The Lion of Singapore
I took a lion to school today. Actually, I was just a tag-along, but he was a lion, alright. What does a lion say? “ROOOAAARRRRR”, he said. It was a good impression. At the advanced age of two, this little boy has lots of animal language down—gorillas, cats, goldfish. He’s the son of my good friends who have invited me into their home in Singapore. His mama has a new bundle to handle—August’s new little brother Arthur---and I’m grateful for the welcome that she and the rest of the family have extended to me in the midst of this growing family unit. It’s yet another gift from my former student and his amazing partner—following the honor of being asked to marry them and then to baptize their newborn lion.
Singapore is an island, and a city-state. The country is actually about the size of New York City, with a population of 5 million. There is clearly lots of money here, and there is clearly no trash. Anywhere. It feels a little like Disneyworld, and I wondered if the country had licensed the Magic Kingdom’s pneumatic system of trash removal. Its cleanliness is mandated by the government, and there are big fines and sometimes much worse if you are an offender. Chewing gum is not sold in Singapore because they do not want the discarded gum on the sidewalks. Have you ever looked down at the sidewalks of New York? Maybe you shouldn’t. You’d be surprised (and maybe disgusted!).
Singapore’s history goes back to the 14th century, but it was really the British who established its modern foundation in the mid-1800’s. It received its full independence only in 1965, and apparently has been on quite the economic roll since the 90’s. As you tour the city, it is hard not to marvel at the new office buildings, gigantic and luxurious retail malls, large-scale public housing, and lush tropical flora everywhere. There are many “ex-pats” (foreign business people and their families) from the US (like my hosts), Britain, and Europe. The natives are a mix of Chinese, Malaysians, native Singaporeans-- Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Taoists and Hindus--and everyone speaks English, which of course makes it easy for me. Oh, and the city is called the Lion City. So it’s appropriate that I began the day with a lion myself!
I have walked almost 25 miles around the city so far, and I’m impressed by the prosperity, the civility, and the safety. My friends have noted that there is little crime here, and they claim that you can leave your laptop alone at a coffee shop for hours and no one will steal it. (I have no intention of testing this out.) Apparently that can be attributed to the sometimes draconian law enforcement. They publicly “lash” people here with bamboo sticks—which by all accounts is very painful, and very humiliating.
I spent much of the day people-watching, and I certainly didn’t feel threatened by anyone, no matter the neighborhoods into which I wandered. Is that what it takes to live in peace with one another? Authoritarian nations are known for their civil order and low crime rates. We’ve heard political rhetoric in our own country ofa 'carnage' of crime, and a restoration of law and order. Would public lashings help? Would humiliation matter enough? Or are the problems of America—poverty, racial injustice, poor educational systems—the real cause of our ‘carnage ‘. I don’t know much of anything about Singapore and its problems, so it is hard for me to fairly compare. Still there is something to be said about a commonly accepted respect for one another and the decent behavior that follows (including properly disposing of your trash!).
I spent the afternoon in the amazing Singapore Botanical Gardens, a sprawling, meticulously manicured park that celebrates the natural world around us, and encourages respect for it. I often spend my free time embedded in the opposite—the canyons and concrete sidewalks of Manhattan—where I seek out the anonymous companionship of my own species. But as I walked the paths of this park, I was deeply taken with its beauty and the wisdom of its ‘citizens’: trees that have lived three times my age, flora that decorate the world with an embarrassment of rich color and fragrant scents, ecosystems that are clearly benefiting the air we all breathe. Visiting the park—which is over 150 years old---tells you something about the people who live here.
My feet were getting hot (and so was I in 90 degree, humid weather), so I stopped into a very shady rainforest area of the park and sat on a bench right in front of a very old and majestic tree. There was a steady stream of park visitors who passed us by: elderly couples holding onto one another, a Muslim woman with a colorful head covering, small groups young men and women who appeared to be college-age, a couple of Buddhist monks. The tree and I took them all in, and during a stretch when there was no one in sight, I ventured to speak to my many-branched companion. “What do you make of all this?,” I asked. “What are we to do?”. I felt I was in the presence of a life that had much to communicate to me, and I was really hoping that maybe I would be gifted with some of the truth that lives underneath everything. And that was when I fell under the spell of Mr. Sandman--my eyes suddenly heavy, my head nodding downwards towards the earth, and probably some 15 or 20 minutes later I awoke to the sound of a group of British tourists passing by. I have no doubt that my questions were answered, but I am hoping that the wisdom I sought will surface at some time in the future.
Meanwhile, I have a young lion to learn from, and you can be sure that a two year old has wisdom to share, whether he knows it or not!