Merlion’s Imperfections

My Facebook is again buzzing with news of another corpse found at Bedok reservoir, Singapore.

Sunset on Marina Bay
Sunset on Marina Bay

Statistically, Singapore does have one of the the lowest crime rates in the world. Admittedly there is always the story of how I lost my wallet and retrieved it 2 weeks later with all cash untouched, but increasingly there have been cases of serious crimes on this island. “Low crime doesn’t mean no crime”, as how the campaigns say. In the past 2 years, homicide corpses could be found everywhere in Singapore, in reservoirs, in the river, or in the woods (Clementi Woods, which is why I told my juniors last year not to go to West Coast Park late at night, alone). The most gruesome, horrendous and morbid case was then a foreign maid corpse was disposed into water tanks of a HDB building in Woodlands. Imagine you find out the water you have been drinking is actually the decomposing matters of a corpse. I feel nauseated just thinking of that. How do you walk the surface of the Earth, knowing that…

Topic changed.

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In the stories I heard before I arrived at Singapore, it was painted as a nirvana, a paradise, a utopia. Urban legends in Vietnam even said the sewage there was so clean it should be potable. This particular one was too gross to be true, but now I know the NEWater reservoirs and factories could easily perform the magic. Still, there is a palpable sense of disgust for me and my Singaporeans friends in fact when somebody suggests drinking NEWater, be it from the tap or even in sterilized bottles. Now with the frequency corpses show up at water reservoirs, the repulsion is even stronger. Simply ew.

Other stories I heard about Singapore before I came included impeccable streets with absolutely no trash. Heck, now I know anything with absolutism is never the truth.

Singapore does have the cleanest streets in the world. The law-mandated fine is substantial enough to discourage people from trashing, and the schooling system has instilled in student’s minds since young a very strong sense of civil awareness. Trash bins can be found anywhere if one looks for it, and at some places recycling bins offer an even more environmentally friendly disposal of rubbish. However, the cleanliness only holds true if you come to Singapore as a tourist. To be put in another way, only the tourism destinations are impeccably clean.

During my first two months in Singapore, I could not see any trash at Vivo City, Marina Square, Sentosa Island, Esplanade or Orchard Road. Everywhere was unblemished. However, as I became its inhabitant  and traveled to places where no tourists ventured, the other side of Singapore surfaced. HDB flat owners could throw garbage out of their windows, even from high floors. Remote avenues were flooded with unswept dead leaves. The back of NTUC supermarkets was filled with damped carton boxes and crumbled plastic bags. Indubitably, everybody- natives and foreigners alike – still try to keep the places uncluttered, yet the fact remains that Singapore is not perfectly clean. I should not have expected too much before I came anyway, since I should have known it would be impossible to keep everywhere clean. That can only be achieved asymptotically.

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Please don’t get me wrong – Singapore is forevermore one of my loves, and I look forward to coming back with all my hearts. And as patriotic as I am, I must admit Singapore is superior to Vietnam in many ways. However, after 4 years of living on the island, I have come to learn that life at Singapore has its own road bumps. From the uncleanliness at some locations, to the kiasu-ism of some individuals, or the very subtle conflicts between the old and the new, Singapore is very unsettled. Singapore has its own problems.  Oh what the hell, everywhere has its own problems. Vietnam has a myriad of problems. No place is perfect.

Young people often debate which place is the best to be born in, and live in. If judged by the modernity and civilization alone, Singapore far surpasses Vietnam. However, when the culture comes into play, everything is incomparable. I guess that is a thing about a love for a land. While no place is perfect, the more we live somewhere, the more we develop a sense of belonging with it. When I went from a tourist to a long-term dweller, I thought of Singapore less of a place where I would stay, but more of a place where I would live. And gradually, I accepted the faults of Singapore as how I had accepted the faults of Vietnam.  The good or the bad, they became an integral part of my life on that island.

People often say when you love somebody, you love all of their perfections and imperfections. While I may not have a firsthand experience at this, I do love Singapore and Vietnam with what goes right and what goes wrong. Maybe the proportions are far imbalanced, but who cares, since once love is climaxed, all imperfections are perfect. Streets in Singapore might be tarnished with some trash, queues occasionally cut by kiasu aunties, or priority seats on MRT occupied by abled teenagers, parks fogged with smokers and water tanks contaminated with corpses, but for a fact I know that Singapore is where I have left a part of my heart behind. And I have no wish to take it back.

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When, oh when… when I can set foot on the island of Temasek again…

in retrospect,
Nguyen Vu Phuc Thu

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p/s: I sincerely apologize for the length of this post. it was really spontaneous – I planned my first topic was about the Tết festival in Vietnam, but since the news is going viral on Facebook…

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