Well you walk into the room like a camel and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket and your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law against you coming around
You should be made to wear earphones
Cause something is happening and you don't know what it is
do you, Mr. Jones?
-Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man
I recently went back to Singapore. It was the first time I have left Indonesia in two years. And baby, something is happening here, but I don't know what it is.
Seems after you live here for a while, something happens to you. You change. Your perspective warps just a bit. You get used to things that just a while back were wildly outside of your comfort zone.
I have gotten so used to the just-left-of-reality called Indonesia that returning to the 'real world' is a shock. Now granted, Singapore is a techno-fascist state that has brought compliance and lock-step to the point of micromanagement. It is a city-state run by Chinese, which is to say, Vulcans. On top of that, they have spent years recruiting and investing in high-tech brain-power and businesses to the point where the entire nation has become a macro-chip, if you will. It is impossible to describe Singapore without resorting to a truck-load of hyphenated nouns, because there are no normal words for it.
After two straight years in Indonesia, stepping into Singapore assaulted me with clean efficiency. Everyone was following the rules. There were all kinds of modern conveniences, like moving sidewalks that actually moved (Indo joke), restrooms fitted with all sorts of sensors to tell when you've finished so that they can flush or dispense water or soap or warm air, and signage that is both copious and actually leads you somewhere (Indo joke). Everything spacious and people respect personal space. Everything is painfully clean, in a way that would make even Germans wince. It all looks like it was torn from a 1930s Future-ama film short at the Saturday matinée.
It is truly the mirrow image of Indonesia, and I was Alice just stepping through.
With cold efficiency, the airport itself led me through the gate, down the impossibly long corridor and into the dazzling arcade of duty free shopping, with genuine products whose counterfeits I have passed a million times in Indonesian shopping malls. Here was cheap booze and expensive baubles, the diametric opposite of my adopted home.
Once through the endless temptations to participate in consummeristic orgies, I was summarily disgorged into the cavernous entry hall. The ceiling soared overhead and there seemed to be enough room for half the world's population here, so unlike the cramped and crowded stockyards full of shoving people back home. A huge tote board listed the great cities of the world, which airline was going there next, and precisely which line to get in for your boarding pass. If this wasn't enough information for you, helpful little men in red vests would quickly glide up to you and offer help, and the best part was they didn't expect a tip. It was, after all, their job.
I stepped into the tropical heat and blinked at the sun. I was not accosted by 47 men offering taxis, watches and perfume. Instead, there was an orderly row of taxis patiently waiting for the next passenger. The air was fresh and clean. The noise level was significantly below 80 decibels.
the taxi was very efficient. No chatter and useless effort, just took the address and whisked me away in smooth comfort down broad rectilinear streets that looked as if the maid had just left. The driver took the most direct and fastest route without being told. Back home, they take the longest and/or most congested route, unless otherwise guided, in order to run up the fare.
Throughout the remainder of my stay, I was ever-so-efficiently scooped up and delivered quickly, quietly and with cold calculation. Even friendly folks seemed as if they were reading from a script, and there were the sonstant reminders not to litter or spit or forget to flush, all of which will get you a S$1,000 fine. Everyone and everything looks as if it were placed exactly were it needed to be for maximum efficiency. There were no free-roaming animals or smoldering trash fires or vendors strewn down the sides of every street. Even the architecture looks like a Disney version of Vienna with a dash of Portuguese for flavor. Overall, the city is a poster-child for handicap friendly. I was able to navigate easily and never once stumbled over broken concrete or oddly placed doodads that served no purpose but to keep someone busy installing and removing them. If, God forbid, there was a hazard, it was barricaded and marked heavily with orange cones.
The trees all looked as if they were pruned every morning and the parks had manicured grass. Even the birds seemed just a little happier...hey! Wait a minute! There are birds here!
Yes, Singapore is the wet dream of every efficiency expert and obcessive/compulsive on the planet. You could eat off the sidewalk, if you could without being arrested and flogged for doing so. Even the curio and souvenir shops are meticulously organized so that you can easily find the cheap piece of crap you want to bring back to your family and friends. I always get refrigerator magnets. At least they are useful. Worse case scenario, you can put them in your transmission pan to collect metal filings.
By the time I got back to the airport, I felt as if I had been sanitized. The only thing missing was the paper band that said so, and I kept moving so the guy giving those out couldn't catch me. I bolted through the main cavern and wended my way to the SkyTrain to take me to Terminal 1. The highly efficient system came along and everyone queued up and boarded in an orderly and safe manner. We were likewise barfed out the other end. The model of efficiency.
Having checked in three hours early (being efficient and all), I planted myself at Harry's Bar to enjoy a libation while passing the time. I met a young Aussie guy named Brad who was going to Greece to meet his girl for a couple weeks' R&R. I made the usual jokes about joining the riots and shopping for islands while he was there.
In all my efficiency, I had forgotten to set my watch ahead one hour. When Brad pointed this out, I had ten minutes to get to my gate, which was at the other end of the Universe from Harry's, of course. I dashed through the terminal, being the only person whose lack of personal efficiency had made me short on time. I slipped through the security check, but...OOPS! Was that a bottle of booze in my pack?
The woman, an Indonesian, pulled out the massive container of Absolut nectar. It was not in a sealed bag and didn't have a tax stamp. Sorry, but we have to confiscate.
The chief of the check point was a stern Chinese woman, the very definition of cold, hard efficiency. She was unmoving and unmoved. Even having this middle-aged man sitting in a heap on the floor crying hardly budged her inhuman countenance. I could see that my begging and pleading had some effect. The tempurature of her soul had risen to 3 degrees above Absolute Zero, so that she matched the background radiation of the Big Bang. But even offers to relive the Big Bang could not stir her interest.
To her credit, the Indonesian woman was sympathetic, and she kept looking around for some opportunity to bend the rules for me. I offered dates and promises of painting the town when she came to Jakarta. She wanted to, God bless her, but gainful employment was a major hurdle. I slinked off to board without my ill-gotten booty. My Viking soul screamed for loot and plunder, but my rational mind keot control.
I was back in the Indonesian world now. I should have known. It was an Indonesian airline going to Indonesia, which meant the flight wasn't even boarding at the scheduled time of wheels-up. I fumed. I groused. I grumbled. I could see my plunder sitting there, knowing that it would end up on the shelf in the home of some customs apparatchik. It made me angry. I longed for home where a well-placed 50 would have waived the rules.
And that's when I realized...I was homesick. No, not for the police state which shall remain nameless (but whose initials are US), but for my adopted home. I wanted to go back to the place where officials could be bribed, rules could be broken, people shoved and cut in line. I wanted to go back to where it took five people to do one job at seven different windows. I missed my dirty, noisy, crowded, lawless home.
When I deplaned (whatever the hell that is) in Jakarta, there were no directional signs, or the ones that did exist were wrong. The corridors were dark and close, and reeked of clove cigarettes. In fact, over in the corner there was a man standing under a no-smoking sign, enjoying his cigarette. I was beginning to feel better now. I finally found the visa-on-arrival lane, surrounded by a maze of stanchions with no one in line. I went to the first window to pay, the second window to get a receipt, the third window to get my stamp, the fourth window to check that the first three had done it right. Then I wandered down the long, low hall to immigration, where I was informed that needed a form, and that the form was way back where I started. When I got there, I checked. Nope, no signs to let me know that I needed any forms in that area. I filled it out and got through immigration.
I asked a gentleman in a uniform which way to the exit. He asked if I had luggage and I said no. He said I could go in any of a couple of directions, of course. He looked as if he were ready to accept my money for the information. I ignored the look. I randomly chose the most difficult, of course.
An hour after landing, I spilled out into the dark, dirty Jakarta night and was accosted by a dozen men offering off-meter rides to the city. I'm not stupid, just a little dumb. After a particularly long and circuitous route, I was able to ditch them and dive into one of the taxis I trusted more than most. I gave him explicit directions on which route to take back to the house.
As I sat back in the seat for the ride, I realized that I was happy to be home. I preferred the loony, lawless cat-herding of Indonesia to cold, fascist efficiency. I preferred the pushing and shoving in line to marching lock-step in jack-boots. Life just feels organic here, like living in the wild versus a wildlife preserve. The law of the jungle prevails. There is something visceral about this land that appeals to real people who want to live raw, unfettered lives. I would choose this to a petri dish under a microscope any day
For all its clean, efficient modernization, I was no safer in Singapore than in Jakarta, but all the trappings made it appear that way. Like other "modern" countries, Singapore has created a coddling society where people are enticed to give up being alert because everything looks so safe, and lulled into a stupor they foolishly let their guard down...and that's when the danger slips in. In Indonesia, life is still the way it used to be. You are on your own. You must be responsible for you own well-being because certainly no one else will be. Every face you see wants to take something from you, so your guard is always up. Yes! This is real life. This is the way we are meant to be as organic beings...as humans.
As I sat there in the taxi, watching every turn, checking the meter to be sure it was properly calculating my trip, locking the doors, I realized that I was happy here. Not having yellow-shirted thugs watching to be sure I don't step out of line for my own good feels right to me. Not having mandatory health insurance and Social Security and welfare and social services and jack-booted herd masters feels like life to me. Those other things are just veils we pull over our eyes so we don't have to look at misery and suffering in other people, and so that we can feel like we are safe like in mommy's arms. But we forget that when we have mommy's comfort, she can also go through our things and come into our room any time she wants, because she owns the place and feeds us.
I laugh when I read the term "advanced nations." How is it advanced when the populace is never required to mature and gain independence? How is advanced when no one advances past the childhood phase of life? It used to be we measured advanced by how well someone could fend for themselves, not by how much they had delegated personal responsibility.
As the road whizzed under the tires, I thought, "Give me liberty or give me death." What a great line, to bad so few actually live it. Is it better to have one shot of top quality, 25-year-old single malt, or gallons of rot-gut? I'll take the shot, thanks. A little quality trumps a lot of bunk any time. So it is with the life I have been given.
I got down from the taxi in from of the walled and gated kampung. As I passed through the gate, I waved to the night watchman. He's my neighbor. He knows me, I know him. I could pass unfettered. It felt good to be home again.
The secret to herding cats is to lead them, not push them.