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Cities of contrast

I just got back from Singapore where I spent a day and two nights arranging for my long-term stay visa for Indonesia. I was once again reminded of the differences between Indonesia’s capital and the city state of Singapore. I decided to post this article that I wrote quite a few years ago for a Jakarta paper; nothing much has changed in the intervening years.

Singapore: 90 minutes and a world away
The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Mon, 09/10/2007 3:19 PM
Patrick Guntensperger,
Singapore is the most frequently visited foreign destination for Indonesians. It’s less than a 90-minute flight from Jakarta, a fast ferry ride from Batam, or a quick hop across the strait from Medan. Geography alone would make it a first-choice destination. But Singapore is much more than physically close; in some ways it is as far away from Indonesia as it is possible to get.
Foreign travel for pleasure requires a destination that demonstrates dissimilarities with one’s home; it must have a new ambience, a different atmosphere, and it must offer contrasts with the familiar. If all that can be found in a destination that is an hour or two away, you have found the perfect short holiday destination. Singapore certainly offers all that to Indonesian tourists.

Indonesian residents, citizens as well as expatriates, have a variety of reasons to visit Singapore. Indonesians often have business dealings in the neighboring city-state, and others simply enjoy the change of pace and the shopping opportunities, while many expats use Singapore as the most convenient location for fulfilling visa requirements.
Whatever the reason for traveling there from Indonesia, it is the contrasts between Jakarta and Singapore that stand out in most people’s minds.
The contrasts are evident from the moment one steps off the plane at Changi International Airport.


Being a global transportation hub, Changi is enormous; being Singaporean it is pristine, efficient and user friendly. Even at peak hours and during times of extraordinary usage, a traveler can be processed quickly, courteously and without hassle.I was taken aback, for instance, when at the height of the international World Bank/IMF conference last year, I arrived, found my luggage and cleared customs; all in less than 20 calm and unhurried minutes from plane to taxi. That was at a time when security was at an all-time high alert and the airport usage was at four times normal levels.
Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Jakarta, on the other hand, under the very best of conditions never fails to provide long queues and lengthy delays while you negotiate fees and gratuities with customs officials.
The cities themselves couldn’t be more different. Singapore is clean and clearly has the comfort and convenience of human beings as a main consideration. There are broad sidewalks; pleasantly cool and leafy parks; promenades. There are crosswalks and traffic signals that are actually obeyed; the city is a pleasure for the pedestrian.
Coming from Jakarta where crossing a street is much like an extreme sport except far scarier, a visitor to Singapore could be forgiven for suspecting at first that crosswalks are insidious devices to lure the pedestrian out into the open where one is easier to run over.
Taxis in the two cities are of completely different species. Singaporean taxis are well-kept, well-driven and the meters not only work, but are accurate. The taxi drivers themselves actually know the city well enough to find virtually any destination without having to stop at six or seven warungs to hold meetings and arrive at a consensus as to where to turn. In the event that a driver hasn’t heard of your hotel or restaurant, he will actually tell you so. Then he’ll radio the dispatcher who will quickly give him directions. The driver will then get you there and charge you exactly what’s on the meter without claiming that it’s running slow and that you owe twice what it shows. For a Jakartan this can be extremely disconcerting.
Singapore is well known for being rigid, some even call it oppressive. Stories abound about police with binoculars on rooftops watching for street crime like spitting or littering. Perhaps as a consequence of this reputation, in Singapore simple civic ordinances are respected. There is no garbage on the streets, for example; people use the litter bins that are everywhere.
This contrasts of course with Jakarta, where garbage lies about in piles everywhere, public facilities are always in disrepair and even if one were inclined to dispose of trash appropriately, there is nowhere but the street to discard it.
Singapore: There’s a litter bin…use it!
In Singapore, people are naturally nervous when they are stopped by a police officer. That’s perhaps because there are so many laws, rules and regulations that there’s a good chance you’re violating one at any given moment. In Jakarta, on the other hand, people are nervous when accosted by a police officer because they know that it’s going to cost them money to make him go away.
Jakarta: Cigarette money, please!
Comparing Singapore with Jakarta is like comparing some science-fiction city with Deadwood in the Wild West. Singapore: clean, even sterile, tightly controlled, beautiful, safe. Jakarta: filthy, uncontrolled, beautiful, unpredictable. Two more contrasting places couldn’t be imagined. And yet one is a stone’s throw from the other and available as a day trip or an extended holiday.
Vive la difference!

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