Singapore: dark marble reflections from the past

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ March 21st, 2011. Updated on October 5th, 2013. Published in: Travel blog » Singapore.
Singapore's City Sky Line at Night - a very different slice of South East Asia

Singapore’s City at Night  lights up the sky – a very different slice of South East Asia

A couple of days in the ultra efficient island city of Singapore. A meeting, another appointment and a chance to visit a place I’ve never been before, yet heard so much about.

“Singapore and you will get on well together.”

So said a Malaysian before I left. Yet somehow, I wasn’t all that excited at the prospect of visiting a shopping mall nation.

“Singapore is the only shopping mall with a seat on the UN council” – William Gibson

First impressions of Singapore

Jacked up I arrived with my usual over planning for a new country. Rail link to hostel mapped out, bus mapped out, taxi price known. It was rush hour, I was expecting the worst. I was at my accommodation within the hour, stress free thanks to a very efficient public transport system.

The highlight of this was the friendliness of this financial cities population. No one was rushing, everything was orderly, and people were happy to stop and give me directions. Where had Asia just disappeared too?

“Within thirty minutes, it became apparent Singapore really was very different to the rest of Asia if not beyond”

A $22 hostel, coupled with a free meal with the owners and I was settled in faster than any other country. Just how different would I find Singapore? The city was about to take me to a place I thought was dead and buried.

Experiencing Singapore’s mass of shopping malls

Inside a typical Singaporean mall

Inside a typical sterile Singaporean mall

I hate shopping malls. I really can’t stand the sterile white interiors, perfumed dry air, and cloned interior stores. However, it’s Singapore, and to escape the weighty humidity they are a necessary respite in this city.

“On average I survive about ninety seconds inside a shopping mall before getting lost”

Everything looks the same to me. Small white framed shops with clothes, gadgets. Then more of the same on every floor, upon every floor, upon every floor. It’s an attack of the cloned store fronts to me.

Just looking for the MRT exit has me baffled and spinning in circles. Sadly, all signs point in similar directions And, so I end up lost, annoyed, late, and slowly loosing my cool amongst calm orderly Singaporeans.

Bearings, appointments, humidity, and rain

Don’t worry though, Singapore’s ultra efficient light rail system makes up for a lot. It’s simply the best I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. A near impossibility to get lost on. Fast, clean, and every so orderly. People really do queue up on the printed arrows on the floor next to the sealed platforms. Waiting for people to exit, before entering.

Daring to do otherwise seems like a social “no, no.” And, if one does stand in the wrong place, it seems to create a disruptive buckle of brief confusion to the daily order of the Singaporean way of life. And, possibly a “fine”.

And so, I see the first chinks in this cities efficient armor – disorder

A very soggy end to an over-packed day

Dripping with humidity, splashes of rain fell from the dark sky. And again I was forced to seek shelter in Singapore’s giant blocks of shopping mall heaven. My mind was going numb.

I was also becoming a sightly soggy mess. Not so good for a first impression in a meeting. But, such is life on the road.

Very sore, tired, dehydrated, and knowing the humidity was sucking energy from me, I waited out the next downpour surrounded by ever increasing shoppers. I know not what planet they are from. A fast MRT ride later, tripod in hand, and I was at Marnia Bay for “those” nighttime photos. Only, what happened next, was something I did not expect.

A dark beast rises within me

The Marina boulevard is a nice little green area surrounding a body of water. I looked around and began my long walk around it. Soaring high above were the new Standard Chartered blue glass encased buildings. They oozed financial power. In front of me were the three tower blocks and the massive ship styled Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

I walked towards the designer hotel hoping to avoid the shopping mall below. But dripping from the humidity yet again, and with dusk approaching, I figured another cooling off period was in order.

Inside the Marina Sands Shopping Complex in Singapore

Inside the Marina Bay Sands Shopping Complex in Singapore, a very difference experience compared to the average mall

A strangely familiar scent hit me as I pushed open the glass doors to the cylindrical shopping complex. Linen mixed with affluent cologne. I looked around as men in sharp suits marched by. Pretty girls in tapered blouses talked on blue tooth headsets and grinned those smiles of being on the company power list.

It was my past hitting me squarely in the jaw. I was looking at what I once was.

The Marina Bay Sands shopping center: a hangout for the corporate power trippers, affluent holiday makers and the odd celebrity

This was a shopping mall, but one that was very, very, different to the other’s I’d near on been forced to visit in Singapore. This was no stark white-walled clinical box. Here, the floors were wooden and the walls dark fashioned on black granite and marble. Gold and silver were now the contrasting colors instead of bright cheap neon lights.

Shop front windows were no longer just glass, they were emblazoned with large sleek designer names. Gucci, Versace, Armani, Dior; the names went on along the long sleek elegant three floors.

Luxury designer stores in Marina Sands Singapore

I must admit, for suits, I never enjoyed designer labels; tailor made was more to my liking

Memories came flooding back. The angled suits, the woven cotton shirts, the perfect fit black shoes. That walk.

Men in styled gelled hair laughed as they made their way with purpose. Sharply dressed ladies with picture perfect faces took long elegant steps in unison. Everything was with purpose.

I had the urge to take up a similar corporate stride; but the smell of the salty sweat on my ill-fitting travelers clothes held me back.

A corporate life before travel

I remembered back to my days of power suits. I looked at the latest Versace collection set into an elegant display, and raised a muted eyebrow. I was never that way inclined. No, I am afraid I enjoyed hand tailored suits. Something original. A watch, sure, Omega, the weight was good. But Gucci was what the others aspired to.

Cologne, yes. The name and scent depended on the task at hand that day or night.

Now I only wear “Season De Humidty

Before, the purpose of good attire and appearance was not to impress, but simply “to be.” It was the essence of business, you were what you wore, and I wore it with perfected purpose. Sharp angles, minute details, and efficiency were my keywords for original attire.

Through mirrored glass

The unusual thing is, I did not feel jealous right then and there. Why? No, it was not because I had “broken free of the cubicle.” But, because I was invisible to them. I was not the competition.

I was just another scruffy wet tourist

A polished smile walked by, flanked on either side by two power suited girls. I remembered my old team. I remember the lunches, the dinners, the late nights. I remember the girls, I remember the hunger, I remembered the life.

And, at that moment, I felt that dark predator instinct rise up again. That lifestyle, the purpose, that power of influence by design, and position.

Then I catch a refection of my stature in the luxury shopping centers dark walls. I am overweight. My skin is shiny from the effects of the humidity. My clothes loose, worn and slightly disheveled.

“I chose a different path, I accept that with ease. But to feel the light crisp sharpness of a handmade suit over fresh two-fold cotton shirts again … that would be nice”

Jewel in the sky

Taking a side entrance out to shake off the inner grin of my memory I look around the boulevard. Tourists taking photos, kids running around, and yet there are no suits out here. They remain inside for an evening of power dinners and influential corporate positioning.

Looking up I catch a glimpse of the moon shining above the $1800 a night upper rooms in the hotel. Only now I was looking up through the new Helix Bridge to see it.

I was now at the very bottom of the ladder looking up once more. Barred from an invitation to take my place in a luxury hotel room, I am now relegated to a shared dorm. I am indeed on the other side of the fence today.

Looking up at Marina Sands Hotel in Singapore

Looking up from the bottom on what life is like at the top – Helix Bridge is meant to represent human DNA – look where it’s positioned – inline with the man-made Sands SkyPark atop Marina Bay Sands …

Such strange feelings. My corporate life was a short one, a means to an end to achieve what I am doing now. But, that feeling never leaves you once you’ve lived it.

Travel does not teach you about the world … you do

I hear it all the time. Break free of your corporate cubicle and travel the world, it’s so much better, and you’ll learn so much more.

“I remember the cubicle. And ,I remember breaking free of it. Only when I broke free of my cubicle I reached up to own the box that contained all those borrowed partitioned walls of my colleagues. Yes, I remember becoming a puppet master to all those working within the cube.”

The corporate life above the cubicle can be a great one. Full of the trappings life has to offer. And, you learn everyday from it. True, you might not see the wrinkled grin of a beggar in Delhi, but you will see plenty of smiles from a room of people when a shrewd deal has been sealed that influences many more people.

I know both worlds, and they are equal in many respects. And, you learn from both.

The future is now

As I mentioned at the start, William Gibson, and so many other writers of the future have often pontificated that behind fake political celebrities it will indeed be the mega corporations that will rule our nations.

Perhaps such a vision is already upon us?

So for the first time on my journey I stand looking at familiar sparkling glass towers. I recall the corporate rise to power, and the security it brings. I remember the dog eat dog mentality, and the knife proof back one needed. I then think about my journey, the travel, the new things discovered everyday, and the freedom it contains.

Then I remember the tiredness, the old clothes, the bargaining, the tourism, the non-stop street food, and the lack of a place to simply call home.

Inside a designer shopping complex

The “fEndi” I am not jealous, regretful nor bitter; I live a different lifestyle now. But, I do remember that old feeling

Muted feelings and an eerie dark passenger

Looking back at what could have been, I walk on.

If I had stayed in the corporate world; where would I be today?

By logical deduction, I guessed, Japan. The result? A different solution to finding a place to live; by way of different road.

Travel has taught me not to take things to heart. This feeling is also deep within the very nature of the corporate beast.

Now it would seem, I have a new passenger to contend with on my journey.

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Coming Soon:

Dystopian or utopian society, can I handle the truth


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33 Great responses to Singapore: dark marble reflections from the past

  1. Ciki says:

    that’s Singapore in a nutshell. remember the three C’s? Cash. Condo, car. Have those or die trying;) Oh, you can add one more C now – cologne! LOL.

  2. what an amazing journey you’ve had – and yes, i am really glad i strayed outside of the lines, too. i am happier and can forge my own path.

  3. Desiree Guasch says:

    so many good turns of speech e.g. a polished smile, perfected purpose, a disruptive buckle of brief confusion to the daily order …

    never missed reading your blog. keep it up.

  4. iamthewitch says:

    What can I say? I have to salute you for being brave enough to get out of the corporate cubicle and pursue your dreams. Even though the idea itself sounds easy, I know it’s far from it and I admire you for being able to walk the talk! :) keep up the great work Dave and I look forward to your posts! ;)

  5. tanya says:

    I like your post, but have to disagree with a few things you said about Singaporeans. Friendly? Not in a hurry? Waiting for people to exit the MRT before getting on?

    This is a country that requires public service campaigns to encourage commuters to give up their bus/subway seat up to the elderly or disabled! Same thing for queuing for the MRT and actually letting the train empty out before trying to board. Maybe you missed City Hall MRT station at rush hour (you’re lucky if you did!), but getting on the MRT during peak travel times is a no-holds-barred fight. In Singapore housing estates people actually stand directly in front of elevator doors so they can be the first on (and blocking people from getting out). Singaporeans may have the latest fashions and gadgets, but they lack common courtesy.

    • Thanks Tanya. I only have had a few days experience in Singapore. Strangely yes, I did end up a City Hall MRT a lot. I was pricing camera equipment on Coleman street. But, yes I think on all occasions during rush hour I was going in the opposite directions to the charge of people.

      Then again, compared to Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok during rush out, Singapore is a bit of walk in the park when it comes to traffic, rail and bus routes.

      Again, just as rush through visitor I did really find Singaporeans to be very friendly. I wasn’t expecting it, but compared to some neighboring countries, it’s what I got. As is so often the case, perhaps living there is very different to just visiting?

      • Loeffle says:

        I agree with Dave. Compared to other Asian (and even European) cities Singapore is heaven when it comes to working public transport and being organized.

        Singapore was the first city in Asia I visited and my first impressions were quite like yours, Dave. Last year when my Indonesia trip failed badly, I really wished being in Singapore “to come down” instead of Jakarta.

        Love your posts and can’t wait for the novel!

  6. Anna's World says:

    This hit me true to my heart. Your descriptions of the corporate life are so true.

    Then your points about no regrets, but still missing parts of that life are so poignant.

    I hope you get a chance to rest up soon and enjoy a shirt or two!

  7. Christopher says:

    This website is like an unfolding novel. Every time you write something like this I want to turn the page to the next chapter …

    I am aware you have written a book. Is there any hint of it being published in the near future? Or is it a wait until the journey is over?


    • That’s quite a complement, thank you. In part answer to your question, my book is indeed finished. However, I am moving too much at the moment to dedicate the time needed to bring things to print. Agents are there, some good, some not so good, always open to hearing from more.

      I do hope to take some time in a month or two to reassess the books publication. If you are interested, I usually leak out this sort of information on my email newsletters first. Subscription details below.

      Subscribe to The Longest Way Home Travel Journals

  8. Ted Nelson says:

    Reminds me of the Robert Frost poem ‘Road Not Taken.’ You choose the travel lifestyle and that has made all the difference.

  9. Grace says:

    You have really achieved a conscious evolution that not a lot of people can express. When you look at your journey was there a definitive point or moment where you successfully acknowledged that you have changed, that there was no turning back or no missing your previous life yet oddly enough being totally at peace with it?

    • Hi Grace. Interesting question. I can only answer honestly and say that the definitive point of no turning back happened long before the journey. Those dark times growing up, surviving, and knowing that the only thing to do is make it out. When you live like that, once you make the choice of “do or die”, then there’s no turning back. And, the world settles into something very peaceful.

      And, I will say, that no matter many, many people say. I’ve yet to meet more than a handful of people that can truly understand this concept.

      Hope the explanation, at least, makes sense.

  10. rokh says:

    i actually did called Singapore ‘Sim City’ the last i visited it…

    and i agree that no matter what we do or where we are in life, there are things to learn. we are on lifelong learning, so choose your own path! :)

  11. Jason says:

    The man behind the mask reveals yet another small piece of himself, or maybe I haven’t gone back far enough through the archives. I didn’t know you were once part of the ‘corporate high flyer set’.

    I also feel the same way about shopping centre’s, but I don’t begrudge them as I do earn my living through building them.

    Your description of wearing your tailored suits could not be further from my feeling of wearing a suit. Coming from the construction industry industry, I rarely wear them, maybe to a wedding or a funeral. Can’t stand them really, but hey if we were all the same the world would be a pretty boring place wouldn’t it.

    Enjoy the rest of your time in Singapore, I know it can get bloody hot there.

    Stay with us mate, don’t go back to the dark side!

    • I think I’ve mentioned it briefly before. I only started writing more on the “blog” portion from Iran onwards. And on the personal side since the Philippines. As, that’s actually where the first draft of the book ends. And, said agents at the time did not want book content on the blog etc.

      So you build these giant cubes people spend half their lives in eh?! Ha ha, I bet you can write some sim city stories out of that.

      The dark side is always there, it’s just pops out every now and then to give a helping push. A merging of several worlds is in order I think. Let’s hope I’m better than Dr. Frankenstien!

  12. Ivy says:

    yeah, boring people need that, you know. Boring suits, boring money to spend in boring malls. That’s all they wanted and that’s all they gonna get … héhéhé … really makes me laugh :)

  13. Yes, you nailed brilliantly the main function of the shopping mall for the traveler: a place to escape the weather haha. I remember in China going to malls just to have a place to stretch my arms without hitting a dozen people.

    It is funny where you will find your old self hanging out. This always provokes a puking like feeling in me haha, which I suppose is good because it means that I am still learning and changing — growing.

    Right on about not feeling in competition with the corporate elite in the mall and how such feelings demand being in a social circumstance within your own subcultural niche. Wonder how we would feel in a room of other travel bloggers? We would probably be sizing each other up by our gear, shop talk, and other subculturally enclosed jargon haha. Glad the chances of this happening are slim.

    • I use shopping malls solely for two things 1) to get a rough price of items I will go to a local market and haggle for. 2) cooling off.

      Sadly, I’ve been in a room full of bloggers. Thankfully, I have every intention of not being in a similar room again. At least not without Jason, Freddy or possibly even Dexter with me. SEO, rankings, schedules, what do you use, guess who’s not here – now lets talk about them. Repeat, recycle, add in some people who have “covert” ops going on with the top brass, and you will have had enough.

      It’s like a giant gossip session. Only over expensive food so everyone can pretend the’re “Blog” is covering it. I’d rather attend a Star Trek convention :)

    • Indeed an interesting post … Have to say that I have never been part of that corporate world as I begun my traveling life @ age 21 (straight after uni) and happened to by-passed a career for a life on the road.

      BUT when in Hong Kong 3 years ago I too, was walking disheveled amid malls of intense luxury, kind of in wonder and bemusement at this strange rich world that I only knew-of from TV fiction. (Wonder if I’ll ever wear a suit?)

      As for being amid a group of travel bloggers well, mostly it would be pretty awful but, it would be cool to meet up with ‘real travelers with nothing too prove’ … and just simply, drink, chat; party. Laugh at life.

      Personally, in setting up my travel website – and it fact as a traveler – I never feel in competition with any blogger or other person and this has been a guiding principal since I was rebellious young student back in the mid-80s … today I still only seek a life free from social envy and societal-conventions, pursuing a non-competitive, easy-going life of travel and pleasure.

      the candy trail … travel adventures of global nomad, since 1988

      • I don’t think there is a need to compete with anyone, unless that is you are aiming for mass PR etc. In which case, it’ll be all top 10 style lists and generic diatribe.

        Better to tell it like one really sees it. That said, even gatherings of “real travelers” can be pretty painful. I am sure you’ve come across the term “travelers ego”. I seem to find this in many places where travelers gather. Again, many people quoting the places they’ve been by number, not stories. The nature of the beast I guess.

        At least we know what to dress you up after a few beers, Armani suit with Candy stripes :) Maybe a take on Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy via Tiger beer and a one way ticket to Beer Hoi.

        • Right on MRP and Dave,

          It would be great to meet up somewhere, measure our egos against each other, state our numbers, make ourselves feel real cool, and take that Tiger beer ride haha. Seriously now, it would be good to meet.

  14. Rebecca says:

    Singapore – such a contrast from the rest of Asia (other than Japan I think)! Clean streets, malls, order… The last few times I’ve been there I’ve been on my way to Indonesia and have certainly seen the contrast.

    Good on you for choosing your own path – I’m certainly loving reading your journey from my own cubicle! ;-)

  15. JH says:

    corporate life and learning how you gave up corporate life for what you are doing today, it’s admirable and not many people around the world would do it I reckon.

    Oh yes, we agree on shopping malls are good for cooling down in this humid and hot sunny Singapore. Other than that, they are boring, just repeating and copying themselves across other shopping malls.

    The pace of Singapore life sometimes is damn fast paced, chasing and rushing. I am starting to slow down when I need to do so, appreciate the finer things in life and what you have now, making more new friends and exchange stories.

    Looking forward to you visiting Singapore again!