Sunday, 27 October 2013

KL, JB & Singapore

The final loop of our SE Asia trip has returned us to where we started in August, at the Perak Hotel in Little India, Singapore.

We actually got here without further incidents and at reasonable times of day, mainly because we snubbed any further use of the trains! After a leisurely breakfast at the Orange Peko Hotel in KL (toast, fruit and cornflakes!), a comfortable 4 hour bus ride on a fairly luxurious coach and a taxi to the Zen Zeng Hotel in Johor Bahru, we were ready to hit the town by about 2:30pm.




The State Secritariat Building

Being very close to Deepavali there’s plenty of loud Indian music and flashing lights at the street stalls, which all makes for a pleasant wander around, but my main interest was to see the Istana Palace (now the State Secritariat Building), which is a very grand building standing close to the shoreline of the Johor Strait, separating Malaysia from Singapore Island. Apart from its architectural appeal it was also the place the Japanese commander General Yamashita used as his HQ before the final invasion of Singapore Island in February 1942, its fine tower giving a splendid view over the island and allowing him to make final invasion plans. The building was as grand as we thought, but sadly we were not allowed inside, the guard on the gate telling us we could only look from the outside.

The Indian 'Glass Temple' in JB. The only temple made of glass

The only other building worth seeing is the Royal Museum, a splendid Victorian building, but it’s closed for refurbishment, with the outside covered, so we didn’t bother, but instead visited a small museum in the tiny Chinese road (not even a Quarter!) which plots the history of the Chinese in Johor, which was quite interesting.





Jesus Christ in the Glass Temple

We were faced with a three choices for our trip across the strait into Singapore, the cheapest was the bus at about RM3.5 each, but we have to get off twice with luggage, both at Malaysian emigration and Singapore immigration and wait for another bus. We then get dropped off at a place in the north of the island, whereas the main city is in the SE, so we’d have to get a metro or taxi to the city. The alternative is the train, also about RM3.5 each, both immigration booths are in the JB railway station making that fairly easy, but it terminates at the same north island place. The third option is to take a special Malaysian taxi that goes right into the heart of the city and, as we found out, to within a 10 minute walk of our hotel. He can’t take us to our hotel as he isn’t licensed in Singapore and they have strict regulations of where he can go. The taxi costs RM60 (£12), we don’t have to get out at the two checkpoints and the driver handles everything. Now we’re all for being hardy backpackers, but RM60 (£12) for an easy life vs RM7 (£1.4) on the bus or train, plus a metro, another S$10 (£5) or a taxi (don’t know how much), there didn’t seem to be a decision to be made, so we had an easy entry via taxi and a pleasant walk back to our familiar hotel.

Singapore Island across the strait from JB

We’d forgotten the stark differences between Malaysia and Singapore, but it is quite noticeable on returning. The quiet precision and cleanliness is immediately apparent. I’d read that Singapore is a very affluent city of just over 5 million people, 76% Chinese, where one in six people have a disposable income of over S$1,000,000 (£500,000), not including property. It has the fourth largest financial institution (after London, Hong Kong and New York), the second largest gambling casino market, the world’s largest manufacturer of oil rigs and the third largest refiner of oil products, plus a large ship repair business and one of the busiest ports in the world. Its tax rates are amongst the lowest in the world, attracting large investment in business from USA, Europe and China and it is regarded as being one of the easiest places in the world in which to do business. Its crime rate is negligible, its unemployment rate is less than 2% and its trade balance is always in the black, making it the richest country in this part of the world. Its defence is a major concern due to its location and one in four dollars of government expenditure is on defence. It is a republic with a parliamentary democracy and president, although the same party has been in power since its independence from Malaysia in 1965. On balance it seems a great place to live as long as you work hard, there is no minimum wage and little welfare for those without work, although we saw little begging or sleeping on the streets (maybe, like spitting, they don’t allow it!). It’s an expensive but great, clinical place, you either love it or hate it.

Anyway, after arriving at the Perak Hotel we went out for the rest of the afternoon. There were several WW2 places I wanted to see, but the one we chose was the Old Ford Factory Museum, which was the place where the British surrendered to the Japanese. It’s a way out of the city, to the west and was a Ford car assembly plant, until being taken over by the British in 1941 as part of its war effort. The building is an Art Deco design, but I got no photos as I’d left my phone/camera on charge in the hotel and Jackie wouldn’t let me go back for it! We went on the metro (part underground, part surface railway) and, before Jackie puts a comment in, I chose the longer route round by mistake. It’s possible to go clockwise with two changes, or anti-clockwise with one change. We did the latter, which turned out to be three sides of a square and 1.5 hours on the train! This was then followed by a half hour bus ride, where we found out the bus would take us straight back to our hotel area direct, in half an hour! You can imagine, Jackie said nothing about this at all!

The famous photo of British surrender to the Japanese in the Ford Factory

Finally we arrived at the museum and what a great visit it was. The original table used to sign the surrender document is now in Canberra in Australia, having been given to them by the Ford Motor Company in recognition of the suffering of Australian troops in the war, but they’ve made an exact replica and placed it in the exact position of the original. There’s much speculation about the chairs and whether they were the original chairs, the general feeling is they may well be, but in any case were in the plant at the time.

It was great to be in such an historic place and the museum was lined with many posters depicting the final battles, life under occupation and the aftermath, leading to independence. Rather than just factual, it had many personal accounts of what life was really like and this personal touch was really sobering, making the visit really worthwhile and moving. We were both glad we’d made the visit to such an historic place.

So today is not only our last day in Singapore, but the last day of our year away. Tomorrow we board our plane to fly back to the UK, to catch up with our friends and family. Of course we’re looking forward to seeing them, but we’re going to miss our travelling and adventures and are very sad it’s all coming to an end. We think back to all the things we’ve done and the people we’ve met: John in South Island New Zealand, with his four (now sadly only three) cats, where we housesat over Christmas last year, went back to see with Pauline and then met again in Napier to help him house hunt; Robin and Murray, Jackie’s relatives who looked after us so well on several occasions in Katikati, North Island New Zealand, particularly when I had my little operations; Paul and Cat in Brisbane who took us in for a couple of weeks, taking us camping and climbing; Sharon and Dennis also in Brisbane who took us out for the day; Simon Price, who took us skiing near Melbourne; Bill and Marilyn Lingard in Melbourne who put us up in their house for a week and took us round, plus all the other people we met in the various campsites who made us friends and really enriched our experiences. It’s been a great year and many great experiences and we don’t want it to end! We hope to meet up again in the future, NZ and Australia are both definitely on our list again, so here’s to the next time…..!

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