The world is small; the world is big

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blue mansion georgetown
The lobby of our hotel/museum in George Town, Malaysia -- the Blue Mansion

We’ve just returned home from our 25th anniversary vacation to New York, Singapore and Malaysia. The flights — including the ultra-long-distance 17 hour flight from Singapore to Newark — were okay, and there was luck in scheduling and timing. For example, Singapore Airlines uses the gate next door to Porter Airlines; an extreme in contrast). And the Singapore Airlines flight is the only long-haul international flight arriving early in the morning, minimizing the load at customs (and with our Nexus cards, we whizzed through even faster.)

Then we showed up at the Porter check-in counter bright and early, to meet counter attendants eager to please.  “Would you like to go on an earlier flight,” one asked.  “Sure.” And they booked us through to Ottawa allowing us to save two precious hours — which means a lot when you’ve effectively either been awake or sleeping sitting up for 48 hours.

Now that I’ve recovered from the jet lag, did I learn any lessons from the journey?

Here are some observations:

Travel can be profound the first time; it is often superficial when you go again — at least as a tourist.

I’ve been to Singapore once before, as part of what is known in the airline points world as “mileage run” about a decade ago. Then, I gamed the Air Canada’s Aeroplan program to manage my travel (and the company employee trips) but needed to obtain sufficient frequent flier status. The cure: Purchase a cheap economy ticket, purloin a business class upgrade, and travel the longest distance in the shortest time to amass qualifying points. Singapore fit the bill.

In that trip, I wrote a bit about Singapore’s unique economy, some points which I will summarize below. This time around, however, we were tourists, and we did touristy things. Fun. but not too serious.

Malaysia was, to me, more interesting, because of its cultural complexity and in part because it is a country few Jewish people visit and where almost no Jews live. It is quite Muslim, but there are major minority populations and religious observances are not overly rigid; for example, you can openly purchase and consume alcohol in the country.

I have no regrets about the superficial tourist travel experience; but the trip did not change my life, like the epic journeys in Africa when I was much younger.

Regulated and market economies can co-exist and in fact thrive, under the right conditions

The left and right often seem to have diametric views about regulated economies. Singapore has the advantage of its small city-state size and it has managed to combine extreme regulation, with extreme market economy opportunities.

Take automotive ownership and housing for example.

For autos, the country sets a strict quota on the number of cars allowed. You need a “permission to own” certificate before you can purchase a motor vehicle. (There are different categories for commercial and private vehicles, trucks, buses, and motorcycles). The state has determined that no new certificates will be issued except when old ones are retired, when someone either trashes or exports the used vehicle.

The certificate price is determined by auction. The more bidders; the higher the price. Car owners can renew their certificates after 10 years, but have to pay the equivalent rate to the auction price.

This auction system, coupled with whopping huge taxes on imported cars — and Singapore of course does not have a car manufacturing industry — along with congestion taxes, and an efficient and inexpensive public transit system, keep everything running smoothly. If you need a taxi, you can find one (except in occasional rainy downpours), but if you want to save some money or experience local culture, you can take the bus or subway.

Housing operates on a somewhat similar system, with most Singapore residents living in comfortable but not luxurious government-owned high rises, where tenants have long-term occupancy rights and controlled rent/mortgage payments. There is a pure private market, serving the very wealthy and expatriates attracted to the city for its financial centre status, explaining the direct air route between New York and Singapore.

Singapore and Malaysia: A study in contrasts

Singapore, with its level of economic development, could be considered as a First World nation. Malaysia fits into the Second World category. Things are much less developed, and much more chaotic.

We visited George Town, the country’s second biggest city, which combines run-down art deco history with modern industry and innovation. The city virtually was undeveloped after its colonial-era boom ending with the Japanese occupation during World War II. Then, about 15 to 20 years ago, enterprising developers began seeing the potential in its incredible collection of historic structures.

We, for example, stayed in a hotel-museum. the Blue Mansion, originally owned by a Chinese expatriate entrepreneur, who developed his mansion to combine both Chinese and British/Scottish elements — creating a truly eclectic structure. The entrepreneur’s will —  and lack of development opportunities — ensured the building would remain standing, but badly run down — when new owners purchased it with the goal of rehabilitating it while maintaining its heritage status.

Today, it is one of a few “must see” destinations, with three daily tourist tours — but hotel residents can go beyond the tour borders and stay in the really old rooms, fortunately outfitted with modern air conditioning and conveniences.

Prices in George Town are incredibly low, compared to Canada, and Singapore. We enjoyed our final meal in a local restaurant; for me, a simple lunch including a hamburger, cake desert and diet coke. The price: about $7.50 Canadian — but the service and presentation were certainly beyond the level of what you would expect at MacDonald’s (which would have cost more.)

Reflecting Malaysian prices, we contracted for private drivers to take us to and from the airport. One driver revealed to us that there is virtually no unemployment in the country; this is in part because there is no welfare state social safety net — but in part because the country and its industries co-operate to create job opportunities for everyone, including the disabled.

Nevertheless, I decided not to broadcast my Jewish religion; Malaysia is not known for friendly relationships with Israel and the country’s Jewish population is virtually zero.

Conclusions: it’s good to see the world; and it isn’t too hard.

We didn’t skimp, nor did we go overboard; I would say our travels cost us about $2,500 each, including the flights, hotels and meals. WiFi internet access was available virtually everywhere, and I used a roaming data plan with unlimited access for $9.00 per day for the times we were away from hotels and public buildings. I could keep in touch with my business though the time difference (13 hours) added to the complexity.

We had a good vacation.

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