Singapore: a city in a garden

An Irish writer, in the city state for a short story conference, finds it very green, multicultural and 21st-century

Jamie O'Connell, centre, with fellow Irish writers Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Sheila Armstrong, Paul McVeigh, and Madeleine D'Arcy in Singapore at the International Short Story Conference

“It’s very ‘Dubai’,” one of my friends said. At face value Singapore does appear very “Dubai”, a wealthy city-state with low tax to attract expats and investment, one of the financial hubs of the 21st-century world which has seen exponential growth in recent decades, yet also a place with strong conservative values.

I must admit, I had apprehensions. In my ignorance, what I “knew” of Singapore were vague cautionary tales of visitors getting caned for possessing chewing gum, or that there was the death penalty for anyone caught in possession of controlled substances, which had me googling Nurofen Plus to be 100 per cent sure I wouldn’t find myself stopped at Changi Airport.

A historic building in Singapore

I was visiting Singapore for the International Conference of the Short Story in English 2023 hosted by Nanyang Technological University. Culture Ireland, along with the Irish Embassy in Singapore, supported a showcase of Irish writers at the ambassador’s residence, in anticipation of the next ICSSE conference (in 2025) that will be hosted in Killarney. I was there for six nights, which allowed time to attend readings from a host of writers from Australia, China, Switzerland, the US and Canada (to name but a few). There were curious and interesting talks on how paragraphs function within flash fiction (presented by the wonderfully dynamic Shady Cosgrove) and a panel on censorship in fiction, headed by Pulitzer Prize-winning Robert Olen Butler, which sparked interesting debate. It also allowed time for me to explore parts of Singapore, which I have been reflecting on since.

As the plane descended, my first glimpse of Singapore was of the bay around the city. It was packed full of ships and tankers. Furthermore, when I visited the Asian Civilisations Museum with Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Sheila Armstrong, the impression we were left with was how this city has always been a cultural and trading hub in this part of the globe. Singapore sits in a jigsaw of islands, each with a unique culture, and it was fascinating to see how many influences, literally hundreds of indigenous styles of art and language have been incorporated into Singaporean cultural history. What was especially interesting to me was a room that showed how even Christian iconography had been adapted into the city’s cultural history. It is a port that has absorbed the worlds it has encountered; it has adapted to new centuries and new cultures, not unlike Istanbul or Hong Kong.

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Singaporeans describe their home as “a city in a garden”. It is the product of careful planning, and beautiful for it. As one walks around its leafy neighbourhoods, and the magnificent Gardens by the Bay, one gets a sense the city planners have a long-term vision, rather than the usual “money grab”, which seems to be the approach to development in Ireland. As someone who begins to feel unstuck when I’m not around trees for a length of time, I felt this was a city I could live in. It felt, in some ways, like I was at Star Trek headquarters, where ultra-modern architecture sits in landscaped parkland. It is architecturally a 21st-century city, in the way New York feels 20th-century, and Paris and London feel 19th-century.

Singapore

It is a conservative country, and I was intensely aware of how I behaved. Yet, LGBTQ+ rights are improving there. Unlike other parts of Asia, it is now legal to be gay, the law offers protection against discrimination, and there is a push for marriage equality which is heartening. Yes, there are strict laws on how a person conducts themselves in public, and strong punishments for those who break them. However, I did enjoy being on Singapore public transport and feeling safe at any time of day, something I rarely feel on the Luas. It was pleasant to walk around a city without any rubbish thrown about. Literally zero waste.

At times, it felt like the city was still in its original plastic. Whether people are behaving so politely as part of a culture with a long-held history of courtesy, or out of the fear of severe repercussions for breaking such laws, I cannot say. It has left me reflecting on how all societies function, and the constant tension between creating a safe world and the risk that such a world stifles human freedom. I’m not sure there is an answer to this. As much as my native home has its challenges, I do feel more creatively liberated in “dear dirty Dublin”.

There felt like lots of space in Singapore, on the subways and the streets, as if it’s a city in a state of anticipation, expecting more and greater things to come. I am not blind to the issues places such as Singapore and Dubai have, notably the treatment of migrant workers, yet I am impressed by the sense of progress that inhabits these places. Like the late art historian Kenneth Clark theorised, confidence is the cornerstone of any civilisation, and without it societies collapse. These cities feel like the future because they have confidence. In among all the issues that face Ireland, notably the housing crisis, have we held onto ours?

Singapore

If I’m honest, the city surprised and delighted me. Yes, it was hot and humid, but it felt like the cool shade of a tree was never far away (not to mention air conditioning). Aspects of the city were expensive, notably alcohol and certain eating establishments. However, with some careful research, there were cheaper options. I’d happily go back again, though the distance to get there (two long-haul flights amounting to 20 hours of travel) is not insignificant. I think four days would be perfect to visit, to see the key sights, to have a cocktail on top of the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel (a must-do), as well as visiting Chinatown, the incredible Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, and seeing the Garden Rhapsody (light show) in the Gardens by the Bay.

In some ways, yes, Singapore is very “Dubai”. Yet, it has wonderful parkland and is somewhat more liberal. It also has an intriguing history as a port city. What I wish from places like Singapore and Dubai is that they would emphasise the ancient cultural histories of their cities in their advertising campaigns. So often, what they promote are the skyscrapers and malls, the bits that bore me senseless. To me, it’s a terrible underselling of their assets. I have no interest in going to Singapore to visit the same shopping outlets I can visit on Grafton Street.

Yet, Singapore, as a beautiful safe city with a rich history and courteous people - I’m all for it.

Jamie O’Connell is the author of Diving for Pearls (Doubleday, 2021).