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The Buddhist Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore.
The Buddhist Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore.

Culture shock and awe in Singapore Add to ...

I wanted somewhere exotic, that I hadn’t been to before, somewhere I had trouble finding on a map – and somewhere safe: I’d be travelling on my own.

Someone suggested Singapore, the island just off the coast of Malaysia, and since it fit the bill on all accounts, I started packing. I was entering a rare rip in the domestic time-space continuum: I had time off work, my husband didn’t and the kids were at their grandparents. No way was I puttering at home that week.

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But when I landed – about 20 hours later – I discovered a thriving city that’s as much Western as it is Asian. Singapore’s multiethnic society reminded me a lot of the multicultural city of Toronto I’d just left. Was I a stranger in a not-so-strange land? Then I saw a man drinking coffee out of a plastic baggie, with a straw.

That discovery pierced through my jet lag, and led to a lively conversation: “Won’t it spill? Isn’t it too hot?” He found my questions as odd as I found his drink.

It wasn’t something I’d expected to see in the modern city state. Since Singapore gained independence from Malaysia in 1965, growth and modernization has occurred at lightning speed for its five million souls. Concert halls, 57-storey hotels and massive landscape design projects by world-renowned architects keep popping up. (“Building cranes,” deadpans my guide “are Singapore’s national bird.” Just like home, I thought.)

Designer shops and high-end restaurants that wouldn’t be out of place in New York open all the time. And yet, it is still possible to turn a corner and find yourself in an older neighbourhood, home to one of Singapore’s multiple ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese, Peranakan, Tamil and many more. Some say these neighbourhoods are the real Singapore, so I was keen to explore them.

It was in such a ‘hood where I found Zul Sumuri – one of the bird men of Singapore – sipping his bagged caffeine.

I’d asked my guide where I could find these ornithological enthusiasts. I’d read about them in one of my kid’s books but could find no mention in adult guidebooks. Which is how we ended up driving 20 minutes north of the downtown core to Ang Mo Kio. There are not a lot of tourists in this neighbourhood, but there are a lot of birds – hundreds of caged songbirds hanging from numbered hooks in elaborately carved wooden homes. The noise is deafening but the spectacle is unforgettable. Every Wednesday and Sunday morning, dozens of men bring their birds to this apartment block; some days they hold contests for the longest and loudest birdsong, or the prettiest cage (many are adorned with engraved ivory). “This is my hobby,” says Sumuri, 40. He has two birds here today and six more at home. “It’s just something men have always done.”

The men here are mostly Chinese, as is about 80 per cent of the population. But as I wander over to the kopitiam (coffee shop) to order my own coffee (in a mug), I notice that many more ethnic groups live in the area. The Singapore government, I’m told, has firm rules about keeping the apartment blocks (called housing estates) from filling with families of the same ethnic group. Each building is home to the same number of ethnicities, proportionate to the country’s population: Since 74.2 per cent of the population is Chinese, no more than 74.2 per cent of a building’s apartments can be sold to Chinese families. The remaining vacancies are filled by Malays (13.4 per cent), Indians (9.2 per cent) and Eurasians, Peranakans and others (3.2 per cent). Everyone needs to get along to keep the economy rolling – and prosperity is Singapore’s big trump card in Asia.

The United Nations of faces may feel a lot like home, but in Toronto, under the restraints of work-life routines, I’ve never walked into mosque or a Hindu or Buddhist temple. In Singapore, I am delighted to do all three.

In Kampung Glam, the heart of the Muslim community, I button up a long hooded robe over my shorts and T-shirt and wander through the Sultan Mosque. No one minds if I snap pictures and several elders are happy to answer my questions. Everyone here is welcoming, even at the wedding I seem to have crashed. Family members smile and nod, as I too take pictures of the happy couple.

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