Singapore City: Fire and Rain
Singapore is an unusual place: it looks like a western city, in parts, and in others like nothing I have ever seen.
I am not a Singaporean. I was born in London of Irish parents - and grew up between Ireland and England. Singapore, therefore, is an odd place for me to be living in. Its essential character is very unwestern, though it apes the western economic model.
There are two events that speak of what it is like here. The first happened yesterday, as my wife and I were shopping in Bukit Batok West Mall, a shopping centre - one of many that fill Singapore with consumer choices. This is a local mall and relatively compact: five floors of shops about a central courtyard.
As we tried to enter the lift in the mall yesterday, we were surprised to see the lift doors open, the lift shaft empty, and filled with smoke. Somewhere there was a fire. We left the lift shaft and entered the shopping centre proper. All about us we could here fire alarms. The shopping centre was crowded with late afternoon shoppers...surely there would be a panic as people tried to leave. I looked all about me. It was as if all were deaf and none had a sense of smell - for the bite of smoke was clear in the air. Everyone continued to shop as if nothing was happening. People were crowding to go UP the escalators, into the body of the building. The alarms rang on, their cries unheeded. My wife is Singaporean - and she too, in a way, seemed unconcerned. She urged me upstairs to "drop off the library books". In reply, I asked: "Do you want them to burn?"
She shook her head at that but urged me upward all the same. I couldn't see where the fire was...and there seemed no imminence of conflagration, so up I went, amazed at the silliness of it all. We dropped off the library books. As we did so, the intercom announced: "We have an emergency in the building, please leave the building."
I looked about. No-one made a move to leave. Everyone continued to shop as if caught in a spell of consumerism. My wife, too, was unbothered: she went to look at mobile phones. By now the air was hazy with a light grey smoke. Yet, no-one made any effort to escape the building. It was surreal. My wife entered a mobile phone shop, deaf to my appeal to leave. As I was about to drag her out, the intercom announced: "The emergency is under control, the emergency is under control: there was a fire in a fourth storey restaurant. There is no need to leave now." In other words, whatever you do, SHOP.
We left the building. Throughout the entire experience, not one person around us had expressed any emotional reaction or response of any kind to the situation. Yet the building had been on fire. Truly surreal. That was the day of fire.
Today was the day of rain. People who live in the West imagine that they have to endure a lot of rain. The patter of droplets from the sky is enough for them to reach for their umbrellas with a sigh, imagining that they are put upon. However, you have never seen rain until you have been caught in a monsoon deluge, as I was today. Rain in Singapore is a sudden affair. It ambushes you from skies instantly darkened, with an elemental force. Today I left the house to grey skies, but soon found myself buried in a watery onslaught, that filled the streets with inches of rain. Before long the storm drains - which are about four foot deep - and three foot wide, on the sides of the road, were filled to overflowing. I wish I had had a camera, to catch the image of water raging over the side of a storm drain and flooding a bus stop where a hapless Singaporean stood waiting for a bus in several inches of water flowing past her ankles, with more on its way. Bizarre.
Within ten minutes it was over. The rain stopped. The drain cleared. The inches of water in the roads drained away and it was gone. Again, I felt the surreality of life in this tightly controlled and ordered nation.
Truly it is a city of fire and rain.
(For posts on my scientific child prodigy son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, six, and his gifted brothers go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html Thanks.)