How Singapore Showed Us That Nature And Technology Can Be Friends
Our family’s eye-opening detour through spectacular Singapore
Prajakta Kharkar Nigam
Singapore was not part of our original travel plans. The city has much to offer to tourists but little that fit into the primary theme of our year-long world schooling journey — to seek out wildlife in its natural habitat.
Moreover, the local Peranakan cuisine is delicious but too spicy for our daughters, who were five and three, respectively. Surprisingly though, our family of four enjoyed ourselves on our detour through Singapore to the fullest. Perhaps, because it had been home once.
My husband, Shashank, grew up in Singapore and spent most of his teenage years there. I studied on a scholarship and began my professional career in this city-state too, and went on to make it home for almost a decade. Most importantly, Singapore is where we met for the first time.
Knowing it just too well, we had imagined our stay on this island to be an urban, largely touristy, and commercial experience. We foresaw that we would be spending all our time meeting old friends instead of really exploring. However, after we had travelled for over a month through other parts of Asia, we began to crave some sense of sage.
It seemed wise to make Singapore our urban, safe, clean pit-stop with a support system to rely upon. Subconsciously, we can’t deny that perhaps, we were both unable to shake off the nostalgia once we were so close to where we grew up. So we took a detour through Singapore with the intention of refuelling before heading back to Bali or Chiang Mai for a longer stay.
Perfectly natural, yet created by humans
Singapore is one of the most family-friendly places we visited. It is a very well-planned city that functions like clockwork. Three experiences together made our journey through Singapore fascinating and unexpectedly unique — the spectacularly designed human-made nature and seamless interaction with cutting-edge technology in day-to-day life!
Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden
Our most pleasant discovery was that of the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden. Apparently, it has always existed. Yet despite spending hours in the Botanical Gardens during my college years, neither Shashank nor I had any inkling. As they say, there is a time for everything.
By this time into our journey, we were smitten with children’s museums and nature schooling. Tucked away inside the much larger and spectacular Singapore Botanical Gardens, we found this “secret garden” designed for children in a way that it feels like a natural forest in some areas and a farm in others — a children’s museum in nature.
Our girls enjoyed climbing tropical, low hanging trees with burly branches that easily swayed with their weight. We watched black swans float across ponds and discovered spectacular things about everyday tropical fruits and flowers.
For example, did you know that the flowers of figs are all inside the fruit? Apparently, only tiny fig wasps get to see them. A female wasp goes in through a tiny hole at the bottom of the fig and lays her eggs.
Male fig wasps have no wings. They are born amongst the flowers, and once they have mated with a female, they die inside the developing fruit. The female leaves taking pollen from the flowers to a new fig, where she lays her eggs. If she fails to pollinate the fig flowers, the trees drop those fruits to the ground killing the baby wasps inside! Figs and fig wasps depend on each other for survival. They have been evolving the strange, symbiotic relationship for at least 80 million years.
My girls also discovered that the Roselle juice they so relished in Chiang Mai is made from the Roselle hibiscus, an edible variety. Connecting what they are saw with their own experience drew my daughters in like nothing else.
Charming playgrounds with brightly coloured slides through which you land into enormous sandpits added just the right level of familiarity. It was fascinating how these familiar places for safe play and comfort were nestled between the aerial roots of banyan trees instead of being surrounded by pines and firs.
Day after day, we spent several hours visiting the Singapore Zoo, and the relatively newer River Safari added the icing on top. The River Safari is an immersive experience of the major rivers of the world — the Yangtze, the Ganges, the Nile, the Amazon and the Mississippi.
They have recreated specific environs of each river basin through large forested areas, including flora and fauna native to it. As I watched from a boat, giraffes grazing in the distance and flocks of birds flying overhead in the cool breeze of the river, I could not help but reminisce about the years when we lived in Africa and floated down the Nile. It is difficult to imagine how a city that had no natural endowments, to begin with, could have come so close to artificially replicating nature, almost perfectly.
Technology and the natural world can be friends.
To experience the greatest advances humanity has made in technology, Singapore is the right place. Just a boat ride on the Singapore river in the evening is enough to give you a snapshot of the marvellous architecture, both visionary and technologically sophisticated.
In this city-state, technological innovations are not restricted to military domains or secret laboratories but permeate its citizens' day-to-day lives. It is not uncommon to see robots serving as traffic police, robots carrying and clearing the trash in malls at the end of the day, driverless trains and so on.
About the robots, we met. Our taxi dropped us off right outside Singapore’s newest mega-mall, “Jewel”, at the airport. As soon as we alighted, a little orange and blue coloured little almost like a minion do you know the minion minions in the movie almost like a minion who comes. It turns out it says auxiliary police, and on a screen or instructions coming out or coming dynamically saying that 15 minutes to move your car parking move your car now. We even have a video of my daughters conversing with this robot as if it were a human being.
Interfacing with technology had not been unusual for my kids. Shashank is still a little unhappy about our second daughter picking up “Google” as her second word, thanks to the smart Google assistant that had newly arrived in our home then. Yet, this kind of interaction with a real robot performing a function in society was truly fascinating. It was amazing to see how uninhibited they were and how interested they were in having a conversation with this human-like robot.
They “met" a few of these robot friends during our stay. The robo who collected and rearranged dropped off books at the library, the robo who we saw collecting recycling from all the shops in the mall at the end of the day.
Yes, we were among the last gold to leave! But their favourite robots (and mine too) was a juice vendor that juiced three fresh oranges right before our eyes and presented the juice in a sealed cup to enjoy in the hot tropical weather. And a vending machine that took just five minutes to make a hot and steaming Singapore chilli crab lunch for you. On the spot.
Our detour through Singapore led us to round out our perspective on nature versus technology. Instead of thinking of them as separate, the future will merge the two. Streams and tropical forests seamlessly connect travellers from check-in counters to the duty-free area inside Changi airport. Hotels such as the Park Royal Hotel building has alternate floors with cultivated rainforests and living areas that merge into one another, creating the illusion that the forests are marching onto and into the urban architecture. The Jewel, Singapore’s newest mall, has an indoor forest large enough to lose your way in.
It is automation at its very best concentrated in a relatively small place. And yet, it doesn’t feel like a science and technology museum because there is as much nature to enjoy as robotics and sci-fi-esque architecture! This easy blend of natural world experiences with technological advances is unique to Singapore.
While technologically advanced cities such as Tokyo, Hong Kong and Dubai seem materialistic and mechanical, Singapore has managed to strike the fine balance between these seemingly opposite forces in a way that they no longer feel separate.
Singapore turned out to be a living example of how technology and nature can be blended seamlessly. To me, the city I once called home, felt nothing like the architectural masterpiece it used to be, but better and greener, a decade later. As if the forests had decided to march onto and into futuristic skyscrapers, and colonise them, but fell in love instead.
Nothing can replace the natural bounty, old-growth forests and wonders of the earth. But in places where such an endowment did not exist or is depleted, not all hope is lost. Singapore became that place for us to show our kids how the natural world can harmoniously coexist with technological advances and can be created from scratch even where neither existed before. Good technology is not against the wilderness; they can be friends.
Prajakta Kharkar Nigam
An economist turned writer, Prajakta looks at life as a series of experiments and observes it through the unique lens of being the mother of two young girls. She loves traveling, coaching, and exploring how our intel and consciousness work. Based in Whistler, she is writing a book about unschooling.