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Singapore: Of Chicken Feet, Singlish and Prohibitions

Isabel Schrimpf lived with her family in Singapore for two years. She has written a book about her time in the city and island state: "High Heels and Chicken Feet - Encounters with Singapore". GEO.de was there to answer questions.

GEO.de: What do you have to see in Singapore?

Isabel Schrimpf: Even if you don't like the Marina Bay Sands, the symbol of Singapore, from below, you have to have been up there. The best way to avoid the queue and the not exactly cheap admission price of over 20 SGD is to drive up to the bar of the Ku Dé Ta at the north tower, i.e. the rearmost tower - there you can enjoy a sundowner in hand on the terrace of the 57. Enjoy a fabulous view of Singapore's skyline and the nearest Indonesian islands on the first floor.

The "old" Botanic Garden is also very atmospheric with its Sunday concerts: there you can have a picnic under palm trees and heliconias - while listening to the orchestra on the floating stage.

A visit to Chinatown and Little India is of course always part of it, if you want to go on a guided tour like: www.singaporewalks.com.

A visit to a pooja in a Hindu temple is very impressive. Then fortify yourself in one of the food stalls of a hawker center and stroll through the hustle and bustle a little off the beaten track.

Also well worth seeing: Geraldene Lowe's "Black and White Houses Tour" through the stately colonial houses where the senior officials of the British Crown used to reside. A tour of these private bungalows, with their often exquisite furnishings and fantastic gardens, is like stepping back in time.

GEO.de: Which faux pas do Europeans keep getting into in Singapore?

Isabel Schrimpf: An absolute "no go": to hand a handkerchief to a Singaporean who obviously has a bad head cold. Blowing your nose is considered extremely uncouth, it is better to pull your nose up until your frontal sinus is on fire!

Another thing not to do is to leave the chopsticks in the bowl after eating. This is reminiscent of the incense sticks in the temples, which are lit for the ancestors, and thus of death. So always put chopsticks next to the empty bowl!

And if you are invited privately, you definitely take off your shoes before entering the apartment or house.

GEO.de: And how high is the culture shock for a German family living in Singapore?

Isabel Schrimpf: I didn't experience any real culture shock in Singapore. The companies that send their expats there rate the "unreasonable expectation" of moving to Singapore in the "hardship allowance" as if they were moving to Austria.

The only thing that was unexpectedly difficult is the language. You always think, wonderful, in Singapore they speak English, so no communication problems. But it's not quite like that: At first I couldn't even buy myself a mango juice without major misunderstandings. And it took me a few taxi rides before I realized that the taxi drivers weren't actually talking to themselves in Chinese, but instead wanted to talk to me in "English". It takes a while to listen to the so-called "Singlish".

GEO.de: Do you have an example or a favorite sentence on Singlish ?!

Isabel Schrimpf: Singlish is most beautiful in dialogue. This is roughly how a beer order works among locals:

Service: "Want beer or not?"

(May I bring you a beer?)

Guest:

"Col, is it?"

(What is meant is "cold": you usually have to think of the last letter in Singapore - yes, a cold one, please.)

Waitress: "Ha?"

(I beg your pardon?)

Guest:

"Col lah!"

(I'd like a cold beer.)

Service:

"Col cannot. This one also good. Can ah?"

(Unfortunately we don't have a cold beer. Our warm beer is also very good. May I bring you one?)

Geo.de: How much have Singapore's street kitchens, the Hawker Centers, changed your relationship to cooking?

Isabel Schrimpf: The nice thing about the "Hawkern" is that you don't have to cook anymore, because you can't get it so good, so varied and so inexpensive at home anyway. This is why Singaporeans often see their kitchen as a home accessory that is not really used. One would much rather go out to eat.

The most interesting thing about cooking is shopping in the wet markets beforehand. The markets are so called because the ice, which is supposed to cool fish and meat, melts after a short time in the tropical heat and you walk around cuttlefish and chicken feet in puddles of water. The markets do not always exude fragrances, thanks to the stalls with durians, also known as stink fruits. In addition to exotic fruits in the most incredible colors, shapes and sizes, there is also a lot of unknown and unfamiliar things: an altar right next to the butcher, toads and turtles for cooking - in short: a completely different atmosphere than ours.

GEO.de: Which culinary delicacies did you prefer not to try in Singapore? And why not?

Isabel Schrimpf: I've tried a lot, but not everything, even if for different reasons. Chili crab, one of the national dishes of Singapore, was simply too difficult to eat, and snakes too much meat. "Buddha jumps over the wall", a kind of sea cucumber stew, looks more like something for men, I think. And I also kept my hands off "Hashima", a jelly made from the fallopian tube tissue of bullfrogs, and chicken feet - although both are said to be very good for the skin. Many Chinese women actually eat such "delicacies" for their beauty.

GEO.de: What do you actually do in Singapore if you don't really enjoy shopping?

Isabel Schrimpf: The average tourist stays in Singapore for three or four days, which is easy to take around. But if you live there, after a while you have to come up with something. The less touristy areas such as Tiong Bahru or Joo Chiat are definitely worth long walks. In addition, Singapore has great parks and green spaces, an enchanted old cemetery, the Bukit Brown Cemetery, through which a city freeway will soon pass, and even a remnant of primary jungle, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

On the East and West Coast you can rent bicycles or go roller-skating, even water-skiing. And if you are lucky, you can still spot real crocodiles in the Sungei Buloh Wetlands, a still pristine area. But you have to be aware that "in the fresh air" in Singapore will soon get too hot. That is why many flee to other small islands for the weekend and lie under a palm tree there. The hotel operators now know, of course, that the emigrants regularly get island fever - the prices are correspondingly high. In the end, it is much cheaper to go shopping and dining all weekend. And that's exactly what the Singaporeans do.

GEO.de: The city-state attaches great importance to discipline, order and, above all, cleanliness. In your book you quote your son, who summed it up so nicely: "Peeing in the elevator is 400 dollars cheaper than spitting chewing gum on the street." But let's be honest, what do these many prohibition signs and rules actually do to a European?

Isabel Schrimpf: A certain alienation actually remains - the bans are not enough. Instructions on how to behave are even more common than signs telling you what to leave. Stand on the left, walk on the right, flush the toilet, please and say thank you, smile, speak good English and so on. Everywhere there are posters with rules of conduct and you actually get the impression that the state does not trust its citizens too much.

State founder Lee Kuan Yew made no secret of the fact that he did not think too much of the human species. He was of the opinion that a prosperous coexistence can only succeed under strict guidance. Perhaps he is not entirely wrong with this, because Singapore functions like hardly any other multiethnic state - and that is by no means a matter of course.

Finally, in 1965, Singapore was thrown into independence like in cold water. Its population consists of an explosive mixture of different ethnic groups, it lies in the middle of two great Muslim powers, Malaysia and Indonesia, and has no raw materials of its own, not even its own drinking water. Conceivably unfavorable starting conditions for this small country, from which Lee Kuan Yew has made one of the most progressive countries in the world through his paternalistic leadership style.

So I'm torn between being astonished and admired. In any case, now that I have seen that this cannot be taken for granted either, I appreciate the free life here in Europe all the more.

GEO.de: And what do you think when you read the following in the newspaper: "Two Germans were convicted of spraying graffiti in Singapore. The young men have to go to jail for nine months - and are each supposed to get three cane blows on the bare buttocks ? "

Isabel Schrimpf: "When you enter a foreign country, ask what is forbidden there." - Confucius knew that more than 2500 years ago. You don't really have to say more about it.

GEO.de: How do you react when someone describes Singapore as "Disneyland with the death penalty"?

Isabel Schrimpf: A strong title, no question about it! The American William Gibson, for example, wrote his article on Singapore for Wired magazine in 1993. The Singapore government did not particularly like his text and the magazine was banned there. Freedom of expression, assembly and freedom of the press have a different status - to put it that way.

In Singapore, as in the West, the focus is not on personal freedoms, but on "Asian values": common good, social harmony, economic progress, respect and obedience to the authorities.

With "bread and games" the government ensures social peace and political stability. Shopping and Sentosa, that is the often quoted "velvet glove over the iron fist": Prosperity and a comfortable life are definitely also means to an end.

But I have the impression that something is slowly happening here. The younger generation can no longer be satisfied and calm down by this alone, there are increasingly critical voices, albeit far less often and more cautiously than in the West. A few weeks ago Lee Kuan Yew, who shaped the island nation like no other for over 50 years, passed away. It will be interesting to see how Singapore will develop now.

But by the way: "Disneyland with the death penalty" would also describe Gibson's homeland, the USA, quite aptly.

GEO.de: You write in your book that you always have to have your ID card ready. Do you still know your ID card number by heart?

Isabel Schrimpf: Of course: G5151001T (she counts the long number fluently and without hesitation). At first I couldn't believe that you get used to the fact that "data protection" is handled so completely differently in Singapore than in Germany. If you live there, you actually have to adjust and remove some resistance.

In Singapore, by the way, nobody could understand the local excitement over the Snowden revelations. It is clear to everyone there that the state knows very well about its citizens.

Related Links

A guided neighborhood tour is always a good idea: The Original Singapore Walks®

"black and white houses tour" by Geraldene Lowe. Pre-registration is requested. Bookings by email at: [email protected] or by phone at: +65 67 37 52 50, mobile: +65 81 55 13 90.

Isabel Schrimp's book is a kind of user guide for the city-state and a good introductory reading for anyone planning a trip to Singapore. BoD-Books on Demand, Norderstedt, 2014, 167 pages, paperback € 14.80 or as eBook € 9.99

More about Singapore at GEO.de

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