Singapore Adventure

Monday, June 20, 2005

Can You Hear Me Now?
by venitha

They're everywhere you look in Singapore: cellphones. And it doesn't take long for you not only to wish that you had one, too, but also to convince yourself that you need one, too. I don't think it's just subliminal peer pressure. Somehow the big city combined with the mass transit system makes the convenience of a cellphone a necessity.

A refreshing change from cellphone usage in the US is that here in Singapore, cellphones are seen and not heard. Perhaps the coverage is unreliable in elevators and the underground MRT. Perhaps the crowds and noises of the city make it difficult to hear. Perhaps the rate plans encourage it. Whatever the reason, old and young alike tend to prefer text messaging (called SMS, Short Message Service, for short) over talking. It certainly isn't because talking loudly, seemingly to oneself, in public would be considered rude. This is, after all, a country which is in the midst of a several-year-long "courtesy campaign". And it certainly isn't because SMS is a breeze with Chinese characters; just think about it! I'm finding it challenging enough in English.

You must be a legal resident to obtain a cellphone, and then you may have four(!). So once Jim obtained his greencard, Bin Chin took us to SingTel for our assimilation. We were amused by the board displaying the many numbers we could choose from, and Bin Chin informed us that this is big business. People regularly auction off good numbers to the highest bidder, he said, and a quick perusal of the Straits Times want-ads the next day confirmed this. The Chinese are very superstitious, so numbers carry great importance. Also, many people want their different numbers to match in certain ways. Phone numbers are eight digits, land lines starting with 6 and cell lines starting with 8 or 9. How convenient to have the same number for both lines, differing only in the first digit!

We chose numbers one digit apart (8xxx 9264 for me, 8xxx 9265 for Jim) and the free phones (white for me, black for Jim, teeny tiny, and darn cute) that came with our plan and immediately started to play. After a couple minutes of slowly wading through our new cellphones' menus, setting the date and time (Huh? The time? What the heck? This clearly is NOT Kansas, Toto.), programming each other into our address books, and customizing backgrounds and rings, we embarked on our first attempts to SMS. After a frustrating minute, Jim told Bin Chin that we might need lessons. "Not me, la. You need teenager." We laughed. It's great to know that some things are the same the world over.