singapore was a safe place, for the person who towed the line. It was a good place to bring up children. And it was not as dull and conformist as I had been led to believe. Yet, I was somehow pleased when I got back to Jakarta, with all its eccentricities and extremes. I felt that it was in Jakarta that I was more likely to find my soul-mate.


Blogger coffeeliqueur said...

I was looking for means of transportation from Singapore to Johor Baru when your blog poped out in the google search result.
I really like the way you wrote down your experience for other people to read. I'm Indonesian (from Jakarta) but I've been away from my country for 8 years and have stayed in Singapore for 3 years and now is living in Malaysia. Having read your story about Singapore and Johor Baru, it forces me to recall all my memories about Jakarta and Singapore. Sad to say, I don't fancy to go back and to live in Jakarta because I am not accustomed to the heavy traffic jam in that city anymore but, I am dying to go back to live in Singapore again. I love your story and I'm glad you have a positive opinion about Indonesia, especially Jakarta. If only my other-half and his family were just like you...:(
Anyway, you r welcome to read my blog at

11:25 PM  
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