What an underground system tells about a country

Through circumstances, I have ended up being in Singapore for a couple of weeks. Singapore has an underground system, called Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT), which was inevitably going to be used by me. Even if I would not have to go anywhere, I would make something up to be able to use the underground. Because it is fun getting to know how the system works, and being able to navigate the city without the help of taxi drivers. And while doing that, I thought about the system, and how it was different from the others I have seen.

The network of the Singapore underground includes four main lines, and a couple of smaller, local, lines. Every line has a name and a colour, such as North South Line, of which the colour is red. Perfectly self explaning. It can be a bit confusing though, because next to the North South Line, and the East West Line, there is a Northeast Line. A subtle difference, which makes the namegiving not entirely consistent. But let’s not be too precise.

No, what is really interesting are the names of the stations. The names like Orchard, Choa Chu Kang, Sembawang, and Khatib show you that Singapore is a country of many nationalities, and national languages. And precisely that could be an explanation for the following. Next to their names, all stations have a number, based on their position on the line. For example, Orchard is also NS22, the 22nd station on the North South Line. The endpoints of the lines also have an additional number, for example 1 or 2. To me, all these numberings are redundant. I am perfectly fine when I know I have to take the red North South Line, in the direction of Marina Bay, and get off (alight, they say here) at City Hall. But, others may not be fine with this. While almost everyone in Singapore seems to speak English, there could be Chinese, Japanese or Indian who feel as uncomfortable with our character set  (and with each others’!) as most of us feel with theirs. The solution: all of us can read numbers. And that then seems to be a perfect politically correct solution. Except for the fact that the latin character set prevails: I am able to read everything, while some can read only part of it.

Though I was able to come up with a possible explanation for this abundancy in information, it still gets to me as over-organised. Take for example the main interchange station Dhoby Ghaut, where three lines meet. It actually has three station numbers: NS24, NE6 and CL1. Analytically correct? Absolutely. Useful? Don’t think so.

Singapore has four official languages on such a small piece of land which must be a struggle, and many things here seem to be extremely organised. And to get a glance on that, I only had to study Singapore’s underground system.


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