Sunday, August 01, 2010

Ethnographic Notes, Week 1

Mid-morning was bright and shiny. My Philippine budget airline delivered me to the Singaporean budget terminal along with dozens of other souls who braved the 6h25 flight. At immigration bodies queued up to be inspected and deemed fit to enter Singapore’s sovereign space. Two pairs of women were singled out from the line and called to report to a room for questioning. I felt humiliated on their behalf. I pictured how many times a day such a thing happens. Did every flight bring women travelling alone who could potentially be trafficked? The Philippines has never come down from Tier 2 of the Trafficking in Persons Report. Our porous borders and poor security make it easy for human smugglers to get young women out of the country to service Bangladeshi construction workers in the northern part of this country.

Now I wonder what it was about their ‘profile’ that alerted the immigration authorities. Was it the way they were clothed? Was it how they carried themselves? Was it because unlike me, they didn’t wear a bored look on their faces? Ours was the only flight that arrived at the budget terminal so the immigration business was quick. The lady in front of me presented her papers and was subsequently whisked off to the questioning room. It was my turn and I gave the immigration lady my papers. She scanned my passport and had a look at my ICA letter. Stamp stamp welcome to Singapore with a smile. The discipline of borders and visas and passports is a cruel thing.

I had only been to SG once. On my flight home from Australia two years ago I flew on Singapore airlines and had a six-hour lay over in Changi airport so naturally I took advantage of the free city tour. My friend B says it’s like a never-ending Makati. It certainly looks that way, only cleaner and minus the pollution from vehicles.

The advantage of travelling in rich countries is that there is a discernible logic in their public spaces. The transport system can be confusing at first, but you’ll soon have the hang of it. Theirs isn’t as precisely timed as the buses on the Gold Coast, but then this is a city-state of five million. In an interview some months back I was asked what I missed most about Australia, I said the public transport system. But these days owning a car in Manila doesn’t lend the same privilege as, say, five years ago. This was why I rarely ventured out of Quezon City. Think about it. Traffic used to be bad only during rush hours. Now even at high noon all major roads are choked. To and from Ortigas. To and from Makati. EDSA. I think of all the time and productivity lost in traffic. Somebody did the math for it once. How many billions?

I have said before I felt caged in Manila, held hostage by the elements (i.e. rains + floods) and gridlock. I couldn’t go where I wanted without shortening my lifespan through stress. Before I left for Oz in 2006 we had to have water delivered by truck for months because Maynilad was having some crisis. And earlier this month before leaving for here we had no water for weeks, another water crisis. The same reason we weren’t too adversely affected by typhoon Ondoy made it difficult for water to course through our pipes. They have floods here too, I’m told. Orchard Road was under water for 20 minutes and everyone was in panic. I’m also told complaining was a national pastime. I suppose it would be if you’re used to have everything working. There are advantages growing up in Manila. We’re made of stern stuff. Nerves of steel.

The wealth is plainly obvious. Due to lack of space, rich people’s houses aren’t all that ostentatious. They aren’t situated in gated villages. I’ve seen over a dozen luxury cars just zipping by on the road. Two Porsche Carreras passed by when I was waiting for the bus yesterday. There is another Porsche and a Ferrari parked alongside the road near my student hostel. Just sitting there on the side of the road with people and other vehicles passing by! This area near Bukit Timah road, I’m told, is an upscale neighborhood. I’ve come across dozens of Filipina nannies and domestic helpers on the streets. I wonder how much they get paid. I suppose only the truly wealthy can afford such a luxury.

The ordinary people live in HDBs, that is, public housing built by government. Imagine rows upon rows of buildings. The spaces are quite cramped. I know because I’ve been viewing rooms to rent near my uni. But while the living quarters are small, the external spaces are generous. The MRT during rush hour isn’t as bad as in Manila. There are parks for people to congregate. Rush hour traffic isn’t traffic at all by Manila standards.

The poor people are older people. I’ve seen a couple of “beggars” in the underground passages near MRT stations and malls. There was an older gentleman playing the violin the other day. And an old lady with sores on her legs selling tissue. The beggars don’t just have their hands extended for alms. I suppose they have to offer some kind of service. I’ve yet to see a young beggar though.

I told B last night I think Singapore could be a demographic sample of the world’s population, except the South Asians should number about as much as the East Asians. There is a smattering of Africans and Caucasians. Is this what all cities would look like in a hundred years? And many of the signs are in English, Chinese, Hindi and Bahasa.

Are Singaporeans truly embracing multiculturalism? It’s a big word in Australia in the prosperous years of the Howard government. Now that Australia is coming out of the tail end of the global financial crisis, it wants to restrict immigration. But apparently Singapore is enjoying an economic boom these days. And migrant workers are welcome, if susceptible to abuse the lower they reside in the hierarchy of this slice of the global labor force. My friend B says his coworkers from other Southeast Asian countries are not getting their salaries regularly. His other Filipino co-worker didn’t get paid for months at his former employers. I thought this kind of thing only happened in places like China where labor laws are poorly implemented. But it happens here too. Slavery in the 21st century in high-tech, cosmopolitan Singapore.

The other day as I was opening a bank account with DBS (which took all of 15 minutes including the card), I saw a bus driven by a woman wearing a hijab. It struck me as odd as I feel Singapore is, in some ways, conservative. But there she was, a female bus driver. In all my life in Manila, I have never seen one. There is no outward sexism that I’ve seen so far. But then I’ve yet to see local TV.

While people aren’t necessarily warm and friendly, they seem helpful. Well, at least helpful of lost newbies asking for directions. In my apartment hunt I must’ve asked over a dozen people for directions the other day. People were eager to help, even those who don’t speak English very well. Singlish is a challenge. I’ve had to ask people to repeat themselves countless times. And on my part I’ve learned to slow down my speech.

Perhaps SG has eased up on its authoritarian ways because I have yet to see police presence. Perhaps surveillance is done by subtle means. Technology makes this possible. For example information about you as a visitor is centralized. Immigration, school, bank. They all seem to share the same data about you. There are also a lot of cameras in the commercial areas, although I’ve yet to see one here in the residential areas.

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