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A view from Singapore, the land of gardens

Singapore“We shall be landing at Singapore airport in 20 minutes…” These are the words of our flight captain aboard Emirates airline. “I can’t wait to breathe and feel Singapore air”, I think to myself.
When the plane finally touches down Changi airport, I give a sigh of relief – 12 hours of flight! I am trully jetlagged.
I peep through the plane window as we slowly taxi to a stop. The airport is surely a site to behold. I can’t help but wonder when JKIA will be upgraded to these standards. I grab my hand held bag from the overhead locker and proceed to the immigration.
By the door, the ever smiling Emirates flight attendants thank us for flying Emirates (some PR obviously).

At the immigration desk, the immigration officer stamps my passport as she chats me up inquiring to know why I am visiting. I must say we Kenyans are a lucky lot as we don’t need a visa to enter Singapore.
The prime reason I am here is that I am a fellow attending ICANN 49 meeting.
For those who are not already cognizant of ICANN – it is simply the main Internet governance institution whose responsibility is to manage the core Internet infrastructure, which consists of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, Domain Names, and root servers.
The ICANN meeting draws together fellows from developing countries around the world in order to help broaden and enhance their understanding of the operations of ICANN, the trending topics and issues surrounding the Internet ecosystem.

“Welcome to Singapore and enjoy your stay”, the immigration officer utters smilingly.
I head to the baggage conveyor belt for my suitcase – through the airport glass walls I see the sky train – “will the standard gauge railway train in Kenya ever match this?”I ask myself. Very swift this seems to be.
I catch up with my colleagues from Africa and take a shuttle to our hotel (Swissotel Stamford) to be precise after changing our US$ to Singapore $.

On our way, I enjoy the sceneries as we chat; images of seemingly endless skyscrapers. What a wonderful vista to behold! Typically, I am used to the singly skyscrapers back in Nairobi but in Singapore city, clusters of them dominate the urban skylines.
I ponder upon this captivating survey released a week prior to my arrival here; that Singapore city has surpassed all the cities in the world to become the most expensive city! Well, what do you expect? Development comes with its cost right? The same survey apparently claimed that Nairobi had become the most expensive city in Africa.I still don’t seem to agree with this one though…I still hold to the belief that Luanda (Angola) is the most expensive city in Africa followed probably by Jozi.

For the record Malaysia, China, and Singapore never fail to be mentioned whenever there’s a debate in Kenya about economic growth.
This is because at one time (in the 1970’s), Kenya was at par economically with these Asian tigers. But how we were left lagging behind and wallowing in miasma of underdevelopment is still byzantine. This will probably be a story for another day though.
Anyway, back to how Singapore has risen tremendously to be a towering giant in the field of economy. Under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore was able to experience the “economic miracle” managing to leave Kenya in slumber land. Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party captured parliament in every election from 1968 onwards. This is attributed to the policies masterminded by Hon Sui Sen and other government technocrats who propelled the Singaporean economy to grow by an average of 8.5 per cent from 1966 to 1990, making Singapore one of the undisputed economic “tigers” of Asia. Singapore was significantly transformed from a distribution entrepôt to a manufacturing centre, specializing in skill- and capital-intensive industries and high technology, and a financial centre.

After about 20 minutes drive, we arrive at the hotel and check in. The hotel is close by Marina Bay sands. A scenic ocean view from my balcony.
In the evening my Kenyan colleague and I take a walk around in the quest to find a place where we can buy a decent and affordable meal – we walk for about 20 minutes before getting an open food court at the Clarke quay area-Apparently the cheapest according to our source (Google). Some Indian rice with spice delicacies at 12 $ per plate turns out to be our meal. Later in the evening I come to learn there’s a MCDonald’s just adjacent to our hotel. Here for about 8 $ I would have had a burger king with a can of coke. “How did I miss this?”I don’t complain though as I am already full.

On Sunday morning, we converge for a fellowship meet and greet session.
Come Monday during breakfast, I meet Joao Carlos Caribe, my long time friend from Brazil. For the reader’s benefit, just a recollection of how our friendship kicked off. It dates back in 2011 during the Internet Governance Forum that was held in Nairobi (UN complex, Gigiri).
I got to know him by sheer luck. It was during tea break when I saw his name tag – guessing the name was Brazilian or so I believed, I proceeded to greet him in Portuguese. He was so impressed thinking I was his country mate. He however came to learn I was indeed Kenyan, and was amazed with my interest of the Portuguese language. I taught him a few Swahili words whose etymology is Portuguese. We later shot a video on the importance of Internet Governance – my role being done in Swahili (the video can be found here: http://www.diplointernetgovernance.org/video/are-you-listening?xg_source=activity ).
Last year, Joao and I had the opportunity to meet in Durban, South Africa at the ICANN 48 meeting. However, the odds were against me and I was not able to make it.
He had bought Santos and I the new design of Brazil world cup jerseys then. He managed to send them to Kenya through a friend who happened to be in Durban.
As the adage goes “mountains don’t meet but people do” –here we are connecting again in person with the great award winning Brazilian Internet and human rights activist.
“Meu amigo” as we call each other happens to be my personal mentor as assigned by ICANN fellowship committee.

This Monday is a special one. At the welcome ceremony, Associate Professor. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim (Singapore Minister for Communications and Information ) gives us a keynote speech and I am greatly captivated by these notable quotes…” 84% of Singapore homes have access to broadband, 24% of these use 4G…Students from less privileged families own a laptop with free broadband to boot through the “subsidized laptop initiative”. … “Internet cost is less than 40$ a month….over 700 foreign corporations have invested in Singapore”….Quite enviable isn’t it? If Uhuruto hear of this, they will realize that “being digital” is not just about laptops for class 1 only but rather about the whole nation –their One laptop per Child initiative is dwarfed by this amazing Singapore ICT reality – Not that it is a bad idea. I understand we all must start from somewhere.

As days go by, I get to know how to get about the city on the famous MRT train; the fastest and cheapest way to move about. At 1$, one can travel a distance of 10 kms in just about 3 minutes.
By now I have made quite a significant number of friends from Singaporeans, Indonesians to Malaysians. They seem to be amazed every time I dot my conversations with words from their respective languages. I must say I love learning new languages and I can be a fast learner for that.
One of the evenings during a dinner gala at Marina bay sands, I by chance get to make friends with a model (Miss Singapore runners up). She expresses her strong passion to come to Africa for charitable missions. Well, with me as a focal point, she is in good hands and is as good as in Africa-Kakamega get ready!

As the curtains draw to a close, I seemingly have learnt a bit if not a lot about Singapore –the city of lions otherwise known as the city of fines.
For instance some logical (call them illogical if you so like) but strange things one might need to know:
1. It is against the law and a public caning offense to not flush the toilet after using it. That’s common sense right? But in Singapore you might be get a large fine for that, too, as the police officers randomly check on public checkrooms.
2. Litter and Pay-Big Time. A litter law dating from 1968 is the country’s way of keeping clean. Disregard the law, drop trash on the ground in this Southeast Asian city, and you’ll pay $1,000. On top of that you’ll also be forced to do community forced labor. And if you do it three times, you’ll have to wear a “I am a litter lout” sign. Along the same lines, it looks like Singapore has a law saying that relieving yourself in an elevator is particularly forbidden.
3. Chewing gum sales forbidden. Had some garlic and want to get rid of the bad smell? Well, you may be out of luck if you plan on having some chewing gum to get rid of the scent. Apparently Singapore prohibits the sale of gum after authorities have noticed a prolific amount of chewed gum being stuck in subway stations and on cars. As weird as it may sound, Singapore allows you to actually chew gum. Just make sure you stick it at the trash can, otherwise great fines apply.
4. No hugging without permission. Haven’t seen your loved one for a long time, just make sure you’re not over affectionate when you guys meet in a public space as you could be charged for outraging modesty and end up in jail. If lucky it’s just a fine.
5. No poking adverse comments at religion. If you’re not really into God or you have your own deity to believe in, keep it to yourself as in Singapore it’s a highly serious matter and you can be cited for sedition.
6. Crooks go to jail. Of course they do, it’s common sense, but here’s something weird to think of. Apparently, if you’re introducing a stranger as your good friend, speak well of him and it proves to be false, you’ll be convicted for abetment. Watch out who you endorse!
7. Connecting on unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots means “hacking”. Need just “some” Internet to read mail or reserve some train tickets? Better go to an Internet cafe shop rather than logging in on an unsecured network. In Singapore it’s called hacking and you could end up in jail, or if lucky you’ll be paying a pretty huge fine.
If you think the above sounds crazy? well wait to you read this.

The Singapore Housing Development Board (HDB) has a policy on the maximum number of tenants that can be allowed in each flat.
For instance a 1 and 2 bed room can only have a total number of 4 occupants.
A 3 bed roomed house can only harbor 6 persons while a 4 bedroom and bigger can have up to a maximum of 9 occupants.
This policy is so because the government aims at improving the standards of living through it’s low cost housing project.
The majority of the residential housing developments in Singapore are publicly governed and developed.
About 85% of Singaporeans, or 17 in 20 of the resident population live in such houses. These flats are located in housing estates, which are self-contained satellite towns with schools, supermarkets, clinics, food courts hawker centres, and sports and recreational facilities.
And while we are at it, public housing in Singapore is generally not considered as a sign of poverty or lower standards of living, as compared to public housing in other countries. Although they are cheaper than privately built homes in Singapore, they are also built in a variety of quality and finishes to cater to middle and upper middle income groups.
I might be kidding you right? No!This is not Kenya’s Vision 2030-it’s real! It’s probably Kenya’s vision 3020!
That’s Singapore for you, the “fine” city, with good, and bad.

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6 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Marianne Wamwere / Mar 27 2014 10:42 am

    Greatly enjoyed reading this!Must be breath-taking to visit such amazing places…but all those laws!!

    • bswitaba / Mar 27 2014 1:39 pm

      Thank you Mariana. Talk about policies. But if we follow the law, we are bound to achieve development.

  2. Fabian Mwoshi / Jul 25 2014 8:28 am

    Wow, how come I am reading this today? Great article bro. Vivid, crystal clear description I could actually visualize Marina Hotel, the airport etc. Have you considered writing as a second career? Please do if you haven’t.

  3. Elly / Jul 25 2014 11:24 am

    Awseome, finally got time to read the whole article. I know what I MUST not do in Singapore 🙂

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