An old friend recently visited Singapore. It was her first time in the island-state, and so one sunny day I took her on a whirlwind sightseeing tour.
We began at the Singapore River, where the mummies-who-lunch set were gathered in outdoor cafes, sipping cappuccinos and nibbling gourmet sandwiches, while their children played under the watchful eye of Filipino nannies.
From there it was a short walk along the riverfront to the Civic District, where Singapore’s Parliament, Mint, High Court and the magnificent Asian Civilisation Museum are laid out in a neat grid of paved walkways and parks. Along the way are stunning views of the skyline of Singapore’s financial centre. The soaring glass towers are a proud and emphatic reminder, if one were ever needed, of the country’s status as “modern economic miracle”.
Next stop was Orchard Road, or as I sometimes refer to it, the Grand Canyon of Shopping Malls. My friend, somewhat incredulously, counted the number of Louis Vuitton (3), Gucci (4) and Prada (3) outlets that are found along a short stretch of Orchard Road. I tried to explain to her that in Asia, not having to walk more than two hundred metres between Vuitton stores is considered a basic human right. Sadly, however, she appeared callously indifferent to the daily hardships faced by the continent’s downtrodden shopping class.
Feeling the need for a touch of “Asian authenticity”, we had lunch at Arab Street. There, original shop-houses line a clutch of narrow alleyways that surround an old mosque. They have been meticulously maintained, such that the area vaguely resembles a middle-eastern bazaar, albeit an incredibly clean and organised one. It is kind of what you might expect a souq to look like if one was ever built in downtown Zurich, say. But still, the visitors adore this Disney-like salute to Singapore’s Malay-Muslim community; as they do Chinatown (a user-friendly slice of China); and Little India (a tamed and sanitised version of the hustle and bustle normally found in Delhi or Bombay).
We finished our day of sightseeing at Singapore’s newest billion dollar tourist attraction, Gardens by the Bay, a state-of-the-art botanical garden which only opened at the beginning of 2012. I first went there earlier this year when my kids visited Singapore, and I was so bowled over with what I saw that “GBB”, as it has already come to be known, vaulted to first place on my “essential things to see when in Singapore” list.
To start with, there is a huge, perfectly manicured park (101 hectares in total) with paths and trees and artificial lakes spread out all along the foreshore of the Marina Bay, which in itself is a very large but very artificial waterway. The whole area is an impossible creation born entirely of Singapore’s imagination, built on vast tracts of land reclaimed from the sea over the past decade.
At the centre of the Gardens are a grove of what are called “Super Trees”, fifty metre high tree-shaped structures made of concrete and steel-lattice. There are eighteen in total. The outer “skin” of each Super Tree consists of panels of various plants (to be precise, 169,000 different ferns, bromeliads and climbers), joined together to make soil-free vertical gardens that go straight up, rather than out. Think of the Super Trees as being real-life bionic organisms: an internal skeleton of metal and stone, with an exoskeleton of living, breathing greenery. A walkway connects the tops of several of the Super Trees, allowing you to stroll casually through the “treetops”, high above the ground.
If that wasn’t enough wow factor for one day, our next stop was The Flower Dome, a truly gargantuan greenhouse (38 metres high, and covering the area of more than two football fields – the brochure describes it as “the world’s largest column-less glasshouse, made up of 3,332 individual glass panels”). The interior is maintained at a cool, Mediterranean temperature, and inside, the Flower Dome is divided into zones of flora sourced from different Mediterranean regions of the world: southern Spain and Italy and France, California, South Africa, Chile and Australia.
We walked through a thicket of fully-grown African Baobab trees, and then, not twenty metres away, we were standing in a small forest of mature Eucalyptus trees from Australia. In the centre of the Flower Dome is a spectacular display of poinsettia (again, according to the brochure, 2000 in total) and along one of the paths we came across my personal favourite: a small grove of gnarled olive trees from Cyprus, each hundreds of years old, uprooted and relocated whole to their new home under Singapore’s equatorial sky.
But the piece-de-resistance, at least for me, is the second enormous greenhouse, called the Cloud Forest, which we visited next. Inside there is a 35 metre high artificial mountain, from the top of which flows the world’s largest indoor waterfall (the brochure again, which was proving to be very handy). It drops thirty metres in total, producing a deafening roar and filling the air with a misty, fresh spray. The climate is the same as you would normally find in cloud forests of Africa, Asia and Central America, at altitudes of 3,500 metres or more.
We rode an elevator up the inside of the mountain (yep, that’s right, inside of the mountain), and then followed a series of suspended pathways down from the top. It was, over the course of an hour, literally like descending from a high cloud forest, through the rainforest, and finally emerging into the jungle beneath. Only we didn’t have to deal with the insects, mosquitoes, blisters and other hassles of the real thing. Along the “descent” we saw stunning displays of orchids, ferns, carnivorous plants and other high altitude floral rarities; at the bottom there was a flowing river surrounded by lush, dense greenery.
Finally, to complete the visit, we were funnelled into a series of rooms at the heart of the “mountain”, where an ultra hi-tech display and movie-feature taught us all about global warming and climate change, and beseeched us to change our ways, if we wanted to save the planet. As environmental messages go, it was delivered flawlessly and powerfully. Greenpeace should open an office at the exit to Cloud Forest: their membership would double overnight.
Anyway, at one point in the afternoon, we were moseying our way along an elevated pathway, suspended twenty-five metres up in the air, near the top of Cloud Forest. We were marvelling at the glass dome high above us and the native-African flora around us. My friend, almost speaking to herself but loud enough for me to hear, said: “It is kind of weird in here: everything is just so perfect, even though it is all completely artificial”.
She paused, and then finished the thought: “A bit like the whole of Singapore, really.”
She was so right. In Singapore it very often feels like I am living on an island-size version of the Cloud Forest – where the environment is relentlessly manicured and managed; where everything is kept just right; where it is all wonderful and perfect and everything works. And, after being inside the glass bubble of Singapore for a while, you forget the bubble is even there; the line between what is real and what is fake blurs, and the artificial starts to appear very, very real indeed.
But every now and then, look around Singapore with clear eyes, and remind yourself of the invisible glass bubble that surrounds you. Do this, and the gloss of the place can come off pretty quickly. At times like this, I find that I become acutely aware of the sacrifices Singapore and its people have made in search of wealth and prosperity and modernity, along the way giving up something very important: the island’s soul.
Or so I thought.
I live in a relatively up-market area of Singapore, popular with ex-pats, in a thirty-three storey high-rise. When you look out from the windows of my 27th floor apartment, all you can see stretching out into the distance is a forest of similarly tall towers, surrounded by shared swimming pools and tennis courts and neatly manicured lawns.
The building literally next door to my apartment, therefore, is very out of place. It is a squat four-story high building, jammed in between three very tall apartment complexes on Kim Yam Road. The roof is shaped like a Chinese pagoda, and painted with big red Chinese letters. It is surrounded by a high outer wall, on the external facade of which are a series of intricately carved panels – scenes of men and women and animals, going about their day-to-day tasks, like milling rice or harvesting vegetables. Under each panel are more painted Chinese letters, presumably describing the scenes above.
Although I have lived alongside this building for more than a year now, it had never occurred to me to venture inside. Occasionally on weekends I have noticed an increased numbers of visitors, which creates mini-traffic jams in the street. But that is about as much attention as I have ever given the place. I guess I just assumed it was a temple of sorts.
Then on Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago, just after my friend’s visit to Singapore, I walked down the road to the nearby 7-Eleven to buy some milk. On my way I passed the front gateway of the temple, which was especially busy that day, with people streaming in from all directions. A deep chanting sound filled the air, and I paused to listen for a few seconds. An old man leaning on the wall near the entrance smiled at me – or at least I thought he did – which I took as an invitation to go in.
I am glad I did.
I found myself inside the Singapore Buddhist Lodge, which exists for the purpose of “sharing the compassion of the Buddha”. It was established in 1934, in pre-independence Singapore, by Lee Choon Seng, who was a wealthy Chinese businessman and philanthropist. He was supported in this endeavour by 100 founding members, all drawn from Singapore’s Chinese elite, as a means of giving back to society. Today, the membership has grown to over 30,000, and the Lodge is engaged in a raft of activities: prayer, education, promulgation of Buddhist culture, and charitable services.
Entering the forecourt of the Lodge, there are two large, reclining statues of the Buddha. In front of them were urns filled with colourful flowers, and a row of small pillows was arranged on the paving stones, which some people were using to kneel on as they prayed. There were also two small pagodas, each probably eight metres in height. Small groups of people were walking around them, stopping every few seconds to bow in prayer.
I ascended some steps towards the sound of chanting. There was a strong, almost overpowering smell of burning incense. A large gold urn, polished so hard I could see my own reflection on its curved side, stood at the top of the stairs. It was filled with sand and ash, into which every person who passed was placing a burning joss stick, the smouldering end poking into the air, releasing a cloud of smoke and scent.
Beyond the gold urn and burning sticks there was a large, open-air prayer-hall. At the front were three massive gold statues of the Buddha, sitting cross-legged. On the chest of the middle one was a huge swastika (see my previous post The Red Swastika Society). Perhaps 500 people were seated in neat rows behind plastic covered tables, facing the statues of Buddha. In the centre of the room were three old ladies, busily sorting flowers and placing them in vases on a long, skinny table.
The whole room was chanting in unison. There were no words, or at least none that I understood, but that didn’t matter at all. The sound was deeply hypnotic, calming and rhythmic. It was a sound that seemed to wash over the room in flowing, gentle waves. Many of those chanting had their hands pressed together in front of their chest, and every now and then they would bow deeply from the waist, in the direction of the Buddha.
I stood at the side of the room, watching, for what seemed like a very long time. More than anything, I was struck by the fact that what I had stumbled on was obviously no tourist attraction. This was not a “performance” temple, on show for visitors to Chinatown or Little India. This was the real thing in an otherwise suburban street of Singapore, on an otherwise ordinary Sunday morning. Apart from me, there was not another casual observer in the place.
Equally, however, this was no religious seminary filled with meditating orange-cloaked monks. Apart from two monks at the front of the room, everyone else there that morning was a regular, everyday Singaporean, from all different walks of life – from lawyers and office workers to labourers, hawker-stall vendors and cleaners.
There were many old people – men bent over almost double with age, alongside white-haired old women in pants suits. In one of the aisles there were two old ladies, sitting side-by-side in wheelchairs. But, there were many young people, too – children and teenagers, sitting quietly beside their parents.
Many of those present were dressed casually for the hot weather; in jeans or print-dresses and sandals. I noticed that many of the men were in shorts and sandals and t-shirts. Regardless of attire, one thing that was absolutely clear is that every person there – from the small child on his mother’s lap to the old man in the corner with a walking cane – was there to pray. The only sound in the room was of the chanting, in which everyone was participating, fully and devoutly. What a contrast to the synagogue, I thought, where on high holydays people comes dressed to impress, and so often the Rabbi has to bang the lectern and to demand silence and attention from the congregants.
On a small pillow in the centre of the room, right in front of the central Buddha, I watched a man, who was kneeling with his young daughter – she couldn’t have been older than four. He had his arms around her, and was teaching her how to press her hands together in front of her, then raise them above her head, and then bow, in one fluid, graceful movement. The look of concentration on the girl’s small face was matched only by the look of pride on her father’s.
Watching this father teaching his child was a lovely tender moment, although it occurred to me that it was nothing especially new – I have seen this sort of thing hundreds of times before, right across Asia, visiting temples in Thailand, Burma, Bhutan, Cambodia. No, the thing that was really astonishing for me was that I had never seen this sort of thing in modern, secular Singapore before. Yet here it was, right under my nose, not more than fifty metres from my apartment and only a few kilometres away from Singapore’s steel and glass temples to finance and money. It was just so unexpected, and for this reason alone I found it to be utterly enchanting.
Eventually I moved on from the prayer room, and came into a huge, open air cafeteria. It was packed to capacity. Each day, the Singapore Buddhist Lodge provides free vegetarian meals to the public, available to anyone regardless of race, religion and nationality. A lady at a nearby desk was collecting donations. She told me that on a busy day like today, the Lodge can feed more than six thousand people.
Again, I was struck by the nature of the people eating there, sitting happily at large shared tables. Mainly there were Chinese men and women of all ages, but also a good number of Indians – mainly men, I suppose foreign workers on their day off. The primary purpose of the cafeteria is to feed the needy, but many of those present were clearly not poor, just ordinary people enjoying a communal meal after prayers. I thought again of the synagogue, and the open-to-all Kiddush meal that typically follows Saturday morning prayers, and how familiar this all felt to me.
Before leaving, I spoke for a while with the lady at the donations desk. She told me of the Lodge’s other activities. This included providing financial support to old people; delivery of monthly food baskets to poor families; dispensing of bursaries to students from underprivileged backgrounds; sponsoring free medical services for those who cannot afford it; and another program which makes available coffins to those so poor they are unable to otherwise provide a burial for their loved ones.
I left, and for the rest of that day I felt contemplative, yet oddly calm.
I have lived in Singapore for almost a decade, and during that time I have seen rapid transformation, and observed first-hand much that is good and not so good about my adopted home. It is a hyper-efficient, thoroughly first-world and prosperous country, although at times tending towards being a sterile, micro-managed and often heartless society.
I cannot believe it took me almost a decade to visit a place like the Singapore Buddhist Lodge. Stepping outside of the glass bubble for a brief moment, I saw a side of Singapore that was new to me, one that I think most foreigners never get to see. I saw a Singapore that was a place of ritual and tradition, of profound spiritual belief and compassion, and of love.
A few days later I read on the internet that some of the local residents in my area have petitioned the authorities to relocate the Buddhist Lodge from Kim Yam Road to another site, and to tear down the current temple building. Their complaint relates to the noise and traffic from the temple, which they say creates too much disruption in their otherwise quiet, suburban neighbourhood.
What a horrible thought. I hope the authorities never listen, and forever protect this wonderful slice of reality and humanity, a welcome wedge between towering apartment buildings and shopping malls.