Recently, we went on a family trip to Singapore, which turned out to be an interesting experience. As my first foreign trip, the best lesson the trip taught me was that knowing is totally different to seeing and experiencing. I used to be proud for the fact that I know so much about countries that I have never set foot on. However, the travels in Singapore taught me that it cannot be compared to the real experience.
Singapore, meaning Lion City (Singhapura) in Malay, is a small state, and can be described as a city state. Before independence, it was just a fortified port city which served the interests of the British colonial masters. It was briefly a part of the Federation of Malaysia before breaking away in 1965 to become an independent republic. Its economic rise has been phenomenal and it is known as one of four Asian Tigers. Many outsiders, especially in Asia, think of Singapore as ‘paradise’ due to its material wealth.
I consider Singapore a paradise for a totally different reason; its people.Our flight took off in early afternoon on that beautiful day in early January. Due to the time difference, we landed at Changi Airport just after 9.30pm local time. Being a first time traveler, I was initially lost in the airport, overwhelmed by the sheer size of it. Gladly, everywhere we went, there were people to help us, including security personnel, guides at information desks and people at the other counters including money exchangers.
Arriving in Terminal 1, we were instructed to catch the sky train for Terminal 2 to go to the train station so that we could get a train to the city. To my mind, Changi Airport Terminal 1 is bigger than Katunayake Airport Terminal. We did not at that moment know what a sky train was and somehow managed to find it, helped by the people and the directions. One good thing about Changi Airport and Singapore in general was the sheer number of signboards giving directions. You cannot simply get lost! Once we realized this, traveling in Singapore was nothing. But, on that first night, we were too tired and overwhelmed by the sheer size of Changi Airport that we hardly noticed.
We caught the last train, just in time, and the Passenger Service personnel instructed us to pay from where we got down. Once on the train, we were approached by a middle aged man, who offered to help us, obviously noticing that we were lost. He instructed us how we should travel in the train and how we can find where to get down. We got to know that he was a Filipino, working at Changi Airport.
During our short visit in Singapore, we visited a number of places, and everywhere we went we were impressed by the politeness of the people. Anywhere we visited, the staff was all eager to help. All the officials at the Passenger Service booths in the train stations were also all helpful. Another important feature I saw was the availability of maps. Any train station has enough maps of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) grid of Singapore. When someone asks for directions, the officials would take a map and note down the directions in the map itself. I still have the map one official at the Aljuneid MRT station gave me, with directions to the Singapore Zoo.
Another gentleman at a help desk of the Gardens by the Bay pulled out a map of the Gardens and drew all necessary directions and also directed us to the Singapore Flyer from the Gardens. With his help, we managed to reach the Flyer without getting lost. That map is also with me.
One can argue that being polite is part of their job and they get paid for it. But, Singapore is not the only country where people are paid to help visitors. How much a nation tries to mould its people, the culture of politeness and kindness should be built within the people for them to serve their visitors well. As I see it, Singapore has achieved that goal.
My friend Aravinda Karunaratne, who currently resides in Singapore, shared his thoughts on this. “Many people including many Sri Lankans think that it’s a nuisance if someone comes and asks for directions. They should remember that they have a paid job because there are people who need their help. At least they should remember that and be grateful to the people who approach them.”
Also, many Singaporeans helped us on trains and at other places, not because it was their job or they were paid. They got only our gratitude in return. But in doing so, they did themselves and their small country proud. Singapore’s iconic Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said that his country’s greatest asset is “the ability of its people.” The ability to work hard and the ability to impress foreigners have won Singapore many friends. It will continue to do so.