As early as the 1960s, Albert Winsemius had seen services like banking and finance as supplementing the port and manufacturing. Tourism too could buttress the economy, offering an experience of the “Instant Orient.” Yet, as he noted, Singapore has no intrinsic attraction to the tourist. It has no scenery, no ancient ruins or buildings of great historic interest, no real sites. In a thoroughly urban environment, wild animals can be found only in the zoo. Winsemius would have found it incredible that ultimately every year Singapore would receive more money from tourists than India does.
The richness of the cuisine certainly draws some visitors as it does to Hong Kong. But Singapore offers even more choice of menu, reflecting its wider cultural mix. Since eating is such a Singaporean delight, both malls and food courts abound to satisfy such pleasure. A rich promiscuity among Indian, Malay, Chinese, and what is simply referred to as “Other” foods, makes ethnically pure cuisines imaginary. Some would judge that the Malay-Chinese Peranakan cuisine draws from the best of each, but much else entices. The late New York Times reporter R. W. Apple, renowned for his journalism, his culinary tastes, and the size of his expense account, traveled widely and reported frequently with gusto about food. In the fall of 2006, he wrote of Singapore, “A Repressed City-State? Not in Its Kitchens.”
Apple found there a new dignity to the term “fusion, that unruly beast.” He speaks fondly of a dinner with “hot seared scallops with prawn ravioli and clam laksa leaf nage, a subtle melody of marine flavors.” Another memorable dish called “Dancing with the Wind,” turned out to be “a steaming soup containing crab, prawns, scallops, mushrooms and (surprise!) red dates in a gentle coconut broth … [served] in a young coconut.” Fried green tea dumplings gloried in the name “Drifting Clouds of the Autumn Sky.”
Ordinary names illustrate the historic roots of Singaporean cosmopolitanism. Sarabat from the Arabic “to drink” became the stall selling drinks. Laksa derives from the Persian laksha, noodle. Satay, related to kebab, comes from the Tamil meaning flesh. The peanut, originating in the New World, so identified with satay, is but a late addition to the sauce. Prawns or bean paste are served with a Peranakan hybrid, roti prata from the Urdu roti and Hindi paratha, bread without yeast.
Rice and noodles remain the basic staples of the Singaporean diet, with chopsticks and hands the chief eating utensils. The hungry can find a wide variety of less poetic dishes than those Apple describes at considerably lower prices in hawker stalls, street foods now carefully inspected and approved by the government. There one can indulge in dumplings of many description as well as a simple meal of “Pig Organ Soup” or fish head curry washed down with “Iron Buddha” tea for less than five dollars.
Beyond the table, the tourist sights tend to be glossy and unseasoned, artificial like Disney, theatrical like Venice but without the patina of charm and character that only age can bring. Nonetheless, many visitors have responded enthusiastically, like those world wide who flock to theme parks, preferring the synthetic to the real thing. “Asia Lite” is the message touted, an experience reassuringly comfortable and safe yet with just a whiff of exoticism.
30 October 2017
From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4689-4718:
From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4318-37:
In the twentieth century, just as the Royal Navy came no longer to rule the waves, the British merchant fleet began to fall sharply as a percentage of the world total. The port of Singapore would see far fewer British-flagged ships. Some of the commercial decline lay beyond British control. But British shipyards were slow to innovate, short on investment, and did not try to improve the skills and efficiency of their workers or their management. Labor relations were poor and class prejudices aggravated them.I was surprised to read that "the last ship to unload cargo in London did so in late October 1981" (p. 260).
When Lee Kuan Yew visited a British shipyard and compared it with one he had seen in Japan, he commented that Japanese executives had firsthand familiarity with the factory floor whereas British executives seemed to confine themselves to their carpeted offices. In contrast, Japanese management and workers dressed in the same hardhat and rubber boots and customarily ate the same plain food together in the same canteen. They were all “gray collar workers,” as Lee puts it. But in Britain, class lines were clear. At noon Lee’s British host, elegant in his bespoke suit, whisked him off in a gleaming Rolls Royce to lunch at a hotel far removed in every way from the yard.
British yards were known for late deliveries, and management paid insufficient attention to the market. Attitudes certainly tell us something. Sir John Mallabar, chairman of Harland & Wolff, the great Belfast shipbuilder, explained that he did not need market research. “If you get an explosion in population, you must get an explosion in world trade. This is all I need to know.”
The triumphs of the past had nurtured a sense of superiority that in a new climate caused British maritime interests to suffer. As one observer put it, “Complacency is an all-pervading legacy of Victorian Britain and affected most industries which reached positions of strength and importance in that period.” With the amalgamation of shipping lines and disappearance of the old family firms, the business became more abstract. The ship owners shifted their eyes from the ship to the office, from the deck to the ledger. And as British maritime industry declined, those leading it, instead of looking for ways to improve, tended to blame others.