Shock to the System: Our Tale of Two Cities after India
Petronas Towers high above busy Surya mall, KL

Coming to Singapore was a shock to our systems after six months in India. We booked nearly a week here as a form of R&R, thinking the city would be some kind of needed relief from India’s intensity. Our reaction, however, surprised us.

The daily bustle of Varanasi
The daily bustle of Varanasi

India is sensory overload, Singapore, sensory deprivation. In one your nose and ears are on overdrive; in the other, hardly a sniff or honk.

Chinatown, Singapore
Chinatown, Singapore

India is chaotic, whimsical, random, noisy, dirty, dusty – and filled with laws few people obey. Singapore is methodical, organized, quiet, clean and, to us surprisingly, rather robotic – filled with laws you had better obey. In India, everyone finds the freshest fruits and vegetables in the streets and the market stalls. In Singapore, almost all market activity takes place in neon-lit malls. The glitteringly displayed, sterile food seems much less tasty.

Downtown Singapore
Downtown Singapore

Singapore brought us back to the worst of materialism and consumerism, a land of seemingly endless malls and hollow glamor.

Night over Singapore
Night over Singapore

With its manicured parks and waterfronts, its pedestrian skyscrapers and showcase buildings, its whitewashed colonial heritage – the glitz can be so easy to swallow, and at first so seductive. But the place seemed barely alive compared to an Indian city.

Not a leaf out of place in Singapore Botanic Gardens
Not a leaf out of place in Singapore Botanic Gardens

Singapore, for all its virtues, actually made us regret leaving India.

Shopping and commerce on Orchard Road, Singapore
Shopping and commerce on Orchard Road, Singapore

We longed for some middle ground again, neither the relentless press of one nor the dehumanizing non-stop commercialization of the other. We longed for a city with the diversity of Bangkok or the hubbub of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) or the schizophrenic nature of Manila, places where we found raw and cooked life made a delightful stew.

Petronas Towers high above busy Surya mall, KL
Petronas Towers high above busy Surya mall, KL

Our next stop, Kuala Lumpur, was said to be closer to those. But that city seems to be emulating Singapore instead. It’s a place with iconic structures like Cesar Pelli’s Petronas Towers, honoring the national oil company and built atop a massive mall buzzing with shoppers at all hours. Its version of Singapore’s Orchard Road, an elongated adaptation of NYC’s Fifth Avenue and Times Square, is the Golden Triangle, a nest of shopping centers and brightly neon-lit malls.

Old colonial buildings, Merdeka Square, Kuala Lumpur
Old colonial buildings, Merdeka Square, Kuala Lumpur

The heritage buildings around Merkdeka Square – honoring Malaysian’s independence – are immaculate; underneath even that, a weary mall. The sad echo of the old Central Market, important long ago for the sweaty bustle of trade to keep the city fed and clothed, now is chock full of t-shirts, knick-knacks and other tourist goods. New construction is everywhere, including additions to the admirable metro/monorail system. Cranes sprout in all corners of the city, as older buildings have fallen to the need for bigger and brighter.

Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur
Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur

At least for now, KL has a rough humanity as well, most evident in its old quarters of Little India and the appealingly grungy alleys of Chinatown. Older apartment buildings, the day’s wash hanging from the porches, are still tucked back of the malls. The wide roads around the city may move traffic smoothly, but all clogs down in the narrow twisting streets at the center.

After 10 days in Singapore and KL, we wanted out. We longed again for dollops of India’s richness and complexity. We longed for those cities where street life is abundant, not funneled into malls; where the market is close to the land, not encased in plastic; where the senses – sight, sound, taste – are engaged, not deprived.

(Also, for more pictures from Malaysia and Singapore, CLICK HERE to view the slideshow at the end of the Malaysia/Singapore itinerary page.)

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