Forget the Hawker Centre. If you want to observe what some might call Singaporean integration—others inequality—visit Mustafa.
Go at six on a Monday morning to see Mrs Nose Up-in-the-air, striding confidently to the daun kusum aka laksa leaves for her famous home-made laksa for her lunchtime group of tai tais who these days are called investors. If she returned at three on a Sunday afternoon, she might see the Bangladeshi bloke who just tiled her floor trading glances with the Filipino lady who will soon clean it.
In between Mustafa is lit by the rainbows of our time, people from the Himalayas to the far-flung islands of eastern Indonesia, backpackers from Scandinavia to techies from California. You might never know to which station each bedazzled face belongs, for in Mustafa the Rich dress down and the Help dress up.
Mirroring Singapore’s own evolution, Mustafa, in the blink of an eye, went from neighbourhood market to global emporium. There is perhaps no other place on this planet where one can, in under an hour, buy petai, the green Malayan “stinky bean”, Mexican Cholula hot sauce, a sari, a Rolex, and a sixty-inch Samsung TV.
Yet the hour will be manic, as you hustle through narrow aisles, on which star-struck Mustafa virgins dither while drawing the ire of assassins. Shopping at Mustafa is not for the faint of heart nor the sensitive of touch. For those accustomed to neat, orderly Singapore, visiting Mustafa is an arresting experience. To help, one magazine has published a “Survival guide to Mustafa Centre”.
When you enter your bags will be stored, when you walk your movements will be watched, when you pay your shopping bags will be strangled with no-nonsense plastic cable ties, and when you exit your body and bags will be surveyed. Mustafa is so chock full of goodies that it deploys airport-level security. But it is also so unmistakably South Asian. Its dispassionate enforcers always seem less concerned with you than their next chai break.
Global cities have grown to encompass parallel worlds—the crazy rich, the sane poor, the numbed middle—that bob alongside each other yet rarely overlap. Mustafa is that rare vortex that sees them crashing into each other, repeatedly. For a global city to survive, the one who eats only idli must believe that halwa is within reach.
Click to continue reading on Rice Media, where this was first published.
Top image: The Finder Singapore
I wrote this piece a year ago for a SG bicentennial book, “We, the citizens of Singapore”. The book consists of essays written by different Indian Singaporeans, and will be published later this year. Though not for sale, it will be made available in public libraries and other community spaces. Other contributors include social activist Noor Mastura, soprano Janani Sridhar, poet KTM Iqbal and civil servant Aaron Maniam.
I am grateful to the editors for allowing me to publish the story early. We agreed that an upbeat migrant story might be appropriate now.