As I sat in the food court of my old neighbourhood, the glass sliding doors of the ExtraFoods to my left, the 5 minute walk to my old apartment to my right, surrounded by my trade mission colleagues and new friends, I felt at home. I was honoured that these people, most of whom I had known for less than 2 weeks, trusted me enough to follow me 25 minutes from our hotel, into a foreign city, and out into a suburb, all based on my solemn assurance that this was the best authentic Singaporean food I had found during my four months in Singapore as an exchange student.
On the way to the restaurant, I had purchased us all cards for Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit (MRT): a system which rivals that of Hong Kong. A 10 minute walk into the Little India MRT station (closest to where we were staying), and a 15 minute train ride, and we had arrived.
Assembled on the table in front of us were my favourite foods, and I have yet to find their equals in taste, and certainly in price, in my hometown of Vancouver. We had (5 bowls of) Laksa: this might be my favourite thing in the known universe; it's a spicy seafood soup with coconut milk as the base. Fried Kway Teow, Goreng Mee, Carrot Cake (does not contain carrots), and a Korean claypot rice dish with chicken cubes and chilis. Later, we went for Durian McFlurries at a nearby McDonalds. Each of these dishes cost no more than $7 SGD, which is the equivalent of about $5.75 CAD. It's not uncommon to have a moderately lavish meal in Singapore for under $10 CAD. I used to regularly buy bowls of Laksa for $3, which was enough of a meal to sustain my 6'3'' frame. I can't think of a country I have visited with a stronger food culture. The only complaint I have is that it is remarkably difficult to find a good salad, and when I lived here I had to resort to making my own. Making your own food is a terribly un-Singaporean thing to do.
It used to be that all the food we enjoyed that evening would have been sold from stalls on the side of the street, called “hawker” stalls. Since Singapore has been industrialized, these stands have been moved indoors into “Hawker Centers,” which are most easily described in North American terms as foodcourts. Peculiar to this particular area is a a shopping mall which neighbors our food court. It contains another grocery store (the same brand), and a second food court.
The neighborhood in which we ate, called Hougang, is very similar to many other communities in Singapore. We sat surrounded by rings of government constructed and owned subsidized condominiums. Within this neighbourhood are several shopping centres, community centres, grocery stores, and bus stops. At it's centre is the Hougang MRT station, as well as the Hougang bus terminal.
Both the planned nature of the Singaporean neighbourhoods, and the way their hawker culture has been brought indoors, provide elucidating examples of how Singapore has fuelled its massive growth. Singapore is technically a democrary, true, but it's middle class is small which means that the average Singaporean is not very involved in the country's politics. Lee Kuan Yew has been left as a de facto dictator for most of the country's history, and by most accounts has done an excellent job. Despite having a population which might not be ready to be thrust into the world-wide capitalist system, Singapore is of growing importance on the world stage, and is rapidly creating the infrastructure necessary to fuel that growth. The message to its citizens appears to be "ready or not, here we come."
by Brandon Hastings, BBA, JD, Junior Team Canada Ambassador