Singapore and Malaysia

I was in Singapore for 12 days, and Malaysia for a quick weekend SCUBA dive trip. Singapore was the most developed and ‘Westernized’ country I visited. The city/island/country’s infrastructure, technology and economy are advanced and stable, though the politics don’t seem to match ‘Western’ vibe I felt in the city-state. Over 40 years of uncontested rule by People’s Action Party, and leader Lee Kuan Yew, have created a benevolent dictatorship that most Singaporeans feel quite content to live in. And it was hard to argue with, given how efficient and successful the country is.

Next to my friend’s school, the Singapore army has a live-firing area of thick jungle. It was extremely disconcerting standing in a quiet, peaceful educational institution and hearing the thrattle of gunfire from inside the green jungle around the college.

One of the popular pastimes in Singapore: karaoke! I went along expecting to sit in a dingy bar with over-loud speakers and half-drunk patrons staring as we sang from a stage. I was surprised, however, to walk into the karaoke venue: a small, comfortable living room-style room with couches and fake plants. Singaporeans take karakoe seriously, but have a lot of fun doing it with friends in a comfortable setting. After a 5 hour marathon, my voice was raw, but my friend was still crooning. The popular songs were a mix of Chinese pop and American pop. The first clip below is an old classic I found and had my turn at the reverb-soaked microphone. The second and third are what most of the evening sounded like (credit to a Chinese pop singer, phonetically spelled Tsung Chio Yen, and Lady Gaga).

Physical space in Singapore is at a minimum, and many of the country’s adaptations to the lack of space are quite ingenious. However, they also value their ‘green’ space, and have many areas with parks or centers for natural things. One such place was the Jurong Bird Park. Below is a clip from the ‘King of the Skies’ show, a bird of prey exhibition attended by mainly school children and frazzled adults. Note the plastic carcass in the photo.

Here is an unidentified but interesting sounding bird, and passing above it is the monorail train that fuzzed it’s way throughout the whole park every 20 minutes.

The enclosure for the lories held over 1,000 lories, supposedly. I bought a cup of nectar water and had several of the large, striking birds feeding and calling at around 100 decibels two feet from my ear.

Here is a rhinoceros hornbill honking.

Victoria Crowned Pigeons gave me one of my favorite sounds from Singapore. These are the largest pigeons in the world, and have an amazing display where they puff their chests up, make quick drooping bows to the ground and make low whoump-whoump calls. They also look like they taste good.

Another exhibition at the bird park, this one for parrots, displayed Quincy the yellow-headed Amazon parrot and his imitating prowess. The three tracks below have Quincy imitating a telephone, crying, laughing, and even singing.

Cicadas in Singapore sound different than anywhere I’ve been thus far. Instead of the constant shriek of the Thai cicadas, these had shifting pitches and their rhythms seem to rev up to a good speed before pittering out.

This is a frog somewhere in this clump of bushes, name unknown – sound very cool.

While facilities like the bird park provide educational experiences, entertainment and homes for species who may be endangered, it is also an unnatural setting of nature. The sonic experience is no exception. In the clip below, various species of parrots can be heard. However, in their natural habitats, most of them would never be heard at the same time. Heard in the clip below: the double yellow-headed amazon is found in central South America, the yellow-naped amazon is only on the west coast of Central America, the blue-crowned connieur is only in southern South America, the alexandrian parakeet is found in India and south-east Asia, the Indian Rose winged parakeet is in the middle part of Africa and parts of India, and the moustached parakeet is in south-east Asia and Indonesia. Of what value are recordings such as these? They capture the sounds of animals that may not exist in the future. However, their environment and all other sounds around them are completely removed from what they actually sounded like in their original habitat. (Photo is of a cage of Macaws, not parrots, just to confuse the matter more.)

One of the most visibly recognizable birds is the flamingo. But would you recognize it’s sound? This is one example where I don’t feel the animal’s sound matches its looks.

The clip below is at a ‘hawker’ center, one of the many permanent food vendor areas in Singapore. This one is just outside the Esplanade performance venue, which is shaped like a durian fruit (see photo below, the spiky building, and compare with the green fruit in the first picture on this page). The hawker centers were firm social fixtures in Singapore, and were definitely the place to go for Singaporean food.

At the Esplanade, my friend and I saw a performance of the Singapore Chinese Youth Orchestra which turned out to be one the highlights of my trip. The orchestra was laid out in a similar fashion to ‘western’ orchestras, but had a swath of erhus instead of violins and violas, and also had other instruments foreign to my ears. I didn’t record any of the concert, but check this link to their site, or this YouTube link to some cool Chinese orchestra performances.

On  Sunday I attended a church service that was held in both English and Mandarin. During the spoken parts of the service, the English would be translated into Mandarin, but the songs would be sung in both languages at the same time. It was a very different sensation to be in the congregation and hear half the singers singing the old hymn “What if it were today?” in English and the other half sing in Mandarin.

Singapore was designed by an employee of the East India Trading Company, Sir Stamford Raffles, in the 1800’s, and the section is still fairly divided by the cultural differences it originally had. In the area more populated by Malay Singaporeans, we found a shop that sold a few gamelan instruments. My interest was piqued thanks to the Acadia University’s gamelan ensemble, and I asked the young shopkeepers about the instruments there. In response, he pulled his friend into the shop, sat down and played us a song on the ‘sarod’ and ‘vendag’! The clip below is quite long, as I know several people who will find the entire song quite interesting.

Close to the instrument shop, we came across an amazing performance of the Kuda Kepang, a traditional dance of the Malay people, but it also exists in Indonesia as I found out. Young men were ‘riding’ colourful plywood horses and moving about a courtyard doing slow, individual dancing motions. Other young men were walking amongst them and would isolate one horseman and after each prepared himself, he would whip the horseman! (see picture above) The dancer was apparently in a trance (induced by what, I’m not sure) and felt no pain from the stroke, which was not gentle by any means. The horsemen would also rip hunks of coconut husks off the coconut with their teeth, and one even fell to the ground in his trance. There were bowls of cloudy incense around the edges and the horsemen would sweep the smoke over themselves. The entire scene was surrounded by adults and children of mainly Malay heritage quietly watching the display.

As we approached the dance, we could hear the golden sounds of a gamelan. On one side of the dance, a full gamelan was being played at an amazing volume and speed by young children, they looked like they were between 8 and 18. The players would switch instruments as they became tired. The music shifted from blazing choruses at full volume where everyone was sweating, and then it would thin down to simple melodies on one or two instruments. It was not a concert, however: the musicians never stopped playing, there was no applause from the audience or acknowledgment by the players or dancers. The only time the horsemen ever moved together was when the musicians thrust their song into a fast section and the dancers raced around the courtyard in a line, falling to a stop in front of the musicians and shaking their ‘horse’s heads at them. According to my Malay-Singaporean friend, this dance is quite rare and not entirely endorsed by the Muslim community as can have links to shamanism and be considered un-Islamic. It was definitely a powerful experience to watch. Below is a brief clip of the music; if you would like to hear a more extensive clip, please contact me directly at (Brief description of a gamelan: a group of instruments including metal and wooden keyboards hit with mallets, gongs, bowls, and drums. There are various styles of gamelan depending on where they are from, i.e. from Java or Bali.)

Near the dancing was a small mosque and below you can hear a clip of an imram speaking on, or reading from the Koran in bahasa melayu.

In another area closeby, the call to prayer sails over the streets. It is captured in full below and I found it one of the most beautiful sounds in Singapore.

Here is an example of the crosswalk audio signal at the Bukit Batok subway station.

Inside the subway station, the turnstile goes thunk-thund.

The subways were the most quiet form of mass transportation I have ever heard. Many of the stations are sealed from the train until it pulls to a stop, then doors in the barricade slide open in perfect alignment with the subway doors. You can see where the doors open every time in the photo above, marked with yellow lines on the ground. The clip below is of a subway train pulling into the station, the doors open and close, and it pulls away. I am approxiately 2 feet from the doors in the barricade.

Another example of how physical space affects Singapore, and this time the soundscape: low old buildings are constantly being torn down, like those in the first picture above – with air con units everywhere –  and tall new ones built up to make more space. The sights and sounds of cranes, trucks, machines and equipment was common anywhere in the city-state. See the horizon of the skyline in the photo – cranes look like blades of grass. Here is some construction sound.

A bird! Species unknown, and no picture available, but it sounds excellent.

In the Singapore Botanical Gardens, something (I’m positive it was an insect, probably another type of cicada) was making a spine-chingling high frequency screeeench. It actually made the back of my throat hurt to hear it. I call the plants above the ‘banana flower’ and the ‘eyeball tree’.

An excellent day trip in Singapore is to take the cheap ferry to Pulau Ubin, a small island beside Singapore that has been preserved, for the most part, in it’s natural state. There are good trails and roads to explore, and you can rent a dubious bicycle at the ferry jetty. My animal-loving friend and I saw wild hornbills, monkeys, ants that sew leaves together for their houses high in the treetops, bright blue-and-red crabs, a praying mantis, funky spiders, and even a wild boar!! Apparently soldiers in the Singapore army do exercises in the forested areas of the city and refer to female wild boars as “Mary” and males as “Alex”. The ‘Mary’ we saw was the tamest wild boar on the island and hung out around a park warden station. The clip below is of Mary snuffling her way through the underbrush.

Also on Pulau Ubin, the straw-headed bulbul sings.

The common iora sings in the clip below.

In the clip below, a passing park worker explains some of the birds we are hearing (as a plane passes overhead). Besides the bulbul, you can hear a hill mynah, a tailor bird and a flower-petal bird.

One day I took a tour of several farms that are run in the only agricultural section of Singapore, and not even many locals make their way out there. A tour bus picked me up from each farm and brought me to the next one for $3 Sing dollars ($2.30 CAD), and you could walk around the farms for free! The first farm I stopped at was a goat farm, and the sound below is of the goats at milking time, and below is a clip of baby goats. The milking clip has an interesting sound that could easily be mistaken for the goats bleating, but they didn’t make a sound as they were milked. The sound is actually the milking machines as they pump the milk, and the squeaking is the parts attached to the udders.

The next farm was destined to be my favorite – the frog farm!! American bullfrogs are farmed for their juicy legs, which are good when fried with ginger. They made amazing sounds, but they only seemed to make them when they were making romantic advances, or when the romantic advances had been accepted.

One of the common soundscapes in Singapore is in the ‘coffeshops’, which were more like vendor/restaurants open to the street. It almost sounds like it could be any casual streetside eatery in the world.

The only sound clip I have from the two days I spend in Malaysia is below, and it is the testing of the emergency evacuation alarm on the boat I took to Pulau Aur, a small island with a SCUBA diving resort (pictured above). The island and waters were beautiful, and the diving got better with each new tank. Some highlights I wish I could show you were the sea turtles we watched eat breakfast, and the foot-long sea slug. The sonic experience of SCUBA diving is definitely a secondary one for me – just imagine listening to Darth Vader for an hour – and that’s all you hear…

Below are more photos and words of the crazy things I came across in Singapore.

One tradition tracing back to China is when paper items are burned for the dead to use in the afterlife. I saw paper money, clothes, shoes, mini cars, cell phones, recliners, food, cigarettes, tools, jewelry…

Canadian 2 for 1 pizza was very popular!

More giant pieces of fruit – not sure what this one was, maybe a mangosteen. There were so many kinds of fruits and vegetables I had never laid eyes on. I’ll admit I have a tourist’s taste for durian, but the mangosteen became a quick favorite!

The world is truly a backwards place. In most of Asia I was surrounded by pale tourists trying to get a bit of sun and colour before heading home. And it is the fad with most locals in the urban locales I visited to have skin as white as possible, so skin whitening products were all the rage.

“Wet” markets were places frequented by local folk more than tourists and fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, meats and fish were the fare.

This is one instrument neither my wallet nor my luggage could afford, though I was much and sorely tempted. The ‘sheng’ is like an organ, except you blow into the mouthpiece and push the buttons. So it’s a mix between a shisha pipe, an accordian and an organ from the 1400’s.

One restaurant I was lucky enough to visit with my friends was an amazing seafood eatery where you went in the back and chose your meal from the tank. I even saw a tank of frogs, and was sure I recognized one from the frog farm!