Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Bertha HarianBertha Harian


I am in Singapore

It’s tough trying to think when you are sitting in a coffeeshop on a Saturday morning with shouts of kopi siu tai and kopi pua sio flying over your head. (Why on earth would anyone drink lukewarm black coffee?)

So I gave up thinking. If you really want to know, I was thinking about what to write for pre-National Day Rally. I took to people-watching instead.

There were two gruff-looking men sitting on the next table. Polo tee-shirts that had seen better days, shorts and dark gold/gold coloured watches on the wrist. They seemed to be arguing over nonya bakchang. In Hokkien. (Rice dumpling season over, right? They should be talking about mooncakes…).

An elderly couple and someone who looks to be their daughter were talking about someone else who bought three units…of something. (In Hainanese lah…which I don’t quite understand). What is clear that they were taking the piss out of that buyer of three units of something…Smirks, grimaces and one “ptui’’ on the coffeeshop floor.

A young mother and two daughters were tucking into what looked like a very big breakfast. Individual plates of mixed
vegetable rice, from the “economy’’ stall. (Only 10 am and lunching already?) They were too far away for me to eavesdrop but the mother was clearly upset with the older daughter who can’t be more than 12. A lot of fork-pointing on the mother’s part. (About school work?)

Milo peng! (Who would want to drink iced Milo in the morning? Something like that would wreak havoc on my tummy!)

The screamer was one of two brothers who ran the coffeeshop, always with a grin. He even offered to give me “credit’’ when once, I left my wallet at home. Pai seh, I told him. Ten cents interest, he said. Okay, I replied. I can afford to pay that grand total of $1 for the coffee I owed, a lot cheaper than Starbucks…

But the next time I returned to pay, he had forgotten all about it. He took the money
anyway…Typical Singaporean, I thought.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

Yes, this is Singapore. And Saturday is the best day to watch the people who make up the core of the country. That’s when the working crowd comes out to do their marketing. The men, usually with a newspaper stuck under armpit. The
women, pushing trolleys filled with plastic bags of vegetables and meat. (Do they recycle, I wonder)

Plenty of young couples as well. The scene has changed somewhat from 10 years ago. Young men also throng the stalls, foreign maids have picked up the buying and selling patois and you can tell the new residents who have moved in from the old-timers.

Earlier on at the wet market, I watched bemusedly as an Indian couple found themselves elbowed by middle-aged housewives at the vegetable stall. The trick is to wave those sticks of carrots you are holding in the stallholder’s face, I wanted to say. But then, I was in the queue, or something close to a queue, too.

The stallholder, a woman has run it for more than 10 years, weighed my basket of sayur bayam, Romaine lettuce (yes, wet market also got), siao pai cai, cucumbers, carrots, Chinese cabbage expertly and wrapped them in newspaper. “Serai, two,’’ I told her. One swift turn and the lemon grass was in the big red plastic bag. She also dumped some Chinese parsley, red chillies and chilli padi into the bag. No, I didn’t ask for them. Gratis.

That’s why I like shopping in wet markets. So Singaporean.

I had less luck at another stall when I asked for 20cents worth of tow gay. Nothing less than 30 cents, I was told in Mandarin. I paid up, muttering that I was only cooking for one…(Hah… I thought,no wonder your stall not crowded).

At the coffeeshop, people were content to rest and relax. Never mind that some seemed to have bought cooked food for home. (Goodness, cold already!) Everyone seemed to be enjoying a lazy Saturday. At one table was a three-generation Malay family. A father, his son and two little girls. (Been to Mecca already, I thought looking at the white haired older man who had a white skull cap on. Where’s the daughter-in-law, I wondered).

Two tudung-covered and very well made-up middle-aged women were tearing apart their roti prata at
another table. Next to them, a Chinese man did the same, while trying to read The New Paper.

This is Singapore. We don’t just celebrate different festivals in the same place. (Would our Muslims have made a fuss about Buddhists making use of their prayer room, I wonder). We eat together. Elbow to elbow. Cheek by jowl.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

Across the coffeeshop are the small neighbourhood shops. They’ve “changed hands’’ over the years. From big unit to half a unit to…nothing. A provision shop I’ve patronised for years sold his place to one of those budget store chains a couple of months ago. But I still bump into the provision shop owners; they still live above their old shop.

The four bakeries have changed hands so many times, but they still serve up the same things, $1 sliced white bread, assortment of buns and butter cake. Ubiquitous fare. But they have been experimenting too. For $1.20, I get an egg-covered folded-over bread with tuna or chicken and lettuce on the inside. Enough for an eat-and-run breakfast.

Teh si…neng puay…There he goes again.

Two glass mugs appear…and go directly to a table where…. my neighbours sat. We nodded to each other in acknowledgement. Don’t know who they are but it’s so good to be among familiar faces.

So this is Singapore.

Not the Singapore of skyscrapers and gardens. Not of casinos and cosmopolitan-types. Real flesh-and-blood people in down-to-earth places doing everyday things.

And what about my pre-National Day Rally column? What can I add to the hints already dropped on what the Prime Minister will say tomorrow?

You know, I feel too at peace to really care…

I am in Singapore.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

This piece first appeared on

Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

Further reading