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Knives and napkins: where are they?

Let’s move to something different and lighter: differences when it comes to eating. The first day of my internship I was taken to an Asian Food court to eat. It is located on the fourth floor of a business complex known as Amara. You can eat Chinese, Hainanese, Indian, Korean, Japanaese and other typical Asian cuisine. I opted for Chinese cousine and chose something very light and not suspicious: rise, meat balls and vegatables. Everything fine with that. img00033-20090416-1304

Obiously I feared I would have to eat using chopsticks, something I never actually mastered (usually food gets thrown everywhere when I use them so it’s better not to be anywhere near me!). But I was surprised to see they had forks and spoons. No Knife, though, and no napkins. A quick look around and I discovered that even the other places has spoons and forks but no knives. Why was that? Well, even though cutlery was made of plastic I figured it was because they were afraid people might start stabbing others with knives: news about stabbings from England quickly came to my mind… I would later discover I wasn’t that far off!

The other thing which surprised me was that when I went looking for a place to sit, I saw chairs with tissues or umbrellas on them. I was told that people left something personal – e.g. tissues – to take that seat before going to get their food. Strange, huh? The weirdest part though is that people don’t use tissues to blow their nose: it’s considered rude! They prefer to sniffle, often very loudly ( and I really does get on your nerves!!!!). You’d think they’ve misunderstood the reason tissues were created..!

If tissues are used with another purpose, they also don’t seem to be used as napkins, either. As a matter of act, no napkins are given to you, unless you go to a Western restaurant or a MacDonald’s. So, you may ask, how do they clean their mouth, especially cosidering how fried and oily Asian food is? I guess they don’t, but I still haven’t figured it out… hopefully I’ll get an asnwer by the end of my stay here.

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Singapore, security and terrorism

As I previously wrote, Singapore is a very safe city and its citizens are proud of it. But nothing is as simple as it may appear to be. Security requires tighter controls and surveillance which clash with some of our basic rights. Why am I saying this? It’s fairly simple. Whenever you take the MRT (which refers to the underground), especially for long distances as I do, you keep hearing “If you see any suspicious looking person or article, please inform our staff. Or press the emergency communication button located at the side of the door”. I found this announcement rather amusing, but I was shocked when the first Sunday I was here I was waiting for the Train and I watched a video which clearly illustrated what a “suspicious looking person” was and what action the good and diligent citizen had to take.Crime ad on a taxi in Singapore

We are usually told what to do and what not to do, but never really see an actual video or demonstration about it…. Not in Singapore. Videos have been made for the benefit of the public and to instruct it to the real dangers of life. I saw an extended version of this particular video on the red line (which has the advantage of using the latest trains seeing as it is mainly a tourist line) with smalls screens in each carriage. The extended version featured images from September 11th and the Madrid and London attacks. This was to remind people how devastating terrorism is and that action needs to be taken to prevent it. Therefore the usual video of the suspicious looking person who travelled with a bulky bad and left it behind was broadcast followed by diligent citizens who tried to call the man, but he didn’t stop. So they pressed “the emergency communication button” and alerted the guard which in turn called the bomb-disposal experts. And everybody lived happily ever after.

So is terrorism a real threat in Singapore? Well, even though I can’t recall any major event in the city, Singapore is close to Indonesia and we all know about the Bali bombings. Terrorism isn’t underestimated and some arrests linked to al-Quaeda were made in the past (see more here. Check this link for more information on the terrorism threat to Singapore. Beware, it’s a long reading!). On the other hand the government wants to defend the reputation Singapore has and terrorism attacks would ruin the Business climate and hub the city has managed to create. Still, for a European all these pre-emptive measures may seem absurd and in violation of civil liberties. What do you think?

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Singapore and order: first impressions

Three things strike you when you get to Singapore: the green, security and order. If you think you’ll find the same mess as in China you are completely wrong. It’s nothing like that. Every detail is carefully looked after. Flower-beds and parks are cleaned nearly every day. Pavements are neat and so is every building. Even the underground is clean and you feel you can sit down without worrying about grease and dirt or a bad smell (I really can’t say the same about Milan…).

Everything looks almost perfect. Some people say too perfect. They say this isn’t a real city: there are too many bans and people move too mechanically. Maybe it is like that, but one must take into account the history and complex reality of this City. Singapore was created as a trading post and port along the spice route by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. It became of the most important commercial and military centers of the British Empire and the hub of British power in Southeast Asia (from Wikipedia).

Nearly two hundred years later its main function hasn’t really changed. Singapore is still a hub, a place to do business, a place where business can start up very quickly and its strategic position gives access to Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Thailand and many other Asian countries.

It is also a place where lots of cultures – which elsewhere would clash – manage to get along. How do they do it? I believe one of the reasons is because there are rules, rules that in this context are applied very strictly and oblige each party to act responsibly. This is very evident when you consider the religious aspect. I was surprised to find out that along the same street where I work, just a few hundred yards from each other, there are a Buddist Temple, a Hindu temple and a Mosque. Would you see that in Italy or somewhere else in Europe?

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Arriving in Singapore

I’ve been in Singapore for over a month and I thought I’d share some comments on this incredible city. Please note that I didn’t have the time to get ready for this experience seeing as I only had a week to get everything up and running with lots to do before leaving Italy. So I will post some titbits as I come across them.

As soon as you land, you notice there’s something different. There isn’t that frenzy in the air as in Hong Kong or any European airport. Everything seems to be under control. You get on an escalator and go to the bottom floor where there is the customs declaration point. I was given the landing card as I got off the plane so I didn’t have enough time to fill it in. But I turned round and noticed that on the side of this huge room there were coffee-bar tables… No, I was mistaken. Those weren’t coffee-bars. Those were the areas where passengers could sit and comfortably fill in their landing cards. As if they were in their sitting room. A touch of class, right?

Customs declaration was straightfoward and so was picking up my case, but before leaving the airport I thought I would change some money. Done within a couple of minutes and with no commission, too! The girl at the counter asked me if I wanted to buy a sim card for my mobile but I declined. I wasn’t really in the right mood for that and wanted another carrier in any case.

The funny part came when I had to call a taxi. There was a taxi line – nothing wrong with that – and when the first taxi approached I immediately asked the driver how much it would cost me to go to Outram. I had been to China and Hong Kong and asking how much the trip was going to be was one of the first things I learnt from my past experiences, because taxi drivers had this knack of trying to make you pay more and taking detours. But I was mistaken: the guy looked at me with surprise and quickly pointed out taxis in Singapore charge by the meter. The government decided it and he also showed me they couldn’t tamper with the meter otherwise they would be caught and fired.

I was shocked! How was that possible? The driver spent the following ten minutes explaining to me how the government regulated several aspects in Singapore and implementation was very strict. There was no way of breaking the law.

I was too tired to follow his suggestions during the trip to the hotel which took us 30 minutes and only cost me 27 S$ (13-14 euros), but he did give me some insight on this city which features quite a unique blend of cultures.

Oopps! I almost forgot. I tried to give him a tip but he refused it. Apparently, tipping isn’t allowed in Singapore. Shocking, hey?

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