Friday, 24 January 2014

Singapore: police powers and the Little India riot

I am a 'Law and Order' man. Generally, Singapore's tough laws are fine with me. Want to hang convicted drug traffickers? Be my guest. Wish to cane criminals convicted of vandalism? Carry on. If anything, I find the punishments for certain crimes, e.g. drink driving, too lenient. Nonetheless, I cannot get myself to support the proposal to enhance police powers in Singapore's new 'Special Zone,' i.e. Little India.

The proposal will permit the police to strip search individuals to look for alcohol. Additionally, police officers ranking Sergeant and above may raid any establishment within the Special Zone without a warrant, in case of suspicion that an offence is taking place. Individuals may also be banned from entering the Special Zone for up to 30 days if their presence is deemed detrimental to maintaining order.

Certainly, Singapore's police must have adequate authority to ensure there is no repeat of December 2013's Little India riot. Hence, having a more stringent alcohol licensing regime makes eminent sense. Particularly, as seems likely, alcohol was a contributing factor to the Little India violence.

However, don't the police already have enough powers to control 'miscreants' all over the island? Of course they do. Act in a 'suspicious' manner and see if the police present you with a warrant before carting you off to the nearest police station! Better still, walk around with a can of spray paint near an MRT subway train depot and see how long it takes for the police to 'interview' you? This is not just about a car entering Singapore illegally from Malaysia but preempting a serious act of vandalism!

Surely, Singapore's first riot in decades requires a drastic response from the authorities but I cannot see more policing taking Singapore to a better place. Already, some analysts suggest unskilled and semi-skilled foreign labor (as opposed to foreign talent) felt persecuted and intimidated by police measures in place prior to the December 2013 riot.

The answer lies in taking a more balanced approach. For example, by providing greater recreational facilities and outlets for Singapore's hordes of semi-skilled workers, while at the same time ensuring wrong doers are dealt with harshly (under existing laws). Needless to say, unless Singapore stops functioning, the thousands of foreign laborers on our island are not going anywhere. (Do we have any locals prepared to act as sanitation workers?)  

Giving the police a freer hand to stop, question, strip search and detain individuals – foreign or local – creates a dangerous precedent which can only lead Singapore down a slippery slope ... particularly when it will inevitably result in racial profiling of persons belonging to non-majority races (Caucasians exempted?). How long before individuals from minority backgrounds (like me) are asked to justify their presence in 'Special Zones' around Singapore?

Singapore is ahead of its time in many aspects of urban organization. I hope Orwellian style '1984' policing does not become one of these areas.
Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide. Please contact Imran if you wish to arrange personalized tours of Singapore, including walking tours of historic districts such as Little India, Chinatown and Kampong Glam. Imran can be reached at or +65 9786 7210. 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Singapore’s historic Botanic Gardens: UNESCO Heritage site in waiting?

Botanic gardens are not in short supply. Many cities around the world lay claim to having beautiful gardens and parks. However, there is no doubt Singapore's Botanic Gardens competes well with the best parks from around the world.

Singapore's Botanic Gardens (SBG) has a history few competitors can boast.

The gardens have been in the present location since 1859, over 150 years. During this century and a half the SBG has developed the National Orchid Garden – a wonderful collection of one of the most beautiful plants in the world: the orchid.

The Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid, Singapore National Flower since 1981
Certainly, it is fitting for Singapore to host a collection of over 1,000 species and 2,000 hybrids given that the city-state's national flower is the Vanda 'Miss Joaquim' orchid. Additionally, Robert Holttum, Director of the SBG from 1925-49, was instrumental in technological advancements related to orchid breeding and 'hybridization.' (Hybridization is the process of crossing different orchid species to come up with a new 'combination' hybrid orchid.) To date, the SBG has registered more than 400 types of hybrid orchids in the international orchid register.

Other than orchids, the SBG contributed strongly to the development of the region's rubber industry. It was 'Rubber Ridley,' the SBG's first Director (1888-1911), who perfected a tapping method to harvest commercial quantities of latex without harming or killing rubber trees. 'Mad Ridley's' obsessive promotion of the rubber crop was one critical factor in the establishment of Malaya's rubber industry, a major source of wealth for Singapore and the region in the 1900s.

The gardens are also home to one of Singapore's best kept secrets: the Rain Forest. A six hectare patch of rain forest can be found smack-bang in the center of Singapore, a city better known as an urban concrete jungle. The SBG's rain forest retains the original vegetation which once covered most of Singapore – and made the island a prime playground for tigers!

A view of the Saraca Stream inside Singapore's Botanic Gardens
Though the Singapore Botanic Gardens continues to play a major role in research of the region's botany, it is the serene beauty of the landscaped gardens which charms the average visitor. Whether it is the Ginger Garden, the Healing Garden, the Evolution Garden, the many Heritage Trees or the public art spread out across the 74 hectares of green space, Singapore's Botanic Gardens is Singapore's nominee as a UNESCO Heritage site for good reason.
Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide. Please contact Imran if you wish to arrange personalized tours of Singapore, including 'Green Tours' encompassing the Botanic Gardens, Gardens by the Bay and Marina Barrage at or +65 9786 7210. Imran also leads walking tours around the city, e.g. Singapore's Civic District Heritage Trail and Orchard Arts Trail. 

Monday, 6 January 2014

Nutmeg and mace: the art of history in Singapore

Not only is the history of Singapore adorned with images of nutmeg but so is modern Singapore.

Historically, nutmeg trees were the source of two important elements of the region's spice trade. More recently, Singaporean artists, perhaps in search of a national identity, have found a willing subject in nutmeg. Nutmeg sculptures can be found along Singapore's famous shopping belt, Orchard Road, most notably outside Ion Orchard shopping mall.

An inside view of a nutmeg fruit with mace visible
After all, the unassuming nutmeg fruit altered Singapore's history! It was one of the spices which led European colonialists to sail East, ultimately leading to Raffles landing in Singapore in 1819. Nutmeg fell into the second category of a colonizer's 'Three G' schedule of motivations, i.e. gold. (Nope, 'Three G' is not the latest wireless network for smart phones but actually represents the reason most colonial adventurers risked their lives sailing towards far off lands, in search of God, Gold and Glory!)

Nutmeg was a particularly important plant because of the multiple uses derived from the fruit, nut and seeds. In medieval Europe, the spice was used as a preserving and flavoring agent for food. In the sixteenth century, some even believed the spice could ward off the Black Death (bubonic plague). Medicinally, nutmeg oil is used for treating joint pain as it has a sedative effect. Additionally, the oil is used to treat stomach disorders.

Today nutmeg oil is frequently used as an ingredient in toothpastes (as an antiseptic which also helps remove bad breath), perfumes and the food industry (including possibly as an ingredient in the top-secret Coca Cola formula!).

However, for contemporary Singaporeans, the nutmeg is more of an artistic curiosity than a historical subject. The nutmeg features prominently in the work of local sculptor Kumari Nahappan. Her two ton installation 'Nutmeg and Mace' on Orchard Road serves as a reminder of the area's history replete with nutmeg plantations. Further along, at Orchard Central one finds the 'Nutmeg Grove' sculpture by Italian born Michele Righetti.

The golden age of spices may have ended centuries ago but Singaporeans cannot escape the humble nutmeg, especially around Orchard Road. Nutmeg art provides a window into an important part of the city's history.
Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide. Please contact Imran if you wish to arrange personalized tours of Singapore, including walking tours such as the Orchard Arts Trail or Singapore's Civic District Heritage Trail, at or +65 9786 7210. 

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Singapore’s Muslim Saint: Habib Noh and the Haji Salleh Mosque

Singapore's religious traditions are varied. This does not mean simply a cohabitation of various major faiths such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Taoism. The diversity extends to include many strands within each religion.

So it is with Islam and Habib Noh, a Singaporean Muslim saint.

A view of Habib Noh's shrine which sits atop Mount Palmer, Singapore
Noh (1788-1866) came to Singapore around 1819 as a young man. The exact year is unknown. Noh's family, originally from Yemen, claimed descent from Islam's Prophet Mohammad. Moreover, Noh's father worked for the welfare of homeless people in Penang, Malaysia and remains a revered figure there.

In Singapore, Noh frequently sat for long hours in prayer and meditation atop Mount Palmer. Mount Palmer is located on the edges of modern Singapore's business district. Nonetheless, it was Noh's acts of kindness which captured the affections of his contemporaries. Noh was particularly recognized for his compassion towards children, particularly orphans.

Throw in 'miracles' and the Habib Noh tale is complete. Stories abound of Noh's miraculous spiritual abilities, such as curing sick babies and children. Additionally, he is believed to have 'pre-empted' adversities for many people through his ability to foretell dire events.  

Following Noh's death in July 1866, he was buried atop Mount Palmer. Noh's grave sits in a shrine atop a flight of 49 steps. In 1890, Noh's shrine was renovated by a descendant of the prominent Singaporean Muslim family, the Alsagoff's. In 1987, the shrine was refurbished and found its present structure.

A report on Habib Noh's death from the Singapore Free Press dated August 2, 1866
Next to Noh's keramat (shrine) stands the Haji Muhammad Salleh Mosque. The Salleh mosque is named after the Batavian (present day Jakarta, Indonesia) merchant and close friend who established the original prayer area where the mosque is now located. The prayer area was converted into a mosque in 1903. 

Noh embodies the purity of religious spirit. Thus, it is not surprising that almost 200 years after Noh arrived in Singapore, the holy man watches and protects Singapore and its residents from his shrine on Mount Palmer.

To learn more about Sufi Islam, please watch, 'Lifting the Veil: Sufi Mysticism Beyond Rumi' a presentation delivered by Imran Ahmed at the Esplanade, Singapore.

Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide. If you wish to arrange any personalized tours in Singapore, including of the Habib Noh shrine and / or other religious heritage sites, please contact Imran at