Rowena Michaels, The Daily Telegraph, September 5, 2014
To get the low-down on daily life in any country, and a snapshot of its culture, they always say to talk to the man on the street.
Well, in Singapore that might not get you very far. People going about their daily business are, in general, friendly but don’t linger to chew the fat. The roads and pavements positively radiate with tropical heat after about 9am, which probably has something to do with it. Although the bustle of the food market starts earlier, when it’s cooler, the truth is that people here just aren’t big on small talk.
Hop in to a taxi though and everything changes. The taxi ‘uncles’ as they are called (uncle being an affectionate and respectful term awarded to someone once they reach a certain age) will tell you all you need to know … and more.
The older drivers tend to be the most chatty, sometimes driving a taxi due to losing their job relatively late on in life. Others are retirees who want to do something to occupy their time.
Politics is one of their favourite topics to get started with. As a guest in a country I love living in, I am quite sure this is not a subject to be drawn on – and I never am. However, I find it fascinating to hear someone else’s, often passionate, opinion. I may have many local friends but no one I know discusses politics – at least not with me.
Such is the reputation of bona fide taxi uncles – who often speak freely and may encourage you to do likewise – that there have been rumours of plain clothed policemen driving taxis in order to hear people’s undiluted views on Singapore. It’s actually rather a good idea if you want to canvas opinions of constituents on the QT; perhaps more governments should be doing this – although, of course, the sheer size of most other counties makes it impossible.
For some reason, people relax once safely inside the
air-conditioned comfort of a taxi and it lends itself to being the venue for candid discussions of all sorts, whether between passengers or between driver and customer.
The most remarkable story I have heard by far, was my English friend Clare Pannell’s abrupt introduction to Chinese beliefs and superstitions, which came about in the back of a taxi.
Clare, nine months pregnant and feeling contractions, hailed a cab to take her to hospital. She gave birth just as it pulled into the car park and the new arrival shot out across the seat of the brand new taxi she was sitting (now lying) in.
The taxi driver was beside himself. Not with rage, as you might imagine, but with joy at the good luck a birth in his new taxi would bring him. He and Clare exchanged numbers and he visited her in hospital, bringing his entire family with him.
He is also a regular visitor to her home and introduced her to the concept of Chinese confinement that is a big tradition in Singapore, involving many things but based around the importance of the new mother confining herself at home for the first month. He was only prepared to pay her a home visit after this one month was up. Any earlier, he explained, was considered intrusive on the basis that he is not a close friend or relative. The icing on the cake? Baby Pannell’s name is Charles – the same as the taxi uncle’s.
Food is another much loved taxi topic and unites Singaporeans like nothing else. A taxi uncle will, more often than not, have a strong opinion as to where the best laksa/chicken rice/kway teow (delete as appropriate) is to be had.
I follow their culinary advice and local food recommendations to the letter; after all, they travel the length and breadth of the island daily, making them indispensable hawker guides, especially for the outlying ulu (Malay for wilderness) areas you might otherwise never visit.
Durian is a stinky, spiky local fruit, the best of which come from Malaysia. I am actually rather a fan but their pungent odour means that taking them in a car or on public transport is a no-no. They are about the only thing, apart from smoking, that is banned inside taxis, often reinforced by a sticker.
However, there has been a spate of new – very much unofficial – taxi stickers that have recently caught my eye such as one I spotted recently which said “no farting”. Such stickers reflect these uncles’ sense of humour.
The bus may be cheaper, but the taxi promises a cultural ride, peppered with genuine local insight into life in Singapore.
Rowena Michaels is a freelance writer who has lived in Singapore for five years. Follow her on Twitter @ChangmohGirl .
This article was from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.