Stumped in Singapore

A couple of days after the final results were called in the recent Indonesian elections; and in the wake of violent protests that had broken out across Jakarta, and led to deaths of innocent civilians, I joined the long queue outside the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore. It was a typical hot and sunny morning in the tropics, the sky cloudless, and a breeze rustling through the palm and banana trees gracing the surrounding residential neighborhood.

For the better part of 8 years, I’ve waited in this line; I’ve handed over my Canadian driver’s license to the kindly man in the security booth, in exchange for a visitor’s pass hanging from a lanyard; I’ve had my documents and photo inspected before sliding them through the opening, and into the hands of the bespectacled Visa clerk sitting behind the thick, bullet-proof (my guess) glass; and I’ve paid for the processing at the opposite counter, exclusively with Sing dollars.

Other than an unexpected and startling new addition to the packet of documents required since last fall (an utterly nonsensical letter, arguably and ironically illegal in substance), I’ve long known the ropes, the norms, the overnight wait, the going rate. I’ve learned when to speak English; when (and whom) to thank in Bahasa.

During these 8 years, my dressing habits have rarely changed. Life in the hot n humid tropics translates into thinly layered clothing – and minimalist footwear. For myself, that means sleeveless tops (or short sleeves), open-toed sandals (most often Birkenstocks or Tevas), and leggings (in my case, for comfort and ease of a quick crouch, or folding over into a downward dog – in a park).

Notwithstanding the forever sign posted on the embassy’s front gate, noting prohibited attire, I’ve seen applicants garbed in a wide array of gear, top to bottom. Whether the offending applicants have slipped by unnoticed, or the guards have turned a blind eye, is irrelevant. The point is, other than a woman showing up in an uber mini-skirt once, years ago, I’ve never seen guards make a fuss.

So, I will never know for sure why I was pulled aside this time; why the guard pointed at my feet and blurted out “straps!” as if I’d violated a cardinal rule; why he insisted that I slip my feet into a filthy pair of oft-worn slippers stored beside his desk, when the posted sign clearly stated that slippers were verboten.

And I will never fully understand why I was called back from the stairs leading up to the waiting room by a second guard, who pointed at my bare shoulders and blurted out “cover up!” when women walked by me – blatantly sleeveless. I rolled my eyes and wrapped my scarf around my offensive upper body.

I was too stunned, flustered and alarmed, to resist. But mostly, too nervous that I might be sent packing if I spoke up – when my need for the visa trumped my need to call out the Strap ‘n Sleeve Nazis.

Perhaps this incomprehensibly extremist policy was enforced because we were still in the midst of Ramadan.

Perhaps the government’s response to my protest, would turn ugly too. What then?

Curiously, when I returned the following Monday afternoon, to retrieve my passport, nobody called me out. I strode past the guards in my strappy Birks, and the same sleeveless top (with the scarf hanging off my bag). Not a peep.

Perhaps, in the interim, Prabowo – The Indo Major Domo – had clamped down on his supporter-protesters, and duly accepted the final election results.

Perhaps, quite simply, the ambassador wasn’t in the house. And all went lax. Good thing. Lax laws have their perks. Among them, not being forced to wear a stranger’s smelly (and otherwise prohibited) slippers.


  1. I experienced the same thing for wearing sandals in the sweltering heat in Singapore and it wasn’t Ramadan.

  2. Great post, Amit! And how frustrating for you. I had a similar experience when we lived in Khartoum, Sudan – clothing for women was often a confusing issue – seemingly arbitrated by the ever-changing whim of others. ~Terri

  3. I totally get this experience. When we were sailing in Indonesia, Malaysia and The Maldives, The Captain didn’t want to take any chances and would make me cover-up and wear closed-toed shoes whenever we checked in or out of the country or extended a visa. He always dons long pants and closed-toed shoes when meeting with officials. Luckily, we’ve never had an incident. I am glad that no fuss was made upon your return.

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