Singapore – visas, clocks and new discoveries

I have travelled quite a lot and have lived in different countries from time to time but have never had to do the dreaded “visa run”. When I worked in the UK, colleagues used to dash over to France for a weekend, buy a dozen bottles of Mouton Cadet, and slide back into the country for another thirty or forty or sixty days. I wonder what Brexit will do with these sorts of expats working in the UK?

In Thailand people frequently dash off to Malaya or Cambodia or Lao to get the necessary stamp in their passports that will allow them to stay in the Kingdom for another month or two.

I had been lucky as all my earlier visits to Thailand were quick INs and OUTs that the Immigration bods thought were fine:

  • OK – here he is again. We’ll let him in, let him spend lots of money on hotels and taxis and meals and massages and taxis then he’ll be gone again.

More recently my Thai employer arranged the Work Permit I needed to prevent me from being hauled in chains and tossed into the Mekong to see where fate (and currents) would take me.

Then came the Non-IMM Retirement Visa: anyone over a certain age and able to prove a monthly income above a certain level, or who could demonstrate that they had lodged a princely sum in a Thai bank at minimal interest, can be granted a retirement visa.

My visa worries were non-existent for about five years – crusty old codger on a legitimate Multiple-re-entry Non-IMM Retirement Visa – and then the rules changed as they often do in Asia. For many years, the Australian Embassy issued Statutory Declarations that “proved” that the retirees had sufficient funds … whether they did or not.

Then they stopped doing so.

Retirees are now required to have that huge chunk of cash on deposit for several months or show a monthly income of at least THB 65,000 which is what I had been doing. Merrily I trotted off to the bank, got various happy documents showing all the funds I had transferred from my country to Thailand in the last six months, and felt very happy:

  • There you are Mr Immigration Man – you can clearly see that my income meets all the rules!

Alas, no.

I scurried back to the bank to ask for a twelve-month statement, plus docs that proved the funds had come in from another country, plus documentation giving my mother’s bra size. Or perhaps I misheard that one.

While the six-monthly statement had been issued by my local bank within a few minutes, it seemed that a twelve-month statement would take over a week to produce as it had to come from Bangkok: so much for modern, computerised banking!

The document had not arrived by V-Day Minus One so I had to choose to risk illegality … or hopping on a plane out of the country. So – Hello Singapore and the Year of the Rat!

Entry to Singapore’s Chinatown in the Year of the Rat

Before getting to one of my favourite places, I had to spend time in airport lounges and airports and watching a revolting man flossing his teeth in public in the Thai Airways lounge as I tried to enjoy a settling G&T. I used to know a school principal who always re-applied her lipstick at the lunch table, but I think that flossing in public is a little more unpleasant.

The coronavirus was starting to make its presence felt at this time, as were the terribly polluted airs of Chiang Mai. Most people had taken to wearing ill-fitting facemasks to protect themselves against the virus and the air-borne pollutants. I chuckled to see a man pull down his mask, light a cigarette, and suck deep lungs-full of smoky air … then replace his facemask. Hmm …

Later, in Singapore, I sneezed on the subway … and several people fled moved into next carriage – Typhoid Mary me, it seemed.

Indian Family on Subway – before I sneezed

I know nothing of the science of packing an aircraft – but I am sure it is more scientific than using ill-fitting facemasks. I was squeezed between three Pakistani men and a tiny Chinese schoolgirl: two men, me, girl, third man. The men conversed as if we were not there and demonstrated their true religious and cultural convictions:

  • Hey brother (to an air steward)! Is this halal?
  • Hey brother! Is this beef or mutton?
  • Hey brother! Give me another Heineken

I discovered – en route to the lavatory – that the rest of the plane was virtually empty and I could have had six or ten seats to myself instead of being squished with the masses as tightly packed as the sequins on an ice skater’s skirt.

Ask a Taxi Driver

The old belief that taxi drivers are the source of all local knowledge does have some truth in it – although I once hopped into a taxi on Sydney’s Circular Quay and asked the driver to take me to the Opera House (on the other side of the quay) and had to tell him where to go.

My Singapore taxi driver told me the perils of living under the iron fist in a lace glove that is apparently worn by the current Prime Minister’s wife. His father (Lee Kwan Yew) did a great job but it seems that the current Senior Minister is but his wife’s puppet. Must run in the family – the wife of Lee Hsien Loong’s brother, Lee Hsien Yang, has just been found guilty of grossly improper professional conduct over the handling of LKY’s Will.

My taxi driver told me of the economic ruin many local businesses are facing because of the coronavirus and the decline in tourism and while I was inclined to agree with him on things Singaporean, I tried to disabuse him of his opinion that there was nothing more to Thailand than smog and riots.

Well … he was half right … or … come to think of it … for a while that DID sum up the Kingdom.

Tick Tock

Many years ago I paid less than a king’s ransom to buy a lovely 1930s German Art Deco chiming mantle clock – wow! A noun preceded by seven adjectives! English really works hard sometimes … but the clock had stopped working at all a year or two ago and the only place I could find that promised to be able to repair it was Cheong Ann Watch Makers in Singapore – another reason for my visit.

A tiny grandfather / father / son establishment tucked away in a side street, the shop was crammed with antique clocks, boxes of spare cogs and wheels and springs and the wonderful man who was going to get my apartment ringing with Westminster chimes once again.

For the princely sum of almost seven hundred Singapore dollars (about US$500) he could dismantle the thing, clean it and make all repairs. He must have seen the moths flying out of my wallet as he went on to say:

  • Or I could just replace the broken spring, clean it up a bit and have you back on the road for S$180.
  • OK – can afford that – let’s go! See you on Monday!

I was then free to potter around Singapore and decided that as far as possible I would do “new” things. Despite this resolution, my first visit was to the Hill Street Police Station – nothing to do with my quasi-illegal status in Thailand.

New and old destinations

Hill Street Police Station

The 1934 building was a cop shop and in 1998 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Until recently it housed art studios and sculpture-filled courtyards and galleries and was a delight to visit. Now, ironically, all those arts have died and disappeared and the place is a government Ministry. Why “ironically”? The artists and the public have been forced out to make room for the new and improved Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

Death of another sort was rather more enjoyable.

Cross country runners at MacRitchie Reservoir

I rather like cemeteries. I would not to live in one – or even be buried in one – but they are fun to visit for the sense of history and society they offer. Bukit Brown Cemetery is a fun place to visit and the three- or four-kilometre walk to get there from the very pretty MacRitchie Reservoir takes you along green and leafy roads, past the tiny Masjid Omar Salmah mosque (the name is almost bigger than the building), a Riding for the Disabled equestrian centre, a lovely dressage arena, a Polo Club, lovely colonial bungalows hidden behind tall walls and iron gates, and unheard-of open forest areas all tucked away within suburban Singapore.

Dressage Arena

Just a chukka away is Bukit Brown with its Paupers’ Graves area (low-lying grounds prone to floods, damp and decay and generally poor fengshui), signposts showing where Oh Sian Guan “and wife” are buried (poor woman had no name or identity), and where royalty, officials and the plain wealthy employed stone guards to ensure their longevity – Golden Boys and Jade Girls, or perhaps a pair of fierce Sikhs or even the very gay Sikhs I saw with eyeliner and bright red lips painted on.

Tomb with Golden Boy and Jade Girl Guardians

I did not see any Sikhs – lipstick or not – on Pulau Ubin (Granite Island), a tiny island NE from the main island of Singapore. To get there just take a long subway ride, an even longer bus ride past a huge prison complex (where I saw large white vans emblazoned with the name “Chefs Behind Bars” – wonder if their specialty is birthday cakes with skeleton keys inside?) and finally to a pier where you wait until twelve people – no more, no fewer – show up and then the little bumboat tootles off on a ten-minute cruise.

Arriving at Pulau Ubin

The island has few cars (no private vehicles at all), electricity only when the generator is fired up, and it is slow and sleepy and like Singapore may have been twenty years ago. There are marvellous walks over Butterfly Hill and along the Sensory Trail where every plant or shrub or tree is nicely labelled and calling out to be rubbed, sniffed or tasted.

I had lunch at Cheong Lian Yuen’s place where the chicken dish tasted pretty good but included assorted mysterious bits of meat, bone and gristle, and something that could have been someone’s amputated left little finger.

Although the garlic ginger chicken in was not particularly memorable, JEWEL is.

The Vortex

While I quite like cemeteries, I hate airports and the thought of an airport being an attraction in its own right is pretty impossible, but the new JEWEL complex at Singapore Terminal 1, opened in 2019, is quite stunning. There is a huge internal waterfall – the HCSB Vortex – cascading down five or six storeys and trapped eventually behind a glass wall at the lowest level much to the delight of children – and passing Australian visitors alike.

Wonderment at the base of the Vortex

The Shisheido Forest is another attraction with huge mature trees and gardens sprawling around the vortex and an electronic metre showing an AQI reading of 0.0% PM25: Ah – fresh air don’t come much fresher! There are shops and restaurants, a giant jumping rope canopy, massive gardens and all this is on top of what has made Changi Airport the world’s most popular airport for many years. It is worth changing the habits of a life time of arriving at an airport in a hurry, quickly tossing bags into the ticket counter and dashing off to the gate and jumping on a panting ‘plane. Get to Changi early – and go to JEWEL.

Three former godowns now a luxury hotel beside the Singapore River

But if you still hate airports than spend time strolling or jogging or cycling along Singapore’s marvellous Riverwalk – about sixteen kilometres of wide paths leading past old godowns (warehouses) converted into luxury hotels, restaurants, bars and if you are lucky, past a cavorting pair of otters playing in the river. Did I mention the bars and restaurants?

Haji Lane street art

Singapore is a marvellously multi-cultural nation with Chinese, Expats from all corners of the world, Indians, Malays, Tamils and all sorts of others living harmoniously together. You can find mosques next to temples and churches next to synagogues, and in Haji Lane you find a delightful mix of fashion boutiques, Middle Eastern cafes, bars and restaurants in old Singaporean shophouses – and some delightful examples of street art and murals. (See above and Featured Image, LEFT)

A courtyard at Raffles

Singapore’s contrasts include tiffin in the garden at the superb Raffles Hotel, a quick flutter at the vast casino – or sleeping rough on concrete footpaths at lunchtime if you are an imported manual labourer.

Lunch time siesta

And my marvellous clock repairman was not able to repair my clock after all. Ah well …

Traditional Chinese Pharmacy

Singapore Casino


Text and photographs © Christopher Hall February 2020.

Gin Restaurant photograph and location map from Internet

Journey December 2019

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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight

  • Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship



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