The Philippines – March 2012


Cebu Pacific AirGet the party started…


I knew it actually was going to be more fun in the Philippines when I heard Levels by Aviici playing over the tannoy as I boarded my midnight flight to Manila. This was the same airline that sprung to YouTube fame because its cabin crew sometimes perform their pre-flight safety demonstrations to Lady Gaga.



Once we were airborne it was time for the Fun Game. A member of the cabin crew called out a common item carried on the person and the first passenger to raise it above their head won a kitsch gift. By my third Cebu Pacific flight I learned to remove my belt, shoes, passport, wallet etc. in anticipation of the Fun Game but I was never as fast as the Filipinos.



Filipinos are more fun on the ground too and they’re well known for their unconventional names, e.g. Ding Dong, Jazz and Apple. Most people also have a contracted double-barrel name used by their family which may or may not bear some resemblance to their official name, e.g. June June for Rob (?) or Cric Cric for Christian.


PalawanThe last frontier


The Philippines most westerly island chain is firmly on the map for those chasing untouched tropical paradise and it was listed as one of National Geographic’s hot destinations for 2011. However, after visiting Goa and the Andamans I was was a bit jaded with beaches, so I spent more time eating mangoes than sunbathing.



Filipino food is quite simple, similar to Thai food but without coconut milk or oyster sauce. Like everywhere else I’ve been in Eastern Asia, barbecued meat seems to be a staple! The economy must have been liberalised long ago because the Philippines is astonishingly well penetrated by chain restaurant and donut outlets, some home-grown and some international. They are all distinctly Filipino though; you can have rice instead of chips in McDonalds and many restaurants serve ‘Combo Meals’ where you can have a piece of fried chicken, a slice of pizza and some Spaghetti Bolognese rather than choose just one.



Metro Manila


The metropolitan area of Manila comprises 17 boroughs, some of which look like Manhattan and some of which typified my concrete jungle stereotype of a developing world city, replete with flyovers and gridlock. Swanning around Manila’s chic shopping complexes was my first sip from the potentially poisoned chalice of Western ex-pat life. I feel quite optimistic about the future for the Philippines, the gradient of living standards didn’t seem nearly as steep as in India and its people seem to make a conscious choice to enjoy life.



LuzonFollowing in the colonial footsteps…


From Manila I took an overnight coach to the charming town of Vigan, the best-preserved example of Spanish colonial architecture in the Philippines. Much more of the country looked like this up until WW2, when it was heavily bombed by the Japanese due to its links with the USA.


The Philippines was a Spanish colony up until 1898, when the territory passed into American hands for almost fifty years. My last destination was Baguio, a leafy hilltop town that was developed as a summer retreat for American military personnel. Today it’s a prosperous university town thronged by fashionable students. I arrived wearing shorts and flip flops but I noticed so many incredulous glances that I quickly changed into trousers and a jumper. This wasn’t the first time I’d received disapproving looks – one trendy Filipino in Manila had looked me up and down and commented that I mustn’t care about fashion.


Discomfitingly, my ethnicity seemed to be my only redeeming feature, with several people commenting on my eye and hair colour. I’ve been really surprised by how much the legacy of colonialism pervades contemporary Asian societies. In India it taints the rhetoric of the state and in the Philippines I noticed its contribution to the construction of personal identity and aesthetics.


It wasn’t long before I boarded my final Cebu Pacific flight, this time to Osaka in Japan. Still no luck with the Fun Game though…




Singapore – March 2012

Where am I?


A different Asia…


I’ve been using the prevalence of iPhones as a proxy for the economic standing of each country and by this measure Singapore is definitely the wealthiest place I’ve ever been. What’s more, Singaporeans avowedly respect the integrity of any queue. I’d only flown three hours from Chennai but it was so different that I could have flown to the moon.



Everything in Singapore seems to be new and if it isn’t it gleams anyway. True to urban legend, the city is devoid of chewing gum and litter (even though it’s impossible to find a bin when you need one). Its tidiness and efficiency made me wonder why we’re content to settle for lower standards at home – if they can refrain from dropping litter on the street, why can’t Britons? To a visitor, Singapore seems more advanced than the ‘Developed World’ it once aspired to emulate. Rather like when I was in Israel, I wondered how this small nation managed to succeed economically when its neighbours continue to struggle.


Unlike in Nepal, I didn’t feel any guilt at revelling in ‘Western’ pleasures – after all, isn’t that what Singapore’s about? It was invigorating to be somewhere that stays up after 21:30 after two and a half months in India and Nepal.



It is very tempting to bandy about the label Westernised when in Singapore but I’m not sure if this fair. Maybe the lifestyle and attitudes traditionally associated with America and Western Europe (but also displayed in places like Singapore) emerge naturally in any society when the individual is empowered by economic prosperity and education?


What’s the catch?


Several people told me that Singapore is run like a company, autocratically and dispassionately. One resident told me that the country is not to everyone’s tastes – those who flourish there are comfortable with fettered civil liberties.


I went on a guided tour of Singapore Art Museum one evening and the most interesting artwork was definitely an installation called No more tears, Mr Lee, which laments what Singapore has lost in its breakneck economic development. (See page 16 of the linked PDF.)


The next day I was shown around by a young Singaporean lawyer, a clear beneficiary of the city’s astronomical development. He took me to Tiong Bahrur, a gentrifying area where aspects of Old Singapore are still visible; traditional Chinese decorations adorn residential doorways, retail is small-scale and independent and you can dine in unpretentious covered food courts. Communities of older Singaporeans living in 1950’s public housing coexist with an influx of hipsters and their attendant artsy caf├ęs. I thought it was interesting that an area largely overlooked in Singapore’s transformation is being appropriated by the trendy young urbanites it has created.