Friday, 15 November 2013

Malacca Malaise

It was a slow day, mainly motoring after a short-lived sail down the Johor Strait from Johor Bahru, the northerly turn up the muddy Malacca Strait was proving to be less enjoyable as the wind was on the nose, if existent at all. After weaving through dozens of anchored cargo vessels and dodging some fish traps and fish nets, we decided to drop anchor at 11pm after the current had changed, and was turning the boat around taking distance off us that was so hard fought. A lightning and thunder storm above us encouraged us to take a quick 5 hour rest before the tide turned again.

We headed off at 4:30am, making for Muar Town the lesser known of the Malacca cities, this one featured two elaborate mosques and importantly our new 15hp outboard motor. Hugh had tirelessly searched for the right 2-stroke outboard in Singapore and Malaysia and had found one at the right price and after speaking with the shop, we were set to pick it up on our way through. Our friends aboard the sailing vessel Atea were kind enough to gift us their hypalon dingy which they did not want anymore as they were upgrading. The dingy was going to be perfect for our needs with a removable hard floor, however the extra weight that it brought also meant that we needed a more gutsy motor than our existing 3.3hp. Our PVC dingy was not surviving the challenges thrown up by the tropical climate and was slowly melting in the sun, losing its glue and generally being less than suitable for our needs (it had been nicknamed by the kids off our friends boat as 'the pool'). So dingy no. 3 (also known as Max - he came pre-named) required a repair job and would enter our lives as our new runabout!

We arrived outside Muar town at 1pm and made the long 3nm dingy ride up the river (impassable by our boat due to the shallow depth at its entry) taking what seemed like an eternity - 45 minutes. We rang the shop that had our outboard and they had a guy in town who would drive us to the store. This was very helpful, as the shop was a 15 minute drive away and there were no taxi's. The town was very tidy and the houses were large and very well presented. It turned out that this was no ordinary place, being the Sultan of Johor's home town and he loved the colour blue - very distinctly painted on most buildings!

The car pulled up at the marine shop and we were shown the outboard by the shop owner - Mrs Sani. It was enormous and we were wondering how we were going to get it back to EJ in our new dingy that still needed its repair job. After much talking, biscuits and water, the deal was made. Hugh was asking Mrs Sani for the name of a nice restaurant in town where we could have dinner. Before we knew it, we were in the car with her and she was taking us to a warung that sold "the best Bakso in Muar" (meatball soup with noodles). We unpacked the motor into the dingy and were escorted to dinner by Mrs Sani and her 10 year old son. It was a great dinner and just what we needed before the long dingy ride back to the boat. Mrs Sani was so kind, after driving us around and then taking us for dinner, what a nice way to buy an outboard! The dingy trip back to EJ was long, but thankfully the wind had died down, so we made it there dry and hoisted the 40kg of motor up onto the boat without too much trouble.

We decided to wait for the favourable tide and slept the night. Expecting to leave at 1am, the tide had not yet turned and the lightning storm was enough encouragement to stay in bed. There was no wind at 4am, so we decided to wait for the northbound tide that afternoon instead. A relaxing morning on the boat and some scones and we were off, sailing this time!

It was 8pm as we sailed past the city of Malacca, meticulously weaving through cargo ships that were coming into port, at anchor and those out in the designated shipping lanes. The wind was still on our nose, but it was blowing up to 15kts which made it quicker going. As the tide turned the wind died out, so we dropped anchor north of Malacca as the lightning lit up the sky overhead.

The alarm boomed at 3am and with wind we were off sailing again. As the morning wore on, the wind picked up pushed by a squall, bringing lightning, thunder and wind. This passed through and we were left with no wind and an opposing tide. The Malacca Strait was turning out to be a tedious affair and we still had 250nm to go to our destination - the Malaysian island of Langkawi.

We made the decision to get more fuel. It was never simple getting fuel and we might not have had enough to get us to Langkawi, and that all depended on the wind. Feeling that there may not be much wind (based on the four previous days) we opted to stop at the Royal Selangor Yacht Club. The club was located down the river past Port Klang - a huge shipping terminal with cargo ships lining the channel. The Club was located in a shallow part of the river which used to be quite remote, though over the last 15 years or so a lot of shipping industry had moved in and the river banks were loaded with warehousing, logistics and fishing trawler boats. The water was filthy, a perpetual tide of rubbish (plastic bags, bottles, styrofoam, wooden pallets and wooden logs) clogged the river, ready to be sucked into the engine water intake or damage the fibreglass if propelled fast enough by the current. We stayed the night to fill with fuel and leave the following day. Thankfully they had a fuel bowser here, the first one we had used since leaving Darwin, as we usually get between 10-20 x 20Lt jerry cans filled with diesel to tediously pour one by one in to the tanks.

48 hours later we made it to the entry channel to the marina where we would be for about a week. The water had cleared up and the brilliant green of the island vegetation contrasted with the aqua water, hopefully a sign of things to come for the picture perfect beaches and water further north. The Malacca Strait is 450nm of challenge, not for the impatient and we were both exhausted after keeping such a vigilant watch out for shipping, fishing obstacles and lightning storms. It was nice to be out of the Strait!


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Sunday, 3 November 2013

Singapore - A Planner's Diary

Singapore is in and of itself, a fascinating western enclave in the middle of developed and developing South East Asia. The history of the place and its growth as a self managed Asian centre pre and post colonially makes it a unique and layered society, worth the closer look.

The striking thing about Singapore is the height and density of the buildings. Singapore is a city, a country and an island. This has forced it to be creative and adaptable with its use of land. They have built up (and HIGH!) outwards (land reclamation) and down (building and using the substratum down to 70m currently). Only citizens of Singapore can buy housing, so that also restricts home ownership to its 5.8 million populous, 85% of which live in the Government run Housing Development Board (HDB) units. This affordable housing construction and management authority commenced work in the 1960s driven by the need to house the booming population in the post-colonial/ WWII era. The highest of which is a 7 building complex reaching 50 storeys in height which has a linking public access bridge at level 26 and roof top park at level 50 which include child care centres, parks, food centres, shops, services and child play areas. In the 1980s the HDB also recognised the importance of mixing different income groups in the developments to create a harmonious social mix, an issue which cities across the world are struggling to retrospectively address in social housing developments.

HDB complexes - Queenstown Singapore
The HDB flats are generally a minimum of 20 storeys high. They are narrow buildings so that the unit has two frontages to sunlight and air flow. While the units are tall and there are many of them located in close proximity, it does not feel dense, you can see the sky, feel the breeze and the buildings use brick and masonry construction so the noise abatement is well managed. The buildings have open level common space on the ground floor which allows wind/ air to move under and around the buildings. While the ground floor area has fixed tables and usable spaces, the different times of the day that I visited the buildings these spaces were not in use. Other active ground floor uses such as child care centres and shops are located in the HDB complexes, enlivening the otherwise desolate spaces. The HDB boasts about its continual refurbishment and upgrade program that they run to spruce up the buildings and also upgrade the infrastructure such as install lifts. The units appear functional and there is not a spot of vandalism or dumped rubbish to be found. An amazing contrast to unit developments in any other city (regardless of social or private housing). 

The social and racial mix of the city also creates an interesting set of challenges that the government had to manage. The island was inhabited by the Malay people, had a long history of being a port for transit by the Chinese, followed later by Indian, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese and finally, the British.

With the mission of securing a trade port for the British, in 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles worked his persuasive powers on the island of Singapore, developing a treaty with the Empire of Johor for protection of the island for British trading exclusivity namely by the East India Company. Decades later his plans for roads, block designs, building layouts and setbacks, footpaths and infrastructure were enacted. Even the 'neat' ethnic districts created to segregate the city are still evident today, though the lines are less formal. Designations were made for Indians, Chinese, colonial (British) and the Malay people. Most significantly for the British though, was the growth of Singapore as one of the world's greatest ports. While the location of such a significant port could have been anywhere toward the south of the Malacca Strait, or even the Indonesian islands of Bintan or Batam, Raffles chose Singapore and it has thrived as an international port ever since. The changing weather systems of the northeast monsoon (wind pattern October - March) to the southwest monsoon (wind pattern April - September) forced 19th century sailing boats to wait in Singapore for the wind system to change, to  continue their sail east or west. This created a convenient location for trading and also re-victualing for further journeys.

1819 Town Plan of Singapore - as per Raffles instructions to his surveyor Lt Jackson
The port city grew from strength to strength and opium was one of the biggest products to be transported through the port. The East India Company is also known as the world's first major drug cartel, producing and distributing opium the world over.

The English language has been used to unite the races on the island city, with 5 or 6 Chinese dialects, Malay, Tamil and Bazaar Malay (Chinese/ Malay mix) being spoken, English was chosen to be the mandatory language in schools. The English language, the English town planning philosophies and adoption of western culture creates an extraordinary place in southeast Asia. That it has retained its western links from the past some 50 years after the British returned ownership of the island to native Singaporeans suggests that the new government thought fondly of their time as a British colony. 

The one thing that Singaporeans can rely on is change. A friend of ours living in Singapore said that he reads the Government proposal about constructing a new road or railway extension and then next day it would have commenced. New MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) railway lines are being extended to the busy western port and upgrade works are constantly being undertaken throughout the city. Common Service Tunnels some 30m wide x 30m high are being included in all construction projects where sewerage, potable water, electricity, telecommunications cabling are collocated for easy maintenance access and economising of space.  The new 'green mark' building classification system is required for all new construction and assessments are undertaken every 3 years after completion for retention of the 'green mark' status of environmental sustainability inclusions (such an energy use, water conservation and waste management). The suburbs are densely packed with HDB and private developments, the streets are tree lined, there are abundant parks and recreation spaces, and shopping malls that service all your needs are at every MRT station. Air conditioned underground interconnected walkways (lined with shops) take you from one place to the next. You barely need to see the light of day or suffer the drenching from the daily monsoonal rains to get your business done.

The Sands - Marina Bay
The 191m high Sands Development - casino, hotel, convention centre, high end retail centre and unit development at Marina Bay is a three building structure with a joining rooftop 'spaceship'. The roof area is a tree filled park/ bar/ viewing platform with infinity pool overlooking the city and is the newest jewel in Singapore's skyline crown. The project was the landmark building on land reclamation work which was commenced in the 1970s. There was public debate about the Sands development, but with a muffled media and closely watched or muted voices of opposition the development went ahead as proposed with little fuss.

So what is the cost for an exemplary public transport system, high level infrastructure provision, network of pedestrian walkways, public housing highly sought after by the Singaporean public and exceptionally clean public domains and waterways?  A densely packed population earning modest and high incomes, close relationships and partnerships with the private sector for construction, maintenance and infrastructure management and the privatisation of essential services. Other income streams come from the famous fines system, where one can be fined for drinking water on the train ($500), chewing gum - $500 (it is not sold in Singapore), jaywalking, or not filling your car with petrol in Singapore before driving over to Malaysia ($500). Not much in Singapore is free, as we found out when we were charged for our serviette with our meal bill.

A fabulous place to visit and probably an interesting place to live. The cleanliness and shininess of the city comes at a price and I fear that that is warmth and high level engagement of the general public in their city and its strategic development. But if you want a train to your door, that is sorted!