Faith, Seth, Anne and I decided to be tourists for a day and booked ourselves on the 10am Duck Tour out of Suntec City. We were the only Singaporeans on the amphibious tour. Halfway through the tour, Faith and I soon realised how important tour guides are in communicating Singapore to our visitors.
Duck Tours isn’t your stuffy bureaucratic tour company. It is evident that they set themselves out to be spontaneous and casual - sort of like Virgin America which I mentioned earlier. On their tickets, instead of the normal “Adult” and “Child” tickets, it says “Big Duck” and “Little Duck”. A nice touch, although I sometimes have trouble disassociating the word “duck” from a certain commonplace vulgarity. Yes, yes. Mind in the gutter, I know.
Anyway, back to our tour guide. She was, as expected, full of enthusiasm and like are tour guides are wont to do, filled every silent moment with conversation. Her gig isn’t rehearsed as some are, so it comes across as less mechanical. But here’s the thing: there’s a fine line between natural and awkward, as there is between mechanical and polished.
Her first major gaffe which really hit me upside the head was when she asked all of the visitors where they were from.
“Australia,” said the couple sitting 2 rows in front of us.
“Which part?” she asked.
“Adelaide!” they answered.
“Wow. Everytime I hear the word ‘Adelaide’, I hate it.”
My jaw dropped. It was a real life OMG moment. I couldn’t believe my ears. The silence seemed to last forever.
She then explained how her dad got a job in Adelaide last year, but ended up not signing the contract, so she was “stuck in Singapore”. Though less awkward than her first whammy, slapping the country you’re promoting isn’t exactly the way to go either.
As the tour went on, our guide displayed her tremendous mathematical acuity by boiling everything down into dollars and cents. Everything.
“Here’s the formula-one circuit. The lights cost Singapore 10.1 million dollars.”
“This is the Singapore flyer. For last year’s Valentine’s Day it cost couples a few thousand dollars to book the entire capsule to themselves. Some people may call it romantic, but I call it stupidity (emphasis hers, tonal). You may as well give me the money.”
“This is the grand old dame, Raffles Hotel. There are no normal rooms there, only Presidential suites. They run from $800 to $8000 per night. During the F1 race, it will be 3 times the amount. $27,000 per night. If you have money you can book the room. Give me a call and we can have tea together.”
“This will be Singapore’s first casino. It initially cost $2 billion to build, but now it costs $6 billion…”
Everything in dollars and cents. Faith and I, sitting on opposite sides of the Duck, had given up rolling our eyeballs at each other by then.
The obsession with cost is a distinctly Singaporean problem. Everytime we visit someone’s home, the question will be asked, “How much did it cost?” It is an extremely unbecoming question to most civilised human beings, but in Singapore, money is an identifier.
To the common man, the cost of the house, the car is a badge of our shared suffering. It’s not uncouth to us because the middle and lower class Singaporeans do not use it to distinguish themselves from the pack. After all, public housing in Singapore are all exactly 90m2 in area, are painted in whatever butt-ugly colour is cheapest at that point in time, and have a bomb shelter in the most inconvenient part of the house.
“How much did your house cost?”
“$400,000? Dammit man, life is hard, isn’t it?”
And such goes the Singapore refrain. Our glasses are always half-empty.
Internally, I think it’s time we stopped thinking of ourselves as victims. But externally, I think this is a tune we need not play for foreign ears.