Early in life, I remember hearing about the American teenager, Michael Fay, who was caned in Singapore for vandalism in the 90′s; flesh flayed from his buttocks by a bamboo staff. Prior to that, I remember thinking Singapore was a place in China. At no point in my life did I expect to get arrested there.
To get from Thailand to Vietnam, one must cross a decent portion of Asia. Given my experience with mass transit in Asia, I decided it was best to catch a flight, as my odds of surviving the plane crash were roughly equivalent with those of surviving anything else in Asia. Tiger Airways, a Singapore based company, had a good flight routing through Changi airport near Paya Lebar, Singapore ; a place which is not, it turns out, in China. They layover was long, the better part of 8 hours, but that was going to work out well for me, since I wanted to wander around and get a feel for the place.
As day precludes night, I had to pack my bag before I could get on the plane.
Packing has become “old hat.” I have a packing system for my bag, that allows me to retrieve any item or group of items I may need with relative certainty and alacrity. I know where everything goes, and I know what items need to be transferred to my “checked” baggage as they will not be allowed into the airport.
Once or twice I have forgotten something, true (like when the Atatürk Airport security took my spray deodorant and let me through security with the knife in my bag), but I’ve learned my lesson. I put my pocket knives away in my special bag in my checked bag and got on the plane with no issues. A quick flight filled with the atypically pretty girls so typical on Asian airlines trying to refill my drink and bring me napkins, placed me promptly and safely at Changi Airport in Singapore.
Each new country is cool to me. There is a little magic, kindled from childhood when all was new and bright and sparked the soul with each sunrise, that lifts the feet and heart as I cross each imaginary boundary into new lands. Singapore in-processing was not unusual and was going well until I noticed this giant x-ray scanning machine that was checking all our bags. I watched my bag go through, and a couple guys picked it up and set it aside. I was then called over to, I assumed, collect my bag and take it somewhere.
This was not the case.
The officials asked me to open my pack, and remove some things, and then started looking for my pocket knives. Yes, this was still my “checked” baggage. One of the knives had a pushbutton release on it. They weren’t thrilled about this.
I was escorted to an auxiliary police station nearby and placed in police custody. There was a Canadian guy, whom we’ll call Chuck, being held there also, under similar circumstances. His crime was leaving an empty pistol shell casing from a shooting range in his bag. Yes, empty, as in a useless piece of copper, incapable of hurting anyone unless one managed to swallow it, sideways. Yet, by merit of the fact that it was once in contact with a firearm, Chuck the Canuck was arrested and held in police custody until such time as it could be verified he was not, in fact, some Canadian Terrorist sent to decimate Singapore with an ounce of copper.
Chuck and I spoke back and forth, when we were held in the same area, sometimes being asked to go to another room and talk to someone ro sign some papers. Largely, we were treated like someone who had come in for a job interview: an interview for a caning.
It was hard to shake the idea that I would be detained, miss my flight, then possible punished corporally with a giant rattan stick by a man whose name I didn’t even know, leaving my bottom in somewhat less pristine condition than I had arrived; to steal an American colloquialism, leaving my ass in a sling.
I was called again into a side room with a woman in an unassuming polo shirt bearing some sort of police insignia who bade me sit at the other side of her desk. She spoke to me in the earnest, direct speech of one who is relaying a message that will not be well received, indicating to me that switchblade or pushbutton release knives are illegal in Singapore. That, regardless of the fact I was supposed to continue on to another country, the minute I landed on the ground, I was now an international weapons trafficking offender and under arrest and subject to the laws and punishments of the Republic of Singapore.
Skin whitening is something of a rage in Asia. Walk into any pharmacy anywhere and you will find dozens of bottles claiming to lighten your skin through all manner of chemical methods. The bloodless white pallor of the Asian faces adorning the bottles is disturbing to say the least. It’s not a good look for them.
As I sat, captive, and listened to my “crimes” recounted by the unassuming lady, the blood drained from my face, pooling up somewhere in my shoes along with my courage; I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a good look for me either.
She slid me yet another paper to read and sign, written mostly in English, which stated I understood the charges as they had been read to me. I signed, swallowed hard against the lump in my throat, and waited.
After a long rest, verifying I had signed as indicated, she explained to me that as I was a first offender, being newly introduced to my life of international crime, the great Republic of Singapore was allowing me to go free and suspend any sentence pending further criminal action on my part. She made sure to tell me that “this would go down on my permanent record” and should I decided to visit Singapore again, which they truly hoped I would, I should try not to bring any more illegal items as I was now a criminal and I wouldn’t be treated so lightly for repeat offenses.
All I heard was that I was going to be able to leave with my buttocks un-violated.
I promptly signed several more papers, nodding my affirmations, and exulting in the feeling of blood flow in my face again. Looking at the clock, I noticed that I still had enough time, maybe, to make it to my connecting flight if they let me out of there with my bags; which they did.
Having recanted my villianous deeds and turning over a new, less criminal, leaf in life, I was a free man to play with the childrens crayon table, making myself a souvenier picture, or eat some of the delicious local fare… which looked like the food in most airports in the world.
About 6 hours after touching down on Singapore soil, and an hour or so after being released from police custody, I was marching happily up to the counter to board my connecting flight and leave my checkered Asian past behind me and my undamaged bottom.
The lesson here is simple. Don’t take up a life of crime, kids. It will catch you in the end. Whether in a Turkish prison, or at the end of a bamboo pole; you won’t be sitting pretty.