Singapore is actually a very crowded city. No, not crowded in the sense that, say, Ranganathan Street in Chennai is crowded, but crowded all the same. Especially, if your point of view is American suburbia.
Astonishingly, this density of population is by design. Some years ago, disturbed by the decreasing fertility and the increasing percentage of aged people, the government (which in Singapore functions as a benevolent dictator) decided that to be a stable economic entity, Singapore needs to have a larger and more skilled population. It therefore decided to increase immigration into the country, especially of highly skilled workers. Over the course of twenty years, the total population of Singapore has risen from about three million to over five million. Most of this growth has come due to immigration. About twenty years ago, slightly over ten percent were non-citizens. Today, that number is closer to forty percent. About two million of the five million people in Singapore today are non-citizens.
I have been visiting Singapore off and on over the past thirty years. These visits have become fairly frequent during the past four years, after my collaborator moved to NTU. I myself can see the increased crowding of the island, in the traffic (in spite of tight controls on vehicle ownership and movement) and in the strained public transportation. Now, Singapore has infrastructure and public transportation that any city in America or Europe would envy: extensive network of trains and buses coordinated together, gleaming road surfaces, ultra fast broadband and cellular networks, large network of hospitals and clinics, and so on. But to someone who has been visiting this place frequently, the strain on even such enviable infrastructure is clear.
There has been much careful civic planning that has significantly mitigated the effects of this increased population. The dominant model of housing, for instance, is blocks upon block of high rise apartments (mostly constructed by the government for sale to the public), ringed around community centers, food stalls, shopping areas, play spaces and other civic amenities. For instance, here is a typical high rise apartment building, one of a complex of several such, very close to NTU:
And here are the hawker’s center (which is essentially a giant open air food court where people regularly gather to eat—families often have most or all their meals at such places) and a farmers’ market that are at the foot of these apartment buildings:
Singapore has many carefully tended open spaces, lush gardens and parks, surrounded by more high rise buildings. Here for instance is a shot of a huge expanse of garden called (predictably) Chinese Garden, around a massive lake called Jurong Lake, and following that, is a shot taken by turning around at that same spot: you can see a vast complex of apartment buildings in the distance ringing the green belt.
These are pictures I took during two rides into the city, navigating heavy traffic. This is the first time in all my visits that I rode a bike in this city, but I had expected that this would be what riding in Singapore would mostly be like. I was surprised therefore, to learn that there are areas very close to NTU, on the western edge of the island, which are almost uninhabited (by the living anyway), and have a complete absence of high rises. These areas were marked variously as “Chinese Cemetery” and “Muslim Cemetery” and so forth on the map, and a large proportion of the roads on the map were not even given names. I suspected this area was reserved for the military (yes, Singapore has one). At any rate, I was intrigued, so I pedaled over there.
The southern tip of the area was only over three kilometers from the university. Indeed, the area was lush and green, no surprise of course, and devoid of apartments. Instead, there were vast fields covered by graves. Meticulously planned and tastefully arranged, Singapore style, divided into communities. In keeping with the population ratios—about three quarters of Singapore’s population is of Chinese ethnicity—most of the areas were marked as Chinese cemeteries. Most of the rest were labeled as Muslim cemeteries. I did not take any pictures for fear of offending the relatives, many of whom were visiting the graves. But I was sorely tempted to do so, especially at a sign that said “Hindu Cemetery.” (HUH? Since when did Hindus start burying their dead?)
Passing the cemeteries I pedaled onto an unpaved road that had signs for the National Shooting Range. I could hear what sounded like rifle shots all around, but figured that it was safe to be on that road since it appeared to be the only one leading to the range (how are you supposed to get to a shooting range if you can get shot at on the very road that leads to it?). I figured too that otherwise there would be clear signs–this is Singapore after all. There was wide expanse of open ground on the right side of the road, where the shooting range was, and dense uncleared forests on the left.
I pedaled past the entry to the shooting range. The area now had the distinct flavor of military territory. There were chain linked fences, and the road was just mud-packed (like fire roads in forests in the US). Soon there was a gate on my left, leading into the forest. It was wide open. I was fairly certain that I would be entering military grounds, but I reasoned that the military would not be careless and leave the gate wide open if they did not want civilians coming in. So I pedaled merrily into the gated area.
It was beautiful inside. Lush forest land, with a network of mud-packed roads. The typical greenery around me looked like this:
Having recently learned on a trip to Costa Rica about epiphytes (for the botanically challenged, like myself, these are plants that grown on other trees, getting support and possibly water from the host tree but without killing the host tree), I was excited to see epiphytes all around me. Here was one (if you look closely you will see plants with long leaves growing on the tree):
I pedaled around for several minutes, without seeing a soul, enjoying the greenery. All I could hear was constant rifle shots from the firing range nearby. I tried to keep careful track of my turns: I was afraid of getting lost in this forest with its unmarked and uninhabited roads. But this was not to last: pretty soon, my road was barricaded by metal gates that clearly pointed to live firing beyond. I turned tail and went back the way I came.
When I cycled past the open gate at the entrance to this place, I looked more closely at it. I was aghast! There was a notice board on the gate that I had missed the first time around that clearly said that the area past the gate was a live firing area, and it said it, like all boards in Singapore, in four distinct languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil:
So, I’d been riding all the while through a live firing area! YIKES!
But even more disconcerting was this sign, also on the gate, which also I had missed the first time around: