Flash floods, Paul Theroux and loving Singapore

Waterlogging at Liat Towers
Waterlogging at Liat Towers

Flash floods hit Liat Towers and other parts of Orchard Road, reported AsiaOne, but PUB, whose tasks include flood prevention, begged to differ. No floods in Orchard Road, just “ponding”: Pub, said the headline in Today. “Flooding” did occur in a section of Cambridge Road/Owen Road, according to the PUB website, but not in the Orchard Road shopping district, where there was only “ponding”.”The affected areas are mainly low-lying areas,” Today reported, quoting the PUB, as if that explained everything.

I loved this quibble over words, it’s so like Singapore. I haven’t seen anything on the latest “flooding”/”ponding” yet on The Online Citizen or Singapore Daily, which takes a break on weekends, if I am not mistaken.

There were no blogs, of course, in the Singapore described by Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazar (published in 1975) which I happened to be reading again yesterday.

Theroux, who taught at the university, had mixed feelings about Singapore. “The North Star Night Express to Singapore”, the chapter on Singapore, ends with the words, “Like me — like everyone I knew in Singapore — he had just been waiting for his chance to go.” “I had felt trapped in Singapore,” he says, complaining about government control and press censorship. But he also admits: “I felt kindly towards Singapore.”

It’s impossible not to love Singapore.

Even Theroux, the critic, feels an affinity for the place.

It comes through in the chapter where Theroux describes a brief visit to Singapore in the course of a railway journey from London to Osaka and then back to Europe by the Trans-Siberian Express.

Here he is describing the train journey after crossing the Causeway.

The North Star was rolling past the wooded marshland on the northern part of the island to the Jurong Road. I associated this road with debt: five years before, I drove down it in the mornings to take my wife to work. It was always cool when we left the house, but so quickly did the rising sun heat the island that it was nearly 80 by the time my small boy (carsick in his wicker seat) and I got back — he to his amah, I to my unfinished African novel. It was curious, travelling across the island, having one’s memory jogged by the keen smells of the market near Bukit Timah Circus and the sight of the tropical plants I loved — the palms by the tracks called pinang rajah, which have feathery fronds gathered at the top and look like ceremonial umbrellas, and the plants that spray green plumes from the fissures and boles of every old tree in Singapore, the lush ornament called “ghost leaf” that gives the deadest tree life. I felt kindly towards Singapore — how could I feel otherwise in a place where one of my children was born, where I wrote three books and freed myself from the monotonous routine of teaching? My life had begun there. Now we were passing Queenstown, where Anne had taught night-school classes in Macbeth; Outram General Hospital, where I had been treated for dengue; and the island in the harbour — there, through the trees — where on various Sunday outings, we had been caught in a terrifying storm, and seen a thick poisonous sea snake, and been passed (“Don’t let the children see!”) by a corpse so old and buoyant it spun in the breeze like a toy.

It’s a different Singapore now. But the trees are just as lush, the coffee shops and hawker centres no less busy, and the sun sets with the same abruptness after a long day. Even the highrises stabbing the sky have their swards of green. There is peace and tranquillity in Singapore.

Christmas revellers will, of course, have a jolly good time today and tomorrow.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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