Neil be­fore God

Each is­sue, Esquire Sin­ga­pore asks Neil Humphreys to fo­cus on a dif­fer­ent emo­tion. This time it’s pride over our na­tion’s green bits and he won­ders why we don’t travel more within the is­land.

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents -

Our na­tion’s green bits

As the dusky breeze tick­led my sweaty nip­ples, I savoured the seren­ity of is­land life. I jogged be­side Sungei Seran­goon, a quiet, lazy river, pop­u­lar with ot­ters and or­nithol­o­gists.

When I was a teenager, a quiet for­est was a chance to fid­dle with a bra strap in the hope of catch­ing a glimpse of fe­male flesh. Now, the for­est is a chance to fid­dle with binoc­u­lar straps in the hope of glimps­ing a striped tit-bab­bler. That’s a na­tive bird, not a pervert. But Sin­ga­pore’s green­est cor­ners, along with my life­long in­abil­ity to han­dle bra straps, has nur­tured a pro­found ap­pre­ci­a­tion for our parks and forests and made me recog­nise that they are so much more than a hang­out for horny teenagers.

At the north end of Sungei Seran­goon, op­po­site Lorong Halus, I stopped to soak in the ru­ral tran­quil­lity, un­aware that a Man­dopop-singing Mup­pet on a mo­torised scooter was rac­ing to­wards me.

To avoid a col­li­sion, I piv­oted like a gi­raffe at­tempt­ing the splits and tore the menis­cus in my left knee.

As I lay on my back, peer­ing up at the night sky’s four stars, sev­eral thoughts dis­tracted me from the sear­ing pain.

First, Sin­ga­pore­ans take too many of the is­land’s dis­creet gems for granted. Sec­ond, we’ve re­ally got to do some­thing about our light pol­lu­tion. And third, how do scooter rac­ers see them­selves as Den­nis Hop­per in Easy Rider, tear­ing across the Great Plains and re­belling against the sys­tem, when every­one else sees them as dick­heads wob­bling past pen­sion­ers in Pung­gol Park?

But let’s fo­cus on the first one, partly be­cause the fo­cus of this col­umn is travel, but mostly be­cause my in­jured knee leaves me in no fit state to out­run an­gry ah bengs on souped-up scoot­ers.

Sin­ga­pore­ans love to travel. We all know that. Check­ing out of Changi is a chance to check out of the rat race, broaden the mind and, most im­por­tantly, milk a cow.

Ah, the Aus­tralian farm stay. It’s prac­ti­cally a rite of pas­sage for so many young Sin­ga­pore­ans. Face­book feeds are of­ten filled with pho­tos of smil­ing fam­i­lies stand­ing next to a sheep shearer scratch­ing his jock itch.

A friend once re­turned from a farm stay near Perth, wax­ing lyrical about his chance to re­con­nect with na­ture and es­cape Sin­ga­pore’s con­crete jun­gle for a week, all com­mend­able stuff.

But his daily itin­er­ary sug­gested he’d spent a small for­tune to step in sheep shit and fon­dle a cow’s teats. I’m not here to judge. His hard-earned dol­lars can be lav­ished on what­ever farm­yard fetishes he likes.

But he was adamant that such a ru­ral ex­pe­ri­ence was not avail­able to him in Sin­ga­pore. Western Aus­tralia was the near­est place to en­joy such rus­tic charms.

But they can be found in Sin­ga­pore, too, ad­mit­tedly on a much smaller scale, but he wasn’t con­vinced. The grass was greener else­where. It had to be, par­tic­u­larly in Perth, the heart­lander’s dream of sub­ur­ban utopia.

Of course, Perth isn’t re­ally utopia, un­less utopia closes at 5pm ev­ery day and res­i­dents spend the week­ends mow­ing their lawns and wait­ing for death.

Like Sin­ga­pore, Perth shares the warts and wrin­kles of any mod­ern city, with its hot spots and damp patches, its ob­vi­ous strengths and un­de­ni­able weak­nesses.

I take tremen­dous pride in what our Lil­liputian is­land does have, rather than ob­sess over what it doesn’t.

But the en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the Aussie farm stay among Sin­ga­pore­ans who, in all like­li­hood, are un­in­ter­ested in the An­i­mal Re­sort at Sele­tar or Hay Dairies in Lim Chu Kang or Bol­ly­wood Veg­gies in Neo Tiew Road per­haps re­veals more about us than the Aus­tralians.

If it’s lo­cal, it must be in­fe­rior. If it’s lo­cal, it’s a poor fac­sim­ile, an un­nat­u­ral replica in a coun­try with no nat­u­ral re­sources. This is the na­tional mantra, en­grained in the psy­che since kin­der­garten. No nat­u­ral re­sources means more im­ports of food, skills, peo­ple and even ex­pe­ri­ences.

We can’t get the re­quired sus­te­nance to sur­vive lo­cally, so we seek it else­where. There’s noth­ing to see here. Move along. Find those en­rich­ing life ex­pe­ri­ences over­seas be­cause there are few to be found in Sin­ga­pore.

So, buy a ticket, pack a suit­case and go milk a cow in Perth.

What’s worse, our lo­cal travel des­ti­na­tions are seem­ingly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of our en­gi­neered so­ci­ety: a man­u­fac­tured Mer­lion, the big­gest man-made foun­tain, the tallest man-made wa­ter­fall and the man­i­cured Gar­dens by the Bay. Even our tourist at­trac­tions are ei­ther fake or de­signed by com­mit­tee.

So, ig­nore them, then. Look else­where. Ap­pre­ci­ate what’s real and indige­nous (or mostly real and indige­nous. Even Sin­ga­pore’s parks, forests and reser­voirs are ma­nip­u­lated, but they ex­ist nonethe­less.) Seek out­door get­aways and city breaks within our own bor­ders.

Three croc­o­diles bask­ing on a river­bank, an ea­gle swoop­ing to pluck a fish from a river, a mon­i­tor lizard climb­ing a tree, a fam­ily of ot­ters scar­ing away a stray dog, a sandy beach filled with fid­dler crabs scut­tling from side to side as if they were half-pissed, and a black­spit­ting co­bra pok­ing his head above a drain to make a grown man soil him­self, yes, I’ve seen all of the above. Here. In Sin­ga­pore. (And yes, I al­most soiled my­self. I defy any­one not to scream like Mickey Mouse catch­ing his tes­ti­cles in a deckchair when con­fronted by a co­bra.)

I take tremen­dous pride in what our Lil­liputian is­land does have, rather than ob­sess over what it doesn’t.

Pulau Ubin, Coney Is­land, Lorong Halus, Pung­gol Point, Pic­cadilly Cir­cus, Up­per Sele­tar, Lim Chu Kang, Kranji, Lit­tle Guilin, Jurong Lake, Kent Ridge, Lazarus Is­land and Pulau Hantu would make a ran­dom, but cer­tainly not ex­haus­tive, list of qui­eter, greener travel des­ti­na­tions that do not re­quire a pass­port or a week with an Aussie farmer say­ing: “It’s only sheep shit, mate. It’s good for ya.”

Travel re­ally be­gins at home. Even now, af­ter 20-odd years of wan­der­ing around, there are still undis­cov­ered cor­ners of Sin­ga­pore left to ex­plore.

One par­tic­u­lar des­ti­na­tion re­mains elu­sive though. I have yet to find that mys­te­ri­ous, un­fa­mil­iar Sin­ga­pore that I saw in Crazy Rich Asians.

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