I went to Singapore last year to visit a friend who had been working in the city for the last five years. I needed the time off while he needed the company, and so a three-hour flight wasn’t much of an inconvenience for someone who hated flying.
While the island state was truly an urban marvel – from its well-manicured gardens and master planned network of roads and rail systems – there was something hollow about the city. Singapore, as my friend would describe it, was soulless. Behind the glimmering high-rise offices and the blinding lights of its luxury stores, there was very few which stirred the imagination, warmed the heart, or engaged the profound.
Yes, there were people, but they all seemed busy, scurrying from MRT stations to bus stops, the heels of their shoes a resounding buzz which permeated the torrid, equatorial heat. And yes there were attractions but most if not all, were manmade – theme parks, shopping malls, convention centers, museums, gardens.
It’s easy to blame Singapore’s size for its soulless-ness. With very little natural resources, much of the landscape is artificial. But it could also be Singapore’s apparent obsession with economic progress which has left it as a cardboard thin illusion of industrial triumph. At the time, it felt to me like the people were more concerned about careers, about things, which though exciting, could only deliver such ephemeral joys.
Of course, I envied how functional the city was. Buses were always on time. The escalators in train stations were working. And the airport’s efficiency was something NAIA could only dream of becoming. But all if it came at the price of “emotion.” Manila, though plagued by so many afflictions, is a beast, which though impractical to deal with, rewards each dweller with a story – dark secrets, minor triumphs, snarling evils to be squelched, and stories made rich by its history. Singapore had nothing like it, and her commerce could offer little consolation to men and women who want to “live” in the richest sense of the word.
Maybe in due time, Singapore will give birth to a soul. It is only fifty years old after all. But then, as I recall how my friend and I viewed the island nation from the Duxton view, it all looked clear to me that for all its amenities and modern niceties, Singapore was never going to give me the thrill and heartache of Manila, nor of any other place steeped in history. I did not need a city which was simply functional and useful. I needed a home which fulfilled a purpose.