Spaceships and Chewing Gum

I am in a hotel room in Singapore. It’s 05.02 and I’ve been awake for three hours. Beside me, my wife, Bernie, has also give up trying to sleep and is sitting up drinking the tea I have just made. Having failed to sleep for most of the night, she has joined me in a plan to take an early breakfast as soon as the hotel’s facilities come back to life.

Jet lag is brutal…

For the past two hours, I have been reading a sci-fi book called Endymion, by one of my favourite authors, Dan Simmons. The book – which is the third in the Hyperion series – begins with a man, who has survived his execution, finding a spaceship. It’s obviously made my night-fevered brain think about the greater meaning of the word ‘Spaceship’. My generation used to talk a lot about ‘Spaceship Earth’. But that was back in the days when ecology was the main focus of working together, and we hadn”t declared war on one of the most fundamentally important gases in nature’s construction of life on Earth.

I’ve been propped up in bed with the room’s lights off. I even turned down the brightness on the screen so as not to wake my love, who was manfully… womanfully, I suppose – but futilely – trying to wrestle a few more hours sleep from the swiftly passing Singapore night.

We are passing through through, too – on our way to Australia. We have broken our journey for a few days to revisit one of my favourite places on the planet. Singapore is a spaceship, a very beautiful island city-state perched at the end of the Malaysian landmass. The people are drawn from a mixture of sources: Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian. They are some of the most pleasant and friendly people I have ever met. They are intelligent, caring and thoughtful. Their racial admixture, combined with a common enemy – space and natural resources – may well be what has made them that way. Metaphorically, they have changed their small country into a spaceship; and it works…

Singapore is one of the safest countries on Earth to visit. It’s a clean city and full of shops – and gardens. Shopping is the national hobby, as far as I can see. I can only take so much shopping, but, fortunately, Bernie is an horticulturalist and always wants to visit most, if not all, of the world’s famous gardens on our travels. A short time from now, having startled the staff in the hotel, and figured out the local metro system, she intends that we are first through the gate of the spectacular Gardens by the Bay a few miles south of where we are staying. It’s one of two such planned visits; the other being the famous Botanical Garden. You can tell a lot about a city from its gardens.

I shall create a blog for both these visits, as I know many readers are interested.

There is no litter in Singapore. The former ‘authoritarian’ regime which founded modern Singapore, led by the famous Lee Kuan Yew, transformed this tiny state from a third to a first-world state in a single generation. Along the way his government instilled into its people the need to work together to create a lasting approach to scarce resources. A big part of that was accepting certain disciplines; among them no smoking in public, big and enforced fines for littering, and a total ban on public use of chewing gum. There were, and are, many more.

Contrast Singapore’s pavements with any city in Britain and you’ll see why such a simple idea as the chewing gum ban is a good idea… The other side of Lee’s coin was enormous investment in infrastructure, especially transportation.

We are en route to Aldelaide, where my eldest son, his wife, and, presently, our only grandchildren live. Their parents are both doctors, having been trained in England then coming to believe, in the heat of the past few years of Government vs NHS politics, that they could provide a better world for their kids by emigrating to Australia. From a parental point of view it was a sad moment, but I understand their logic. They seem to be making a great success of it and I wish them well. We are only able to see the grandchildren once every couple of years… But ‘it is what it is’ and we have to make the best of it… and I’ll not suppress a sarcastic snort at the next person who tells me that ‘Skype’ is a good alternative to the transcendent delight of holding your children’s children…

We have a beautiful Collie and a beloved – and somewhat exotic – rescue cat. We love them for what they are and not as grandchildren substitutes – which they both predated. They are both in spaceships, too. The dog is with my cousin and her husband – thank you, so much! – so we only have to fret a few times a day. The cat is with a former kennel-maid who has set up her own business to provide home-based residency during her customers’ travels.

There will be hell to pay when we get home… And, it’s very difficult to forget that look in their eyes when they figure out you’re abandoning them, again.

We came here in a spaceship – a beautiful Airbus with good air quality and a high ceiling. Economy seating is never totally comfortable, but the Singapore Airlines cabin crew looked after us better than any other group of ‘service workers’ that I can ever remember. Maybe they are so good at it because they have been raised in a culture and an economy that understands that a problem is everybody’s problem; and that riches based on success are great, but do not exempt you from active caring.

Thank you, Singapore. Thank you for being as I remembered you from my business trip, fifteen years ago. I love your spaceship-state. I think I’m going to adore your gardens. If I was asked to nominate a future-facing country, I’d nominate you… And I know lots of other people who would, too.

I’ll stop the sleep-deprived rambling, now. Hopefully, my wakefulness will last till the afternoon, when we can steal a couple of hours’ sleep back from the jet lag. We’ll sleep peacefully, protected by this fine island city-state and free from chewing gum on our soles.

©Stephen Tanham

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