New York day 1

Saturday, 14 November 2009:

I heard him even as I was looking for my assigned seat. In heavy German accent, he was explaining to the cabin stewards what he’d like them to do – to move other passengers around so that couples in his tour group could sit together. They must have checked in late and many couples were split up.

The stewards said it was a bad idea at that point in time. Let people find their assigned seats first and see what else can be done. In the end, not much, because the flight was almost full. I was one of the few who had a vacant seat next to me, which made me a target.

The German came to me in a cloud of bad breath and asked if I would give up my aisle seat and move to a seat sandwiched between two persons near a window. That way a couple from his group could sit together – my seat and the vacant seat next to mine.

“I asked specifically for an aisle seat, and I checked in early to get one,” I said.

“So, you don’t want to help the couple?” he asked.

“I like this seat,” I said, making myself quite clear. I didn’t think it was necessary to tell him to his face that it was absurd to expect me to help his couple when I neither knew them nor considered having to sit apart such a pitiful thing.

He moved off grumpily.

The middle-aged woman across the aisle smiled at me. “Good for you,” she said encouragingly.

Why is it so important that couples should sit together? It’s more a habit of thought than any great functional value. Lots of women travel independently, sitting alone. So what if a married woman sits alone? I’ve travelled with friends, and if we checked in later than others and got split seats, we take our lumps with it.

Before and after take-off, the German continued to aggravate one passenger after another, suggesting increasingly complex rearrangements. He didn’t get much help from the cabin crew. Nor much success. Most people, I believe, thought like I did:  Respect the seating arrangement that arose from check-in order.

* * * * *

Except for a number of architectural masterpieces, downtown New York’s buildings are mostly drab brick and concrete things. A typical downtown street would have 20 tenement-type buildings to one with some artistic merit.

Yet the streets and shopfronts have a vitality that says: This is a great city. The sheer variety of shops, each differentiated from all others, make for countless points of interest. Here is one selling Moroccan lampshades and only Moroccan lampshades. Another has handmade shoes. A third has antiquarian books. I’m told there’s a cinema that screens only political films; maybe I should check it out. Specialisation means that there is depth in their merchandise. The cheese shop has hundreds of cheese varieties. The shop selling spices and condiments sells anything from almond paste to cinnamon sticks to squid ink, in S, M and L bottle sizes.

This bookshop in Greenwich Village specialises in mystery novels

Even when shops are in the same line, they look and feel different, for the simple reason that they are either owned or branded differently. In Singapore, shopping mall after shopping mall, street after street have similar mixes of just a few brandnames. We have chains gone mad. Even when a shop is independently owned, there is seldom any attempt to establish a unique selling proposition. Instead, it tries to ape an established chain. For example, just look at the mom-and-pop bread shops in our neighbourhoods. They rarely have any products not copied from BreadTalk.

What are the social and cultural conditions that support such an exuberance as New York’s? Immigration? A culture of valuing the experimental, or of valuing individualism? Is there a greater respect for quality, and by quality, I mean not just the robustness or fineness of the products, but the quality of the shopping experience provided. You’re not a self-respecting ice-cream shop unless you have 40 flavours – that kind of attitude.

Is Singapore’s problem one of settling for mediocrity?

8 Responses to “New York day 1”

  1. 1 SN 16 November 2009 at 04:40

    Dear Alex,

    I would like to make two observations.

    I agree with you that the Singaporean psyche is uninventive. It lacks imagination, it lacks soul. But I think a distinction needs to be drawn between a lack of invention and mediocrity.

    Take the Singaporean arts scene for instance. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse our creative talents for giving less than their best. In that, they cannot be said to want to settle for mediocrity. But try as they might, they fall short and fail to hit the heights of invention.

    Secondly, are you suggesting that Singapore should aspire to be like New York, to be a world city? If so, isn’t that a tad too unrealistic?

    We have our limitations, and personally, I think we are holding up well despite the handicaps we face. But a world-class city we will never be, this for a multitude of reasons. Yes, the political situation is one, but I will go so far as to say that even with a democratic political culture, things wouldn’t be that different. So, won’t we save ourselves needless heartaches by aiming more modestly?


    • 2 All Mixed-Up 9 January 2010 at 04:19

      Secondly, are you suggesting that Singapore should aspire to be like New York, to be a world city? If so, isn’t that a tad too unrealistic?

      Don’t deny for a second that “world’s best/first” has always been a key component of Sg’s nation-building rhetoric. Particularly in recent years, politicians have made it clear that making Sg a “NY of the East” is indeed a goal.

      I’m sorry, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. When the Sg govt wanted to justify raising public transportation fares, they said, look at “world cities” like NY and Tokyo and see how our fares are no worse than theirs.

      So does this mean Sg can charge its citizens NY rates without providing NY quality??

      You can’t avoid criticism if you keep saying you’re the best when you’re not. People would probably be less inclined to constantly pointing out Sg’s shortcomings if the govt stopped beating the “Sg is just about perfect” drum and graciously admitted to some of the shortcomings now and then.

  2. 3 Passerby 16 November 2009 at 19:43

    So, won’t we save ourselves needless heartaches by aiming more modestly?

    And in fear of heartaches, we settle for mediocrity as evening dust inevitably settles to the ground…

  3. 4 tj 16 November 2009 at 23:07

    With regards to the point about BreadTalk, I think the problem is more economic rather than social. A typical Singaporean neighbourhood just doesn’t have the purchasing power to support the entrepreneurial costs (which must be recovered through higher profits) of a downtown New York retailer. Case in point, I clearly remember specialty gourmet shops like the ones mentioned in Holland Village, Tanglin etc.

    The other point rings truer however. I don’t buy the argument that politics and social conditioning are not germane to this issue at all. The general creativity-per-capita ratio (if such a thing can be measured) is certainly boosted by favourable conditions: it’s the reason why places New York and Seattle attract the best and brightest in the arts, media etc. from all 50 states.

    I also don’t agree that ‘things wouldn’t be that different’. Look at the disparity between the level of civil discourse online and the mainstream media today. That’s a key indication that there isn’t an aberrant lack of a marketplace of ideas. As Alex said in an earlier article, the censorship of ideas has prolonged echo effects or hysteresis because intellectual capital takes time to (re)accumulate.

    So no to this case of special pleading.

    • 5 SN 17 November 2009 at 04:15

      Hi tj,

      I would happy if you could supply me with a sample of Singaporean blogs in which I can find edifying, thought-provoking reads (such as Alex’s, I would like to add).

      I rely on, and its recommendations leaves me to surmise that “the disparity between the level of civil discourse online and the mainstream media” is one of shrillness and nothing much besides.


  4. 6 KiWeTO 20 November 2009 at 11:24


    NYC attracts some of the best and brightest across the world, who arrive via various legal and quasi-legal means. They are usually then left free to their own devices as long as they don’t break the laws. And often, because of history, they will have support networks already in place to feel like home.

    SG attracts the best and brightest from within its shores, and perhaps, some from our neighbouring countries. Not quite a fair comparison in terms of scale, drawing talent from 3 billion vs 300 million.

    oh, and its one thing to visit a city for a few weeks to feel its ‘newness’ and the sense of novelty. Not that NYC is bad, but rather, remember that your borrowed glasses are tinged green.

    SG just needs its time to evolve. Unfortunately, more time than individual lives may have to see the fruits of evolution.

    Remember, all these ‘enlightened’ western societies also started with tyranny and oppression and rule by might.


  5. 7 tj 20 November 2009 at 23:05

    If you’re referring to formal, credible news blogs in the manner of The Daily Kos, Huffington Post etc. keep in mind that sites such as this are almost wholly self-funded, and run by volunteers rather than an army of donors and crossover journalists. What’s more important is the existence of lucid dissent on a variety of personal blogs which would not seem apparent from the national media. And shrillness, I’m afraid to report, is not confined to our local netizens.

  6. 8 j 21 December 2009 at 19:20

    ha, maybe it was the husband who didn’t want to sit alone!

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