Singapore: The Changi Delusion

I know it’s been a while since my last post, but Singapore was so jampacked by endless activities that I barely had a single moment to rest/write. I attempted a couple of times but failed on every occasion. I’m actually in Delhi now, and have been for a few days (in fact I’m actually leaving Delhi on a bus to Jaipur as I write this), so I’ll try to write retrospectively about my time in Singapore; five days of non-stop fun.

First things first; I love Singapore. When the time comes that I have to hang up my travelling boots and return to England, I’ll be compiling a list of all the places I’ve visited ranking from best to worst – a list which Singapore will sit very near the top of. If you’ve never been to Singapore, you must go. And that’s not a general ‘Oh you must go because it’s nice’, it’s a ‘you must go because there’s nowhere else like it on Earth’. Singapore has all the charm, weather, food and culture of Southeast Asia, but also has one big weapon in its arsenal that separates it from all the countries surrounding it – it’s filthy rich. Singapore can afford to flaunt its amazing cuisine and rainforest-like landscapes while also having universal access to clean drinking water, an excellent subway system and absolutely pristine streets.

In fact, that’s one thing that really sticks out in a slightly odd way – everyone knows about Singapore’s OCD approach to cleanliness, but it’s not until you’re there that you realise just how insane it is. It’s kind of unsettling walking around an entire city without seeing a SINGLE piece of rubbish, or a blocked drain, or an overflowing bin, or even a piece of dirt. Singapore’s government obviously goes out of the way to not only lumber its city with incredibly strictly-enforced anti-littering laws, but to power-wash every square inch of pavement, wall and road to oblivion. Everything is so shiny and neat. I know it makes it sounds kind of inauthentic and fake, but it’s really rather thrilling to be somewhere so tidy. It even makes Western Europe seem shabby. And I know the city’s level of cleanliness is brought on by a kind of bizarre draconian way of deterring offenders, but in all honesty I don’t care.

Singapore is a libertarian’s worst nightmare. There are jail sentences, fines and other punishments for just about everything within its tiny borders. Spitting on the street? $1000 fine. Smoking in public? $5000 fine. Drinking or eating anything on the subway? $1000 fine. Smuggling or supplying drugs? Mandatory death penalty. Everything is regulated, everyone is watched. It rings a little bit of a police state from the outside. I mean, to put it into perspective, chewing gum – a totally harmless little product – is banned nationwide. It’s genuinely illegal. Which is kind of mad. Yet, Singaporeans are so happy. All locals I met were at once proud of their little country, tolerant and welcoming to outsiders, and also just seemed genuinely thrilled to wake up every day and realise they’re Singaporean. It was awesome. I guess coming from one of the richest nations on Earth probably has something to do with that.

When I referred to ‘other punishments’ earlier, I’ve got one in mind that really sticks out. Taken from Singapore’s WikiVoyage page:

“For some crimes, most notably illegal entry and overstaying your visa for over 30 or 90 days, Singapore imposes caning as a punishment. Other offences which have caning as a punishment include vandalism, robbery, molestation and rape. Having sex with a girl under the age of 16 is considered to be rape under Singapore law, regardless of whether the girl consents to it, and would land you a few strokes of the cane. This is no slap on the wrist. Strokes from the thick rattan cane are excruciatingly painful, take weeks to heal and can scar for life.”

I mean… what the hell? There’s so much wrong with that one paragraph that I can barely choose where to start. First, how on Earth does Singapore believe rape and molestation are on the same level as overstaying your visa? Also I’m not a big fan of caning for illegal entry. That’s like saying “How dare you try to come to our lovely country, we’re gonna deport you straight back to your home country, but first we’re gonna smack you with a cane a bunch of times just for the f*ck of it’. Yet perhaps the most troubling thing there is Singapore’s definition of rape. A 16 year old what? Girl? What about boys? Does this law not work both ways?

But rather than dwelling on the negative, I should concentrate on the positives of a wonderful little city-state tucked away in Southeast Asia. I’ve never been anywhere so colourful – all the buildings are painted in lovely vibrant primary or secondary colours, and are lit up tastefully at night. I met a bunch of people from the hostel to hang out with for pretty much the entire time I was there. We did some intensely hot jungle trekking, went up the absolutely enormous Marina Bay Sands Hotel, went on a scooter tour, saw two light shows, and of course, drank the original Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel. This was quite an experience, it must be said. After trekking around the city in blistering heat all day, we headed toward the hotel to cool down. After asking a local for directions and my friend then hilariously telling said local that he spoke very good English (Singapore is an English-speaking country), we found the hotel, went upstairs and found an enormous queue of Chinese tourists, led by a loudmouthed little tour guide who kept shouting at us to go away to the back when we attempted to look inside. We get it you crazy midget, we’re just having a look. Don’t you be telling the English how to queue.

After waiting around for about 20 minutes, we got a table by the window. This place was awesome. Obviously extremely colonial in architecture and decor, the walls were lined with a dark brown mahogany, and we sat in ornate little armchairs. I was told by one of the group that the Raffles Hotel is the only place in Singapore where you’re allowed to litter openly, which was highlighted by the shell casings of peanuts literally all over the floor. And I’m not talking the odd peanut – I’m talking you’re literally kicking piles of them out of the way as you walk around. With our drinks we were handed a big bag of nuts ourselves, and somehow made it through the entire thing, culminating in being sat knee-deep in peanut casings for the rest of our time there.

We also went to Singapore National Museum, which was thorough and informative – I personally learned soooo much stuff about Singapore that I never knew before. Obviously we all know about its war history, and that we were forced to surrender it to the Japanese because we ballsed up our defence of the island. But I certainly didn’t know that in 1963, Singapore merged with the Federation of Malaya to create a new nation; Malaysia. Then, after two years, they split again, leaving Singapore and Malaysia as the two separate nations they are today. The merger brought into light too many cultural, religious, ethnic and ideological differences between the two nations, and Malaysia decided, following severe race riots in Singapore in 1964, to expel their new compatriots. This entire plan was the brainchild of Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore following its full independence from Malaysia in 1965, and we were shown a recording of a speech he made on national TV following the failed merger, which was absolutely stunning – one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. It was so heartfelt and apologetic, and so filled with disappointment and genuine guilt, yet at the same time it was laden with hope and optimism for the future of a solo Singaporean nation. I actually clapped at the end. I looked like a mental case.

And so after five days of awesome food, awesome weather, awesome sights and some much-needed history lessons, I flew to India. On the way out of Singapore, I coined a term that highlights one of Singapore’s great flaws – The Changi Delusion. Changi Airport, Singapore’s only airport and one of the busiest in the world, constantly wins just about every award going. Any award that an airport can win, you can bet Changi’s won it, and numerous times too. Look online and you’ll see it’s got a swimming pool, a gym, a flower garden, a butterfly walk, a games station, a football viewing area and just about any shop you could ask for. Actually go to the airport and you’ll realise that’s all bullshit and none of it works. It is simply the most overrated, shittiest airport I’ve been to, and I’ve been to some seriously shitty airports. The wifi doesn’t work, the games don’t work, it’s ridiculously expensive, the pool and gym are only available to some sort of membership card holders, and the staff are utterly retarded and some of the rudest I have ever met. Balls to that airport, I hope a plane crashes into it.

I will report more from India when I’ve recovered from my 3 days in Delhi – arguably the biggest shithole on this planet. Piles of human waste, dead dogs lying in the street and the smell of cancerous pollution have been ever-presents since I touched down here, which is why I’m leaving for Jaipur as we speak. Will report more later.


Hiroshima: Shadows

20160326_142202There’s something about Hiroshima that is undeniably special. Yet, as many people I’ve met who have passed through here will tell you, it’s not the most exciting city you’re likely to visit in your life. It’s small, quaint and – by Japanese standards – rather quiet. And it is that quietude, that oddly sleepy peacefulness that can be felt across the city, that holds the door open for what makes Hiroshima a place I will never forget.

As everyone is fully aware, Hiroshima was the site of the first atomic bomb to be used on living people, be they military or civilian. At 8:15am on 8th August 1945, the US dropped the A-bomb on this city, destroying 92% of all structures in a 2-mile radius and killing upwards of 140,000 people in one monumental flash of energy. President Truman, 16 hours later, ordered the immediate surrender of the Empire of Japan, an order which was, seemingly, ignored altogether. Three days later, on 9th August, a second bomb was dropped on the town of Nagasaki, killing a further 60,000 people in similar fashion. On August 15th, Japan finally surrendered to the Allied Forces, and WWII was over.

I wish I could talk about the events of 6th August 1945 in a similar fashion to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. That is, with little talk of the war, or who was right and who was wrong. However, the museum and memorial, which I visited yesterday, is one of most truly saddening places I’ve ever set foot. Such was its impact on me, I feel I have to discuss more than just the events that took place. I always thought I had the bombings and their consequences sussed in my head, but I could not have been more wrong. After years of hearing about the bombing as a distant piece of history, it wasn’t until being stood at ground zero, the speck of land where thousands of people died, that I really felt the truest sense of unease and melancholy of my life. I didn’t know what to think.

20160326_141436After my first day in Hiroshima involved going to the majestic Miyajima Island and finally indulging in some real Japanese karaoke, I decided that the full 24 hours of my second day would be devoted to the bomb. Waking up in the morning, I dragged myself to the train station, put my luggage in a locker, and headed for the streetcar. Checking the map revealed that ‘A-Bomb Dome’ was the name of one of the stations in the dead centre of the city, at the end of a bridge over the meeting point of two rivers. If you’ve ever done any research on post-war Hiroshima, you may be aware of the A-Bomb Dome that the station takes its name from; a once-municipal building that is now a concrete, rubble-laden shell. It was almost directly under the fireball when the bomb detonated, and yet, while the building was totally hollowed-out by the blast and portions of it were knocked down, most of the structure inexplicably remained standing. And here, almost 71 years after Little Boy was dropped, it still stands, untouched, as an inadvertent memorial. As I headed towards it, I thought I knew what to expect – a building. And not just any building; a building I’ve seen many photos of. I knew what it looked like, where it was, and the history behind it. Yet, when we approached the bridge and the Dome came into view from behind a row of trees, I got chills like I had never ever felt before. I got off, walked over to the front of the building, and just stayed there, staring into the front doors at the piles of bricks in the lobby. While it may have once been a truly impressive feat of architecture, it now looks on the verge of turning to dust.

For about 20 minutes I just stood in awe of this hideously disfigured structure, and yet at the same time I can’t quite figure out what it was that I found so moving about standing in front of this building. If anything, it doesn’t really retroactively demonstrate the power of the bomb; although it is some sort of bizarre miracle that it remained standing, that doesn’t hide the fact that the bomb, from directly above, couldn’t destroy this simple concrete structure. Yet I know, deep down, that in a fraction of a second, every person standing in this now-gutted coffin of a building on the 8th August 1945 was vaporised in an instant.

In fact, that is perhaps the most disturbing – and in my opinion the most telling – fact regarding the power of the two bombs dropped on Japan. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, over 6,500 are still listed as missing – their bodies were never found. 6,568 civilians, going about their normal morning routine, were, without warning, disintegrated into thin air in the blink of an eye.

One of the things that hit me hardest in the museum was along these lines. The steps of a bank in the centre of the city had been cut from its original structure (or presumably found in the rubble), and placed behind glass in the museum. On the second white marble step was a faded grey-black stain about 2ft across. It was revealed that a man had been sat there when the bomb went off, waiting for the bank to open at 8:30am. And within one second, all that we could look down on through the museum’s glass case was all that he had become – a shadow on the pavement.

And there would have been hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of these all over Hiroshima. People emphatically not partaking in Japan’s wartime aggression against the Allied Forces, who were mere bystanders to the truly horrendous Pacific Theatre, bore the brunt of the US’s quest for revenge. Having studied the bomb in the past, having conflicted views internally about its morality and now actually being stood at the site where the bomb fell, it’s very difficult for me to see it any other way; it really felt like a revenge mission by the Allies. The Japanese had put their soldiers through hell all across the South Pacific with ruthless barbarism and unwillingness to surrender when the war was already lost, and I firmly believe that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets in order to exact vengeance on the Japanese people as a whole.

There will forever be debate about the morality of dropping the bomb on civilians. That goes without saying. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen because up until that point they had been spared any bombing campaigns. Thus, the destructive power of the bomb would be fully showcased. However, I personally feel that this power could have best been demonstrated elsewhere. A port or a military base. Or, perhaps, that the US could have given Japan a last-minute warning; tell them that they have a weapon ready to be used that will destroy an entire city in one go, and at least give the Japanese a chance to evacuate some civilians. But instead, the bomb was dropped with no prior information imparted, and we absolutely obliterated an entire functioning, living, breathing organism of a city in one go.

However, I’m not self-righteous. I think of myself as a realist and I wholeheartedly do not buy into the theory that it was inherently wrong to drop the bomb, and I also like to think I understand the American perspective in the run-up to the event. Rather than being reductionist and naively dismissive by suggesting that the US should be ashamed of themselves, or that they were just thirsty for blood, I feel like if you had been an American citizen during the Second World War, what happened would have been a preferable outcome for three reasons.

First, it ended the war. Simply put, that was just about the number one priority for every nation on Earth at that point, apart from Japan. The second is along similar lines; the invasion of the tiny Japanese island of Okinawa was brutal and bloody enough as it was, yet, had the bomb not been a strong enough deterrent, an Allied land invasion of mainland Japan had already been planned as a backup. This likely would have dragged the war on for many more months and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands on both sides.

The third is a little more controversial. I know people love to be pious and holier-than-thou about this kind of thing, but I can hold my hands up and admit that I know, if I was in America in the 1940s, and I had seen men from my country being dragged off to die at the hands of an enemy of such relentless brutality and aggression, that I would have wanted to put them in their place. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, to use the old cliche, and looking back now perhaps the conduct of the US was less than ideal, but at the time I would’ve wanted word of that bomb to be on the lips of every man, woman and child from Hokkaido to Kyushu. They were a distant, unusually cruel and ruthless enemy and we had to stop them. But that’s war. Of course we would’ve been wrapped up in overwhelming anti-Japanese sentiment at all times, that’s just how it worked. Yet now, in 2016, standing in Hiroshima, as a well-travelled 24 year old who has never experienced war, it’s difficult to feel anything other than sadness.

I’ve put forward as many points as I can to correspond with the points of view of the Americans and the Japanese, but, arguments aside, the very crux of the issue is that we didn’t need to destroy Hiroshima. We needed to win the war, but we didn’t need to erase this city’s history, kill half of its people and leave it stuck in a bubble of cancerous radioactive fallout for decades. We not only obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we punished its future generations, tasked with rebuilding from the ashes, starting from scratch, all while severe health defects caused by the near-lethal dose of radiation many received hung over them like the Sword of Damocles. Because we used a bomb that I think even the US didn’t fully understand the ramifications of, we burned people alive, we disfigured others, we caused a wave of disabled babies to be born, and we handed innocent children slow, painful deaths at the hands of leukaemia. I know it’s easy for me to say, and I’m not pretending to know all the ins and outs of the situation, but there must have been another way.

After finishing the museum, I went and stood at the official memorial, surrounded by flowers as the Japanese flag waved overhead. I looked around and saw two types of people. One, tourists. Selfie-sticks in hand, they would stand with their back to the memorial, camera-phone in the air, and smile. Like they were at the Eiffel Tower, or the zoo. Why would you want a selfie with that memorial? If you want a photo, take a photo, but please show a little more respect than wearing your sunglasses and sticking your tongue out/doing the stupid peace sign with your hands while taking a selfie.

The other set of people were Japanese, and they gave me an image I will never forget. If you stand at the memorial long enough, you’ll see locals passing by. You’ll see workers on their lunch break. You’ll see policemen patrolling. Every single one of them will stop what they’re doing if they pass the memorial, walk up to it, close their eyes and give a long, solemn bow. One group of businessmen heading to a meeting, lanyards around their necks, stopped their laughing and chatting, and spontaneously formed a small queue, so each one could take a moment to remember the dead.

That was a sight I found so noble and moving that I, for some reason, felt it right to join their queue. I got to the front, put my hands by my side, closed my eyes and bowed my head to the cenotaph. I opened my eyes to find one of the businessmen had watched me do this. He smiled, turned to me and bowed. I assume as a sign of respectful gratitude. After I bowed back, he left, I sat on a nearby bench, put my sunglasses on, and just stared out across the city.

Despite the historical spectre of death and destruction still looming large over Hiroshima, the city and the people in it have done something with its infamous legacy that I was very pleased and surprised to discover. Although Japan has been criticised and questioned in recent years for an apparent societal resurgence of nationalistic ideas and historical revisionism, Hiroshima, as a city that unexpectedly became the final frontline of the last great war, has gone vast lengths to distance itself from that aspect of Japanese society. Although there is a lot to say about Japan’s status in the later stages of the war, the city of Hiroshima is simply not interested in talking about it. It may seem slightly questionable to some that the Japanese would not address their numerous proven atrocities across Asia and the Pacific during the war, but once I personally had gotten over that omission, I realised that Hiroshima is also absolutely determined not to see itself as a victim.

The memorial and museum treats the A-bomb like the reset button on a stopwatch. The moment the bomb detonated, the paradigm went back to nought. One part of Hiroshima’s history was over; the bomb had drawn a line underneath it and turned the page. This city isn’t interested in what happened before the bomb, or why it happened, or who was right and wrong. All that concerns them is that it happened, their city was destroyed, and they had to rebuild. It was a period of hardship the likes of which nobody else had ever really known, but, further than simply discussing it as a singular destructive event that happened a long time ago, Hiroshima has dedicated itself to promoting peace.

Across Hiroshima are protesters calling out for an end to conflicts worldwide. They stand on street corners, crudely made signs in hand, shouting indecipherable noise into a megaphone. And there are hundreds of them. They don’t care whether people think their signs look amateur, or whether their points are getting across. They’re just there, taking time out of their lives to call for peace. That’s something I have a tremendous amount of respect for. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and an unspoken lust for revenge, they use their experience as a warning to all others; whether you instigated hostilities or not, whether you truly believe you were fighting for good in this world or not, war will almost certainly come back to haunt you in some way. The systematic killing of hundreds, thousands or millions is never something to be glorified, no matter the method and no matter the cause. Hiroshima is one of only two cities on Earth that have experienced the full destructive force of nuclear weapons and, whether they were the aggressor or not, they don’t want to see it happen to anyone else. Enough pain and suffering was bestowed upon them as civilians to know that there will always be a better solution. While the validity and morality of the bombing as a means of forcing Japan’s hand in surrender will forever be a topic of debate, there is no denying that what happened in Hiroshima was a truly tragic consequence of a long, costly war.

There’s a small stream of water surrounding the cenotaph commemorating the dead. In the water is a collection of small plaques, all with the same message, all in different languages. I’ll leave you with the inscription, as I believe the words engraved into it, which have sat as the centrepiece of Hiroshima since 1952, are genuine, and speak to the dignified, defiant communal spirit of Hiroshima and its people.

“Let all the souls here rest in peace,

For we shall not repeat the evil.

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This monument embodies the hope that Hiroshima, devastated on 6 August 1945 by the world’s first atomic bombing, will stand forever as a city of peace. The stone chamber in the center contains the Register of Deceased A-bomb Victims. The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima – enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.”