Being There

Taken for a ride

Playing tour guide for a day, writer John Lui dispenses information about Singapore attractions and culture.
Playing tour guide for a day, writer John Lui dispenses information about Singapore attractions and culture.ST PHOTO: LENNE CHAI

A good tour guide can rattle off nuggets, a bad one tries not to spread too much misinformation

It is really tempting to make up facts when guiding people on a tour around Singapore. These tourists have come a long way and you want to give them a holiday to remember.

Which fact would you rather hear: that flat-dwellers hang laundry out of windows because we believe the Merlion comes alive and flies around at night taking underwear in lieu of virgin blood, or that City Hall was built in 1929?

But my mentor for the day, senior resident guide Faridah Fatah, would have none of it. Like a stage mother shoving her kid onto the piano seat to do one more Bach sonata for the nice people, every time I put the microphone down, she would look at me with a frown.

“Tell them about Chinese New Year,” the motherly 53-year-old whispers while the bus is going through Chinatown.

Everyone, I am sure, can hear her. I have to say something now. 

Like a student who has swotted up on the wrong exam questions, I had for the last three days crammed on landmarks, not festivals. 

“It’s 12 days, right? And it’s going to be the Year of the..?” I ask Ms Faridah, eyes wide with panic. I’m the type who hides in bed the whole season and if the coffee shops do not reopen in three days, I starve to death. 

“It’s a 15-day celebration and it’s going to be The Year of the Rabbit,” she hisses back. 

It is a can of cultural worms best left unopened. What if the passengers start asking questions about the Chinese zodiac? Will I have to improvise?

“Rabbit people love pasta and Sudoku, they tend to vote for right-leaning parties,” I might say – but I fear Ms Faridah would launch a flying tackle at me and twist the microphone out of my hands. She is an effusively warm person, but strikes me as someone who brooks no nonsense when it comes to accurate tourist information.

“Er, Rabbit people are calm and, er, polite,” I say to the bus. Ms Faridah stares at me. I hand the mike to her, sit down and hope my seat would eject me through the roof. 

So back and forth it goes. She would speak for a bit, then hand the mike to me. Then she would hiss the exact racial composition of Singapore to me, down to the first decimal place, and I would say it into the microphone. I bet the passengers are wondering if they had stumbled into a particularly inept school storytelling recital by mistake.


A large part of a guide’s duty is to point out where and when to take photographs. ST PHOTO: LENNE CHAI

Later, in a desperate attempt to find something to say in the seemingly long drive from the Sri Mariamman Temple in South Bridge Road to Mount Faber, my eyes glimpse the cable cars. Rummaging in the brain for any old musty chunk of information, I say that one could hop on a cable car from the World Trade Centre. 

Ms Faridah hisses again: “It’s called HarbourFront now.” Oops. Mental note: Everything I know about Singapore is wrong or out of date. My citizenship should be revoked. 

A huge part of a tour guide’s responsibilities is telling people where and when to take pictures. So when the bus is rounding the corner from Cross Street to South Bridge Road, for example, you have to issue periodic alerts about the Sri Mariamman Temple: “You will see it very soon, on your right... very soon... and there it is!” On Mount Faber or at the National Orchid Garden, you will point out nice spots for a photo opportunity.

I am of the generation that thinks there are travellers and then there are tourists. Proper travellers do not take tour buses. 

That kind of snobbery is pretty silly when you think of how much spoonfeeding there is through other means. I think of how many times I used a Lonely Planet to tell me where to have dinner, only to find it packed with a thousand dreadlocked backpackers from Stuttgart, Brisbane and Croydon all clutching the same bible. 

The Tour East bus has 17 passengers, mostly from Australia, with three from China and one from France. They paid $32 each ($16 for the children), the $5 entrance fee to the National Orchid Garden included. Contrary to the stereotype, nearly everyone in my group looks to be well below retirement age. There is a couple from Sydney with two pre-school-age children, for example. 

This is a city tour of about three hours, designed for time-pressed travellers. Beyond a certain point in one’s life, folding and unfolding maps while standing on street corners loses its romance.

With every city tour in any country, there is the inevitable stop at the shopping centre in the middle of nowhere and in this case, it is the Singapore Gems & Metals workshop-showroom, off the less-than-touristy Alexandra Road. 

Ms Faridah, being a full-time salaried guide with Tour East, does not get a commission if tourists buy jewellery there. It is just a stipulated stop for her. She does, however, try very hard to make the stop feel like a tourist attraction by unreeling a short spiel about how it will be a chance for the tour to see “how Singaporeans work”. She reinforces the educational nature of the stop by pointing out how, in Singapore, everyone has to work hard because of the low government assistance for the unemployed. Fair point, I thought, if a little melodramatic. 

At the end of the tour, in Little India, I am feeling quite low. Yes, I have spouted information about City Hall and the Old Supreme Court and know the height of Mount Faber, but in the small human details that make a tour come alive, I am hopeless. Ms Faridah, in contrast, can not only tell you which kind of dendrobium orchid you are looking at, she can also add that it is used in wedding decorations. 

Then one member of the family from China taps me on the shoulder. “What is that?” they ask, pointing at a purple object in a provision shop. 

I know this! I know this!

“A banana flower. It’s eaten in curries,” I say. They nod and cameras are whipped out.  Reputation somewhat salvaged, I walk a little taller. Perhaps I am a true Singaporean after all.