By on 12-20-2011 in onemilestories, People, Things, Uncategorized

There was a breakdown of the rail system in Singapore two days ago.

Up to 94 thousand people were affected, but this is less than the previous day, when a disruption to services affected 127,000 passengers, including thousands who were stuck inside the subway trains which stalled.

Reading the news articles, what was clear was the desire to project efficiency in dealing with the problem. The CEO of SMRT (the operator) was very, very, very sorry, and the minister for transport walked around and inspected things, to ensure things are ok straight after the first breakdown. His shirt, by the way, looks very well-ironed in the photos published in the media. He had to look sharp -there were two shutdowns of the rail services in 36 hours. And the first one had a couple of cockups.

Singapore feels like a well-oiled place. But how this country made itself to be one of the top five financial centres of the world is still mysterious for me. Especially when you consider: this place is small, and: there are four official languages used here.

When the first breakdown of the rail services happened, the announcements were made only in English. That was the first cockup. Every public announcement, even those government public message ads, has to be written in multiple languages. I had to giggle every time the train PA says ‘mind the gap’ in four different languages in each stop.

To add to the mixture of English, Malay, Tamil, and Chinese, recent immigration strategies to tackle the problems in population and services industry has seen an increase of intake from the Philippines and mainland China. The former to fill the ranks of the hospitality industry, while the latter, I was told by a Singapore resident, to rectify the ‘ethnic imbalance’ that has been caused by the changing priority of the Singaporean Chinese, where they prioritise the growth of their career over the growth of their family numbers.

The second cockup in the rail shutdown was the announcement made to taxi drivers by the SMRT. The announcement mentioned ‘income opportunities’ for taxi drivers near train stations. I sympathise with those who say that this message was insensitive, but I also find that this message captures what Singapore is about: efficiency, and the ability to create opportunities (even when there are no opportunities to be seen).

The natural tendency for flow and efficiency, as well as to create opportunities, are probably behind why this country can survive on four official languages. Honestly, I still cannot really figure out how Singaporeans communicate with each other. I speak two of the languages spoken here, and I tried to use both to communicate, but I cannot replicate the Singaporeans’ ability to combine (Or, in my version of Sing-Lay-Lish: I bicara dua languages, but no can combine like Singaporeans, too difficult…lah). Now you can see why whenever I try to do this, it usually ends in a bit of embarassment since I usually end up mumbling something that resemble neither English nor Malay.

But I am suspicious that it is not only me, a tourist, who is experiencing this in Singapore. I am guessing that Singaporeans have to do this every time they go to places that are not enclaves of a particular ethnic community.

A moment’s thought, however, and I realise that this is probably more of the norm in many parts of the world. Including in Indonesia, where I grew up. It is only after living in Australia that I started to think that the norm is for a country to have one dominating language. Out of the countries I’ve been, it is only in Australia that I can confidently strut up to a new city and say: “Hey mate, I’ll have a Beef Rendang, and make it spicy please” and get angry if I have to repeat myself, usually only by speaking louder.

In Singapore, I’ve learned to read and use bodily gestures to help say ‘Yes, you are correct, one Beef Char Kway Teow, let loose on the sambal, and I’ll have one coffee with condensed milk but no evaporated milk please.’

There are more and more things to write about Singapore the more I think about it, but I am starting to sing Tom Waits’ ‘Singapore’ and that’s probably a sign for me to stop and enjoy my drink. Singapore Sling, of course.

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