Saturday 26 January 2008


“The traveller sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” - G.K. Chesterton

One of the pleasant surprises I have had in Singapore over the years that I have visited here is the palpable development in the Arts scene. Looking over the past twenty years or so, one becomes aware of a tremendous progress and increasing diversity in cultural events and increasing numbers of art venues that are available to both local inhabitant and visitor. The National Museum of Singapore, the Singapore Art Museum and the Asian Civilisations Museum have all opened their doors in the last 15 years and they are now added to the more traditional art spaces such as the Singapore Art Gallery and the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay.

The range of arts activities has also been increasing, in response to a growing interest among the population and visitors. In the last ten years, total arts activities have more then trebled in terms of total performances and exhibition days. Attendance at arts events has also increased at the same rate. In the last five years, the Singapore government has invested some $120 million (US$76 million) per year in arts and culture. This amount goes towards supporting arts development through grants for arts programmes, the running of museums and museum programmes, and the promotion of arts and heritage in the community.

The National Art Gallery of Singapore will be a new visual arts institution, which will contribute to building Singapore as a regional and international hub for visual arts. This institution will focus on the display, promotion, research and study of Southeast Asian art including Singapore art, as well as play host to international art exhibitions. It will be housed in two colonial buildings that are being refurbished and remodelled to make them suitable for an exhibition space. The two buildings are the City Hall (built 1929) and the former Supreme Court building (built 1930-9).

With its Southeast Asian focus, the new National Art Gallery aims to be accessible to its visitors and users, in physical, intellectual, cultural, social and virtual terms. The National Art Gallery will provide a regional cultural backdrop, broad interpretation framework for understanding Singapore’s culture and heritage in the context of visual arts development in the regional and international arts scene.

The National Museum in Singapore is currently hosting a travelling exhibition, “Greek Masterpieces from the Louvre”. It features 130 exquisite artworks ranging from classic sculptures to painted vases, from the Louvre museum’s Greek and Hellenistic galleries, which are undergoing refurbishment. The Louvre rarely loans more than a dozen items from any department at a time. This is the first time the Greek artefacts have been shipped out for exhibition since they were acquired 200 years ago. The showcase, which has gone to China and Japan in the past, also marks the first time the Louvre will display its works in South-East Asia. It’s one of the most costly programmes undertaken by the National Museum of Singapore. A professional group of art handlers and staff from the exhibition, curatorial and conservation staff from the Louvre, the National Museum and its Heritage Conservation Centre will manage the installation of the priceless works, some which weigh between 100 to 460 kilograms, with the two tallest sculptures being 2.1 metres high.

It was a pleasure to view this exhibition and it brought back memories of visiting the Louvre, but also memories of trips to Greece where similar treasures are exhibited in the National Museum of Athens. However, this travelling exhibition is not the only attraction of the Museum of Singapore, there many more treasures to see from the permanent collections. These include some significant historical material from the City’s past, some excellent photographs as well as exhibitions on “living history” with features of fashion, food, film and Chinese Opera. A very interesting place to visit!

This is our last day in Singapore. We are catching a plane back to Melbourne this evening, so from Monday morning things are back to normal, with a Movie Monday blog. Hope you have enjoyed the travel blogs.


Here is a video that I found on YouTube that gives you a little taste of the diversity of Singapore. Once again I iterate that the varied mix of the population of Singapore is one of its most attractive features.


“The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses.” - Hanna Rion

If you read this blog, you probably know that I start my day with a morning walk. I try to do this even when travelling and it is certainly a good idea, as adherence to some sort of routine, especially when away from home makes one more comfortable with one’s surroundings straight away. This morning we walked to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. This is a favourite place of ours in Singapore and definitely an attraction not to be missed when visiting here. I like Botanic Gardens much more than zoos and one certainly is more comfortable with plants being confined in a garden than animals being confined in a zoo.

The Gardens are situated within walking distance (about 30 mins) from the main shopping strip of Orchard Rd, but one does not see too many tourists here (well, perhaps not the ones who do all of their walking up and down the malls of Orchard Rd!). The Gardens were founded in 1859 with a mission to cultivate plants of economic potential, but soon plants cultivated for their beauty or unusual features were also grown here. The Singapore Botanic Gardens made a historic milestone in 1877 with the cultivation of Malaysia's and Indonesia's first rubber plantations.

At present, the Gardens have more than 600,000 plant specimens, cultivated in a massive 52-hectare site. This is certainly one the world's largest botanical reserves and a beautiful destination for the traveler in search of peace and relaxation as well as a fantastic introduction to the flora of tropical climates. The park provides a comprehensive introduction to plants in a variety of settings, from rolling lawns and orchid gardens to a tropical jungle. Other attractions include the National Orchid Garden, Visitors Centre, tea room, spice and herb gardens, and the eco-lake. A SGD35-million redevelopment plan is currently underway to make the park's plant collections more accessible to the public.

If you like orchids, there is no better place to go than the Orchid Garden. Although entry to the Botanic Gardens is free, there is an (extremely reasonable!) SGD $5 entry charge for the Orchid Garden. One is astounded by the amazing variety of orchids growing in profusion throughout the garden and the fantastic arrays of bed upon bed of flowers, exotic as well as native. Cool houses, mist houses, open garden beds, orchids in pots, in beds, on trees, on pieces of wood, suspended overhead, all are represented and provide an overwhelming introduction to this fascinating group of plants.

It is easy to forget time as one wanders around the impeccably manicured lawns, rests under the shade of magnificent trees and revels in the fragrance of countless tropical blooms of every hue. The cries of colourful birds overhead mingle with the trickling sounds of water playing in many fountains throughout the Gardens and the delighted cries of children feeding the swans and the carp in the lakes and ponds here and there. If ever one was to behold a vision of Eden on earth, one could not go wrong if they stopped by these Gardens.


“To live is not to live for one's self alone; let us help one another.” - Menander

It was a rather full on day at the conference today with workshops and discussions with the delegates. One of the good things about attending such conferences is that one gets to meet many people from all around the world, and these are people who share one’s own passions about the field one works in. The conference has delegates from all over the world, and even though it is primarily an Asia/Pacific conference, it has delegates from the Americas, Europe and Africa also.

I met a delegate from Nepal who is very keen to collaborate with me as she is in the process of redesigning a medical school curriculum in her University and some of the work that I have been carrying out could be used there. She mentioned that they have many people from all over the world working on the project and that it has so far been very successful thanks to the expertise they bring to it. I think it is fantastic that we can work together on international projects like this, which allow us to transcend national barriers and work towards a global common good.

Working in the academic field, I am perhaps a little spoilt as I meet people who are idealistic, devoted to teaching and learning, research, and of course are like me, citizens of the world. The question is, what strategy can we use to spread this attitude outside this select group? I think given time, it is not an unlikely or far-fetched scenario. At this stage in history the world is being threatened with many global problems that require world collaboration in order to resolve them. We are isolationist and non-cooperational, not only at our own risk, but also globally.

Our only salvation is by building bridges across the divides of nationality and language, by tolerating differences in religion and political idealism, by understanding people’s different needs and wants, by accepting that all people of all races have the same rights and privileges.

Thursday 24 January 2008


“The sanity of society is a balance of a thousand insanities.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last time I was in Singapore was two years ago when I was attending another conference at the University here. I have visited Singapore on many other occasions before that. What has struck me this time around is the change that is evident. Singaporean society has undergone rather a radical change (relatively speaking, for this extremely conservative country). One still sees the T-shirts for sale in shops and markets that in a jocular vein outline all of the by-laws that prohibit certain behaviours (eg: No spitting in public, no chewing gum, no loitering, no smoking, no littering, etc, etc). This may have been the reason for the “manicured” appearance of Singapore and the relatively low crime rate.

This time round, I have noticed a distinct change. There is litter in the streets, people are beginning to dress more adventurously, body piercing and tattooing are beginning to be seen more frequently, a more liberal attitude is being taken towards what has traditionally been unacceptable behaviour. Personal freedoms have increased, to be sure, but at the same time this has made Singapore begin to go the way of Hong Kong, say, or of Bangkok. Still a long way away from the organised chaos of these two cities, but Singapore is not the Singapore of old.

This may be a good thing and a bad thing. I am certainly one to support the increase of personal freedoms; I think that if there are more avenues for personal expression it is a good thing, but also one needs to be aware that if these freedoms are taken to extremes, then the beneficial effects for the community may decrease. The more people are allowed to place “self” before the “sum total” of society, then the more one may see any individual’s contribution to the whole reduce. It is a fortunate society in which every individual is allowed maximum personal freedom, is able to exercise their right of self-expression and follow personal goals, but at the same time each individual contributes fully to society and the good of all.

I think that when comparing Singapore to most Western nations, one is still impressed by the more regimented, structured, controlled (and even contrived) way that this Asian society functions. Introducing elements of increased individuality, more personal freedom, increased self-expression will certainly improve the way that a Westerner views the fabric of this society, but how will a Singaporean react to this further shift toward “westernisation"? One must remember that the racial and cultural mix of Singapore is quite broad and a happy co-existence of all these different strands in the thread of society may depend to a large extent on a regimented, controlled and closely monitored lifestyle.

What do you think?

Wednesday 23 January 2008


This morning I had to go to the National University of Singapore as I had to attend a couple of pre-conference meetings. The University is one of the magnificent achievements of this island republic and comprises a well-appointed modern campus with numerous faculties, schools, and departments. It is run on the British model and its graduates are well-regarded internationally. The Faculty of Medicine, where I am attending the conference and symposia is well-equipped and staffed and is associated with the nearby National University Hospital, a teaching hospital to which not only the locals, but people from many parts of Asia are attracted for quality health care and surgery.

The campus is quite pretty, the lush vegetation alternating with modern, comfortable buildings that are well-maintained and resourced. I think of the boons of being an academic is the contacts one makes world-wide and the feeling of collegiality and cordiality one enjoys when visiting other academic institutions in other parts of the world. My meetings progressed well and I was able to return to the hotel by early afternoon. Many of the tourist-associated activities, shops and facilities that are geared towards to the visitor have hours that reflect a holiday lifestyle (i.e. most shops open somewhere around 10:30 a.m. and close late).

In the afternoon we visited Chinatown. Tonight is the full moon and this marks the occasion of the Buddhist New Year. As we are approaching the new moon on February 7th, which is the Chinese New Year, the preparations for the festivities in Singapore will reach a climax. The Chinese calendar is basically lunar, its year consisting of 12 months of alternately 29 and 30 days, equal to 354 days, or approximately 12 full lunar cycles. Intercalary months have been inserted to keep the calendar year in step with the solar year of about 365 days. Months are referred to by number within a year and sometimes also by a series of 12 animal names that from ancient times have been attached to years and to hours of the day. These names in order are rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, fowl, dog, and pig. The Chinese year 4698 (which arrived on Feb. 5, 2000, by the Gregorian calendar) was the Year of the Dragon. 2007 was the year of the pig and 2008 begins the cycle once again with the year of the rat.

The streets and shops throughout Singapore are decorated with red festoons, lanterns, rows of red firecrackers, rows of artificial gold nuggets, peaches and mandarins, as well as other symbols of long life and prosperity. Traditional sweetmeats and other foods especially made for this time of the year are for sale everywhere and people are preparing for this springtime holiday (rather pointless in this land of eternal summer). We were rather shocked by the gift packs available for purchase in some of the shops. It is not a cheap undertaking! A so-called “platinum” gift pack containing special cakes, cookies, canned abalone, brandy, mandarins and other comestibles all packed in a leatherette box costs nearly $1,000 Singapore dollars (about $790 Australian dollars or $700 US dollars)!

In Chinatown there is the Temple of Budhha’s Tooth, a magnificent pagoda of many stories housing many a statue of the Buddha in a multitude of sizes and poses. On this occasion of the Buddhist New Year, the temple was full of people worshipping and praying, schoolchildren visiting and tourists thronging. Hundreds of red lanterns adorned the temple perimeter under its eaves and numerous floats with many a scene full of chubby children brought to mind the Buddha’s childhood. The market around the temple was full and noisy, a flurry of colours and a cacophony of sounds, jostling crowds and touting stall holders. Red, red, red everywhere red lanterns, red badges, red bunting and festoons, red decorations and streamers.

Traditional foods filled the market with great piles of pomelos (shaddocks, Citrus maxima), the largest of the citrus fruits, green and large as a volleyball. Mandarins, pumpkins and gourds, sweets of all kinds, cakes, biscuits and candies. Great bags of pumpkin seeds of varied colours, flavours and appearance, smoked ducks, pickled and cured meats, sausages and cans of abalone. The festive table need be full of fancy and expensive foods!


"Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all." 
- George Washington

Singapore City is the capital of the Republic of Singapore. The city itself occupies the southern part of Singapore Island. From ancient times, its strategic position on the strait between the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, complemented by its deepwater harbour, has made it the largest port in Southeast Asia and one of the world’s greatest commercial centres. The city, which was once a distinct entity, became the dominating force of this relatively small island (699 square km), so that the Republic of Singapore essentially became a city-state. The passage of time allowed the city to prosper and expand, and its commercial success ensured that the city is now one of the most affluent in Asia.

Singapore is also known as the “Lion City” (“Singa Pura” as this name means) or “Garden City,” aptly so for its many parks and tree-lined streets. The city has also been called “Instant Asia” because it offers the tourist a direct glimpse into the cultures brought to it by immigrants from all parts of Asia. While predominantly Chinese, Singapore has substantial minorities of Malays and Indians (as well as many expatriate Europeans, Americans and Australians).

According to Malay tradition, the island was visited by a prince who came from the Sumatran empire of Śri Vijaya and founded it, naming the city Singapura. Portuguese records also have it that the city was founded by a Śri Vijayan prince from Palembang. Sacked by the Majapahit Javanese during the 14th century, it was supplanted by Malacca (Melaka) but remained a port of call. Its modern history began with the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company, who, in searching for a trading site, landed here on January 29, 1819. The port's growth was steady, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the advent of steamships increased its importance as a bunkering station. Its growth was assured by the demand for the tin and rubber of the Malay Peninsula, for which the port was a natural shipping outlet.

Created a city by royal charter in 1951, Singapore was administered as a municipality by an elected mayor-council government from 1957 until 1959, when the colony became self-governing. After 1963 the administration of the city and rural areas was handled by the central government. Once a British colony and now a member of the Commonwealth, Singapore first joined the Federation of Malaysia on its formation in 1963 but seceded to become an independent state on Aug. 9, 1965. Today Singapore has close to 5 million inhabitants, most them living in the city.

Singapore's port area, one of the world's largest, covers 93 square km and the Port of Singapore Authority operates six gateways that provide facilities for vessels ranging from oceangoing liners to lighters. The Keppel wharves, which lie protected between the islands of Brani and Sentosa, are deepwater and contain major docks and warehouses. Keppel is Southeast Asia's major trans-shipment point for exports of oil, rubber, plywood, lumber, and spices. The port's main imports include machinery, textiles, and rice. The Malayan rail system from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur terminates at Singapore. Singapore's thriving banking, insurance, and brokerage firms and its excellent transport, communications, and storage facilities have helped make it the chief trading and financial centre of Southeast Asia.

The traditional city proper stretches north and east of the port area and is characterized by low hills. Within the city run the Singapore and Rochor rivers, which are tidal inlets crowded with native craft. The original settlement north of the Singapore River remains the heart of the city; it is the locale of the principal commercial, government, and public buildings, the Anglican St. Andrew's Cathedral (1862), and the Raffles Hotel. Modern housing estates have cut into some of the city's traditional cultural enclaves, especially the Chinese quarter. Skyscraper hotels and office buildings now blend with the British colonial architecture, Chinese shophouses, and Malay kampongs (villages once thatch-roofed, now tin-roofed).

Singapore is an interesting Asian city to visit, not only because of its cosmopolitan lifestyle and fascinating mixture of cultures and peoples, but also because of its low crime rate, its good range of cultural and natural beauties and of course, as most people seem to think, the good shopping here. One can find all sorts of things to do in this city, as active or as leisurely as one likes. I personally like it because it offers the modern alongside with the historic, the Western married to the Eastern, the contrasting features of the best and worst of occidental and oriental.

One may choose to stay in the bustling Orchard St area, which is absolutely crammed with shopping malls, entertainment complexes and high-rise buildings. Another choice is the City proper area, with a more sophisticated atmosphere and quite a few historical attractions, including the legacies of Singapore’s British colonial past. Towards the port, an area full of business and the rush of traffic, as well as many offices and tall buildings. The island of Sentosa offers another place to stay with numerous resort-style hotels and a relaxed holiday-like lifestyle, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. One may choose a hotel in Chinatown, where the Chinese element is most pronounced, with many markets, specialist shops, traditional businesses, restaurants and temples. Little India is another district with its many Indian shops and temples. Nearby, many Malay-owned businesses, mosques and cultural centres, shopping malls and markets.

Walking around the city is the best way to see everything and one may experience an ever-changing kaleidoscope of images, sounds and smells. Freshly brewed coffee quickly gives way to a mixture of pungent spices and an almost putrid smell of smoked meat and stir-fried vegetables. The scent of incense and sandalwood is chased away by the sharp aroma of toasting garlic; tropical flowers redolent with heady perfume are quickly succeeded by wafting sewerage smells from the slowly flowing waters of a canal nearby. Multihued traditional saris are found side by side with the latest European fashions, the bright red of Chinese ceremonial gowns contrast with the simple white garments of the Imams of mosques. The chanting of the praying muezzin is interlocked with the tinkling of bells from a Chinese temple, while a Hindu holy man intones deep-voiced prayers. The constant hum of traffic is in the background and every now and then, one may hear the banging and clanging of construction, which is ever so prominent in many parts of the city.

So this Monday was one of wanderings and meanderings for us. A rediscovery of the City that we have visited several times in the past and which is once again as welcoming as the last time one has visited here. There are several offices around the City operated by the Singapore Tourist Organisation, and which provide excellent materials and ever-cheerful help from well-trained staff. One may obtain useful information right from Changi Airport (easily the best airport in the world!), or several bureaux around the City. There is a well-situated one on Orchard Rd, but also many others.

We started the morning with a good breakfast at our hotel and then walked for about seven hours (with a couple of stops, sure enough)! We are staying at the Marriott in Orchard Rd (OK as far as big hotels go, but rather too profit-driven and impersonal – I can’t complain as it was booked by work) and we decided to walk to Little India. We took a rather circuitous route and digressed up through the Emerald Hill area, which is off Orchard Rd and has some delightful old houses, beautifully restored. One can still find quite a few colonial buildings in Singapore, although the impression one gets immediately is of an ultra modern city full of skyscrapers and high-rise apartment buildings.

The vegetation even in the busiest and most central part of the city is amazing. The high temperatures and humidity year-round make for a greenhouse environment with lush results. Indoor plants that we cosset and struggle to keep alive at home thrive like weeds here, even on the roadside. Tall trees of a resplendent green hue, marvellous flowers of every colour and the twittering of birds remind one that the tropical jungle that covered the island initially is biding its time to spring back and reclaim the land on which skyscrapers are built.

Singapore's notable buildings include the Victoria Theatre and Memorial Hall, the High Court, the City Hall, the House of Jade, the Sri Mariamman Temple, and the Singapore Polytechnic. The government maintains a national museum, library, and theatre and the Van Kleef Aquarium. The international airport at Changi (opened in 1981) was developed on reclaimed land to the northeast. The Singapore Botanic Gardens are to the northwest. The National University of Singapore was founded in 1980 by the merger of the University of Singapore and Nanyang University. The Nanyang Technological Institute was established in the former Nanyang University in 1981. Tiger Balm Gardens is a collection of statuary depicting Chinese myths and legends. Other attractions include the Jurong Bird Park (opened 1971). Its 20 hectare area make it perhaps the largest park of its kind in the world. It houses some 600 species of birds. Sentosa Island in Singapore Harbour has been developed as a major recreational area; it is connected by cable car with Mount Faber and is also accessible by ferry, providing visitors with beaches, a golf course, and an amusement park.