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Sunday Sentiments

  • A Singapore Diary

    Posted On December 11, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    “The worst thing about India is leaving it!”

    Those were the words with which the elderly lady greeted me as I sat down beside her on the plane to Singapore. I am not sure where she came from but she looked friendly though tired. I assumed she had just finished a good holiday


    “You’re sorry to be going back?” I asked, although the question should have been redundant.

    “I didn’t mean to imply that” she laughed, “although that’s probably true. No, I was talking about the pain of clearing immigration. It took me an hour and I’m exhausted!”

    She was right. The scene that night at the immigration counter was unbelievable – except for the fact that it probably happens every night. There must have been over 200 people standing in front of just 5 desks. The other 5 – or were there 7 – were unmanned. Worse, as it was the evening peak hour for departing planes the queue was growing at least twice as fast as it was being cleared. The line I joined had 40 people ahead of me. By the time I got to the front the last man faced a queue of at least 60.

    Two further egregious problems compounded the situation. In good desi fashion important Indians were escorted by eager immigration staff to the head of the nearest queue thus inevitably further pushing back those who had been standing and silently suffering. The second was the inordinate time taken by the man behind the desk to clear each person.

    “Kahan ja rehen hein?” he asked, smiling pleasantly, when it was my turn.

    I replied as succinctly and taciturnly as I could.

    “Thake hue hein?” he said solicitously.“Aap ko age ajana tha. Mein jaldi clear kar deta.”

    He seemed unaware that immigration counters are not the place for polite conversation. As far as he was concerned the long and by now irritated queue simply did not exist. Nor, it seemed, did he notice my manner – it failed to dissuade him. His style was to engage each departing passenger in friendly conversation. I noticed that his colleagues were not dissimilar. They may not have talked as much but they took equally long. So with each chat the delay grew longer, the passengers more tired and the last impression they took away of India more depressing.

    “You know” said the lady on the plane, interrupting my thoughts. “There’s nothing like leaving a country quickly and painlessly. It makes you want to return!”

    The flight reaches Singapore at an ungodly hour. It is 4.30 a.m. local time and, worse, 2.00 a.m. our time. I hadn’t slept on the plane and all I wanted to do was hit the sack. In fact I would have slept in the taxi except if I had I would have missed seeing the city by night.

    The world over cities tend to be at their most quiet just before dawn. Late night revellers have turned in and early risers are still to get up. At this strange, peaceful but dark hour Singapore is an amazing sight.

    Every building, every street light, every corner window or shop sign is brightly lit. But there’s not a soul to be seen. As I rushed past, on roads so perfect I could have been on air, my eyes registered two facts.

    There was not a fused light to be seen. I stared down side roads, looked deep into parking lots and I even counted passing street lamps but every one of them – and I am not exaggerating – was working. I know of no other city where this would be the case. In fact, I doubt if there could be another.

    My second observation is more subjective but no less telling. In Singapore even the trees, bushes and shrubs grow with discipline. It seem that when the road curves so too does the foliage on its side or when the highway rises to cross another the trees appear to grow as well. In this city man is master of nature.

    “What’s he up to?” I asked the taxi driver as we stopped at a traffic light. On our left was a man on a step ladder leaning against a tree. His head and hands were buried in the lower branches.

    “He’s drying the leaves, Sir” the driver replied without a trace of humour. “It rained a few hours ago and the municipal corporation has the trees at major street junctions dried so they don’t drip on pedestrians in the morning.”

    The newspapers in Singapore tend to be dull. Compared to our own they are thin on controversy but long on insignificant and seemingly meaningless local stories. But you do get a lot of foreign news and some of it is fascinating.

    Did you know that Russians are dying faster than at any time since World War II and that this trend is likely to accelerate? Last year nearly a million more Russians died than were born. The country’s population has dwindled by 3.3 million since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Over the next 15 years it will shrink by a further 15 million.

    Meanwhile in Britain it is no longer politically correct to call children ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’. Teachers have been directed not to say things like “you are being silly” or “don’t be stupid”. Oh yes and it’s not advisable to let your wards play musical chairs. Such games, it’s claimed, breed violence and aggression. It would appear that when the music stops kids push each other to get a vacant seat. This encourages bullying as a way of achieving one’s goal.

    Well, after that aren’t you lucky you are neither Russian nor British? In India no one notices how fast we die because no one is aware how many of us die each year. And when it comes to musical chairs, if you don’t have a chair it’s altogether a different sort of music you have to face.

    I came to Singapore for the Asian Television awards. Three of our programmes were nominated and I felt we had a chance of winning a prize. I thought it would be for the Kapil Dev interview but I was wrong. It did well – it was runner-up – but clearly not well enough. The one that won was the hour-long interview with General Musharraf. That did surprise me.

    In February, when Doordarshan broadcast the interview, The Times of India attacked it with rare venom and spectacular if inappropriately colourful language. In a front-page article – followed the next day by a principal leader – it claimed that the interview was an abomination, an own goal, a glorification and a legitimisation of the General and a grievous wound for India. To cap it all, the paper concluded that the good General had caught me by the short and curlies and enjoyed tugging at them.

    Happily the jury in Singapore disagreed. They praised the interview for its “critical cross examination and acute questioning”. Two of the delegates at the connected Asian Television Forum asked if they could buy rights to show the interview on their channels. It didn’t seem to matter that it was ten months old.

    On my return I decided to ring Samir Jain and ask if The Times of India would publish news of this award. I felt that would be a neat way of balancing their earlier criticism. Yet it was with trepidation that I made the call. I felt I had no right to do so despite feeling it was somehow justified. To my delight Samir responded warmly and with understanding. His manner proved that charm and goodwill can erase earlier slights. In this case it has.

    It now remains for me to place on record my praise for Doordarshan and its CEO, Rajiva Ratna Shah. It took unique courage and commitment to commission and broadcast this interview. Usually Doordarshan fights shy of Pakistani dictators. Not this time.

    Last saturday morning I watched a long discursive interview with Lee Kuan Yew on Channel NewsAsia where he was asked what he considered the essence of leadership. His answer intrigued me.

    “Well” he replied, “I never talk about things I cannot do. Conversely, if I say I am going to do something I have to do it. I don’t know if that’s what you mean by leadership but it’s certainly what I consider honest politics and playing fair with your constituency.”

    Is anyone in Delhi listening?

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