Third Day in Singapore: Breakfast and Religion

This morning it was my turn to lead the sightseeing, to check the maps and lead us around to interesting places. Rebecca’s done so much of this and I’ve just followed along—I think we’re both curious to see what happens when it’s me in charge for a change.

We had to get breakfast. Rebecca had a moment of being frustrated at the lack of dietary options. Her gluten intolerance and food allergies really rule out most of what any city can offer her. You’d think Singapore, ever conscious of tourist dollars, would be more accommodating, but I think that the issue of taking these dietary concerns seriously is very slow-going and hampered by thoughtless trend-seekers who bring the cause down. Regardless, in a place with Singapore’s infrastructure, there should be no excuse to not have vegan and GF options.

Though the larger issue, actually, was in finding a place that was open before 11:30 a.m., it turned out. There were plenty of restaurants along the main drag of Eu Tong Sen Street, but we were too early for them (as late in the morning as it was). Rebecca was hungry and depressed, and I was desperate to find something for her, dragging her further and further toward the Singapore River in hopes of finding anyplace that could serve us something more interesting than a plate of rice.

Right before we reached the bank we found Clark Quay Central, a large shopping complex with the splendor typical to nearly anything in Singapore: lots of white, lots of glass, lots of plants and flowing water. “Let’s just try this,” I insisted, for no reason known to myself. I just felt sure this was it.

We went down the escalator into the fundament of the building, and it immediately emptied out into Real Food Café, a restaurant specializing in organic food and diverse palates. When we spotted GF pancakes on the menu, Rebecca was so happy she cried. I let the manager of the café know what a lifesaver this place was, and she was pleased to hear it (had probably heard it many times  before, justifying the need for such a place).

This made me think once more about accessibility issues and dietary restrictions, up against the desire to travel and see the world. Being unable to digest gluten, pork, or shellfish is as prohibitive as being in a wheelchair and gazing up a staircase of several hundred steps, leading to a temple that must be visited at sunset, or being sight-impaired and hearing about a prestigious art gallery. Sure, you go to a large and wealthy city, there will be accommodations for you: ramps, narrators, alternative food selections, but you really can’t trek out on the dusty back roads to some jungle village and meet them on their context. Maybe the onus is on them to be more accessible, but they don’t necessarily have the economy to support that infrastructure. Is that it, then? If you’re not born with a robust metabolism, all functioning limbs and senses, you just acknowledge there are places in this world you can’t go?

In an ideal world… well, ours is far from an ideal world.

That done, we decided to explore the city without guidance once more. We crossed the Singapore River and meandered by the ominously named Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. I thought the buildings were pleasantly Scand-looking, actually, especially on this light gray, overcast day. It always looked like it was about to rain, and it was a little chilly, but it never went all the way over into bad weather. This building brightened things up considerably, however.

With such an updated version of colonial architecture here, I wondered whether life for citizens of Singapore was at all surreal. On the one hand  you’ve got so much energy going into entertainment, museums, fine arts, but on the other… you’re pretty cut off from your Asian legacy, as much as the authorities try to integrate it. Not for the first time I felt this city was an upscale Las Vegas, floating on its own pleasure-barge, with lines coming in from all surrounding Asian nations but no clear footprint. The architecture is European, the Chinese have broad neighborhoods where they don’t acknowledge the other three national languages… I guess life is no more or less surreal in the States, with people having settled here from all corners of the globe, all bringing something, all attempting to assimilate, more or less. Walking through this city was a lot like looking at my own nation’s largest cities through a fractured mirror.

We passed my beloved Philatelic Museum and walked up to a broad white church—no, I mean really white: all the exterior and much of the interior were painted a chalky white. I marveled at how it could all be kept so spotlessly clean all the time, though I never found any personnel on the grounds. This was the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator.

The spread of religious indoctrinators is just relentless. From nearly every faith and nation, there’s a group of people who’ve got to travel and find you to inform you you’re wrong about how you see the world, and frequently they’ll kill you if you disagree with their concept of a loving, forgiving God. It can be a quick slaughter by swords or rifles, or it can be a war of attrition as they command the trade routes and buy up the resources, but religion seems to push people to extremes to accrue material wealth, the better to punish and oppress people in other lands, all for ostensibly preserving their immortal souls.

Every time I see the outpost of a foreign religion, established to throttle the local culture in any nation we visit, my heart becomes that much heavier, that much sadder. One superstition is just as valid as another: why not secure food and shelter for people, if you really want to do something good? But when was it ever profitable to limit oneself to doing good for others…

I’d probably enjoy life more if I didn’t think so hard. But being in other nations provokes thought. Constantly, I’m contrasting how people live with how I live, the things I take for granted, the culture my environment supports and sustains. When I see shared values, I wonder whether this is due to how similar all the people of the world really are, or if it’s just a side-effect of the infection of colonialism and conquest.

On the other hand, art really is everywhere in Singapore. Most of the buildings are glorious or inspiring. Landscaping is a priority. Even the establishment of representatives from so many international lands charges the city with excitement, at least for me: I loved seeing signs with multiple languages emblazoned on them, and not just for show! Sculptures everywhere, artifacts of prior, much older cultures everywhere, and why not? If you want to cultivate artists, show everyone you’re proud of them, show off their work, encourage others. Represent the times and nationalities of everyone living here: whatever the current culture is supposed to be, honor the legacies of the people in the homes and working the shops. Show how all roads led here. Of this I approve.

Through more meandering, Rebecca and I found a large synagogue surrounded by an extensive iron fence, lashed with chains in places. We wanted to visit the synagogue, but we couldn’t figure out how to get in, and there was also the chance that it wasn’t open at all. We were touring the city on a Monday, but back home certain restaurants were closed on Mondays, and I had no idea what various religions practiced, on their home turf or in other countries.

Eventually we did find the entrance, and an Indian guard rushed out of a booth (his partner remained behind, watching) and interrogated us on our intent. I think they were looking for anti-Semitic terrorists: if I were better informed on world events, I might have recalled some spate of anti-religious attacks on various centers and temples in Asia, but as it was I had no idea. When we convinced the guards that my wife is Jewish and I harbored no ill intent, we were permitted to tour the grounds. They released the electromagnetic gate and retained our backpack, IDs, and cameras: absolutely no photos of the interior whatsoever. We complied with everything, of course, not wishing to start any fights, and we even got on the guards’s good side with a little light joking, but the rule was inflexible.

Without guides, we were let into Maghain Aboth Synagogue, “the oldest surviving synagogue in Singapore and Southeast Asia.” Now, I’ve never seen Jews knocking from door to door in search of converts. My impression is that you’re born into the religion, and sometimes you can convert to it for cases like marriage, so this place is here to serve the Jewish community that emigrated here. No one handed us literature, no one tried to persuade me to change my ways. In fact, I saw very few people here at all, and most of those I saw weren’t wearing kippahs or payot or anything. I’d guess many of the workers looked Indian or Malay, though I have no idea what an inherently Tamil countenance looks like.

The synagogue was impressively old. It radiated tradition everywhere, in every panel of dark wood, in the locked cabinets of the library, in the rows flanking the central chamber, the prayer hall. Nothing was simple: even the locks on the cabinets were beautifully worked in silver, and the carving technique on the wood finishes were its own testament of the faithful. That’s how I romanticize it, anyway. Pews were dedicated to (or reserved for) particular benefactors and patrons to the building. All seats faced forward, running along opposite walls and surrounding a raised platform in the center of the room. Without anyone being in here, I had to guess that this platform was reserved for… well, very important rabbis and scholars, but the services were conducted at the large stage at the end of the room, which the platform and all the pews faced—which, in fact, all are oriented toward Jerusalem.

We walked through to the complex’s “Kosher Shop”, which I initially interpreted as their gift shop, but this place is not a mere tourist attraction. One of the attached buildings was named after a philanthropist for the Jewish community, who intended the grounds to serve as a community center for the Jews in Singapore. This was really a kosher supply store and convenience shop.

As we left, Rebecca noted something on the exterior of the building that caused her to note, “Oh, it’s Orthodox!” I didn’t know what it was at the time, but in reading up on the synagogue later, I did find that there were separate entrances for the women into this building, since as we all know, women are filthy disease-carriers. Ah, religion, how you dehumanize.

Telecommuting in a Singaporean coffee shop.

We retrieved our possessions, thanked the guards, and wandered off. All this walking around and being overwhelmed by world cultures and history meant it was time to chill out in a coffee shop. Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf was right around the corner on Bras Basah Road so we set up there and recaffeinated. Our hotel was conveniently near a number of coffee shops, but it’s restorative to take a break and focus on the familiar, after being overwhelmed by all the stimuli another nation will inundate you with.

Singapore Management University

Maybe we were primed by the law school nearby, but we got into a debate about law and liberty. Singapore’s a good city in which to do this, since it looks so clean and everything seems to be running in order, yet it’s famous for its punitive fines for multifarious infractions. Sure, there’s no gum on the sidewalk, and that’s great, but it’s not that the people are behaving of their own volition or necessarily respect the community: they dread the repercussions. The intermittent news story reflects the clash of cultures when some Westerner comes stumbling in and tries to pull a prank that would be acceptable in his home nation, some gesture of vandalism or critical speech, only to find himself imprisoned and the subject of a diplomatic fiasco. Can his home nation retrieve him before he suffers vicious corporal punishment?

What’s better: civil liberties or a clean, habitable environment? Why does either have to come at the expense of the other? Is consideration for others such an inherently alien concept to humans?

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