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Sunday Sentiments

  • Anyone for a Singapore Sling?

    Posted On September 24, 2001

    By Karan Thapar

    It’s a shame one arrives in Singapore feeling sleepy.  As a result you don’t appreciate the drive into town.  Yet it’s one of the most strikingly beautiful journeys from airport to city centre that I can recall.  The dual carriage way is lined with trees, hedges, tropical plants and a profusion of shrubs.  But what’s truly amazing is the careful topiary.  The trees are only allowed to grow to a certain height and are designed to spread in a particular way.  The bushes are cropped and meticulously shaped.  And the turf on the verge is perfectly manicured.

    In Delhi one would pay a fortune for a private garden that looked similar.  Even then it would probably be impossible to achieve.  In Singapore the city authorities have done it for everyone to view.  The least the airlines can do is change their schedules so you can enjoy some of this.

    Looks can be deceptive and perhaps this time they are.  The downtrend in the information technology industry is worrying Singaporeans though few talk about it.  After decades the Island’s economy will shrink 1.2 per cent this year. 

    I’m told that in the last half decade the Island’s Senior Minister, as Lee Kuan Yu is called, pushed Singapore to invest heavily in IT.  It was his bid for the 21st century.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s he made the Island a free trade zone well before his neighbours realised he was stealing a march on them.  In the ‘80s he made Singapore the Asian financial hub and again took the region by surprise.  When in the ‘90s he plumped for IT it was seen as another bid to get ahead.  Today the question is : now what?  There is a question mark over Singapore’s future but few have as yet spotted it.

    I suspect it will disappear without doing too much damage.  But at the moment it adds a little frisson to this otherwise stable and boringly successful society

    Actually, Singapore is not boring or, to be more accurate, not as boring as it used to be and certainly not as boring as you may have been informed.

    “It’s like the inside of an efficient hospital” I was told when I first visited twelve years ago.  “Clean, clinical, sanitised and sterile.”

    Clean it still is and efficient it can’t help being.  But it’s no longer sterile and it’s certainly not static.

    “You looking for a bit of fun, Sir” said the taxi driver when I asked to be taken to Orchard Road.  My intention was to head for the shops.  After all shopping is a priority in Singapore.

    “Yes” I stammered although I don’t think of shopping as fun.  More as an obsession I can’t resist even though I love buying things and look forward to doing so when I am back in Delhi where there is precious little to buy.  But I wasn’t sure what else to say.  I couldn’t believe a Singapore taxi driver might have anything else in mind.

    “Well” he continued.  “Where to?”

    “Orchard Road” I repeated.  The address is well known for its large and fancy departmental stores. 

    “Of course, but which end?” 

    “What do you mean?”

    “Put it like this” he said smiling broadly as he eyed me through his rear view mirror.  “At one end you spend a lot and get gypped.  At the other end you spend almost as much and get unzipped.  What’s your preference?”

    I had come as the guest of Jonathan Hallett of Television Asia, the well-known trade magazine that strives to put asian television on par with its competitors in the west.  Jonathan is the moving force behind the Asian Television awards.  Having benefited twice from his generosity it was time to return the favour.  This time I was present as a judge.

    It was an eye opening experience in every sense of the term.  Like most Indians, I suppose, I am guilty of the presumption that our television is amongst the best in Asia.  We’re free, outspoken, innovative and very quick to respond.  Well, so is everyone else except they also bring another quality into play.  Their emotions.  Not in the sense of prejudice but in the sense of passion.  The result can be riveting.

    Along side other sections I was part of the panel judging the best documentary award.  There were two entries that literally took my breath away.  The first was from the Philippines on the people’s power movement that replaced Estrada with Macapagal-Arroyo earlier this year.  The second was from Korea and focussed on the first meeting between divided families after a painful partition of fifty years.

    The panel sat in pin-drop silence as both were played.  Not a person coughed.  No, I don’t even think anyone moved or crossed their legs.  It was hypnotic.

    The first ended amidst spontaneous applause.  We felt part of the triumph the documentary sought to portray.  The second left everyone in tears.  I sobbed uncontrollably.  But then I often do.  Even Bollywood films leave me crying. This time, however, so was everyone else.

    Consequently it became a tough choice to pick the winner.  After all, which is the more difficult emotion to evoke : joy as you watch someone else’s triumph or pain and sorrow as you identify with their suffering?

    Try and answer that question.  It’s not easy.

    You don’t realise how good coffee can taste until someone serves you a decent brew or – and this may sound odd but it’s the truth – until you visit Starbucks.

    Until two years ago the very name would put me off.  I can’t say why but it sounded cheap and nasty.  I’ve walked past countless Starbucks shops in London with my nose superciliously in the air.  I’d smile when others praised the place as if to suggest I knew better.  Yet all along I was wrong and horribly so.

    Then, in 1999, I had a Starbucks coffee.  It was an ordinary Cafe Mocha but it was mind blowing.  No, that’s not an exaggeration because at first sip it blew my prejudices away.  I asked for a second cup and only the thought I might seem greedy stopped me asking for a third.  But I regretted it.

    So last weekend I had plenty of Starbucks, if I can put it like that.  Every time my concentration seemed to wander Jonathan would suggest another and I was disinclined to refuse.  Ultimately, it was the size of my bladder that stopped me having more.  But I’m working on that.

    I now hope that one of the rich entrepreneurial barons who occasionally read these Sentiments will take a hint and introduce India to Starbucks.  They’ve given us Dominos, McDonalds, Pizza Express and Baskin Robbins. Surely Starbucks has to be next?


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