Ignoring the jaded travelers' line that the nanny state of Singapore is too boring to rate a stop, one visitor sets out to see the orderly city through its signs.
Some tourists, particularly backpackers who over–pride themselves on their ability to ride cramped buses, carry a muddy backpack, and eat a meal with nothing but their bare hands, speak poorly of Singapore. It is sterile, they say. Too safe, too boring, too expensive—too much like an ideal city than the gritty life they are in search of. Go around it, fly over it, or spend only one night in the air–conditioned hell, for only a traveling fool would actually want to stay in Singapore. So goes their opinion.
Perhaps they're right. Or perhaps they're wrong: one lesson learned in travel is that some travelers have more strong opinions that a Beijing sidewalk has globs of phlegm, and one should generally take care to step around the things. And so I set out for Singapore, knowing full well it was a Western sort of city and that my wallet would hemorrhage slightly with each day there. But I also knew it was an integral part of Southeast Asia and that my experience in the region would be incomplete if I gave it a miss.
I arrived in Singapore by boat from Indonesia, and immediately beheld what I will argue is the city's primary tourist attraction: signs. This particular sign warned that I would be killed if a customs agent found drugs on me. I was excited.
Own Your Litter
The signs blossomed throughout the city with the vigor of dandelions. One day while walking along East Coast Park, I came upon a garbage can. The side of the canister said, "Let's Take Ownership of Our Litter & Make Singapore Litter Free." A smiley face followed the word free. It was cute, I thought. And wise, too. We should all take ownership of our litter. Those neighboring countries that toss Hefty bags of crap over the railings of their ferries or out the windows of their trains could learn something here.
Moments later, I came upon a sign held high by two metal poles, reminding me of the biblical story of Aaron and Hur holding the arms of Moses as the Israelites fought against the Amalekites. It read, "Please keep away from trees during stormy weather because of potential danger from lightning strikes and falling coconuts." I wondered how many lives had been saved by this single sign. Singapore will not only execute drug smugglers—per capita, along with the Bahamas, it leads the world in executions—but it will also do its utmost to prevent coconuts and lightning from striking down people who may, in a thoughtless moment, stray too close in inclement weather. According to the book of Exodus, "As long as Moses held up the staff with his hands, the Israelites had the advantage. But whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites gained the upper hand." Could something similar be said about these two poles and the sign?
I continued walking, reminded by a yellow banner stretched above me to "Be considerate, use the right path." I double checked and confirmed I was not in the bike lane. Later, feeling the effects of the free refill policy at the Kentucky Fried Chicken where I had dined an hour earlier, I veered toward a public toilet. Before spotting the urinal I laid eyes on the sign posted at the building's entrance: "KEEP A ZIP ON IT! Since you cannot tell just by looking who carries the AIDS virus, the surest way to be safe is to say 'No' to casual sex." Yes, I will ponder this as I continue toward the urinal. It makes sense, and this sign too could be of great use in some neighboring countries.
As I continued walking north along the coast, where cargo ships were anchored offshore, I watched a descending Singapore Airlines 747 bank left toward the airport. I wondered how many of the men on board had been flirting with the flight attendants, whose sleek, tight–fitting uniforms certainly contribute to the airline's popularity with business travelers.
Before staring at the plane, I had foolishly neglected to read the sign about 20 feet from me, warning of possible danger. White with an attractive green border, the sign immediately got to the point: "Beware of falling coconuts." It was illustrated, too. I wondered if this sign had also saved lives, or if it had actually tempted a rebellious teenager to risk his life, perhaps to impress a girl. I could picture a misguided youth, ready to end it all, standing stoically under a palm. I saw that a child had gotten his kite stuck in a palm frond and that the father was standing directly under the coconuts as he tried to shake the kite lose. The sign gave an element of severity and risk to the scene.
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