Driving into Cultures: Bangkok vs. Singapore

The past week, I’ve had the good fortune to finally experience driving in Bangkok traffic. To many fellow Singaporeans, judging by the face value of the mayhem that is Bangkok traffic, the phrase “good fortune” might be somewhat displaced, and in some parts of Bangkok (the Victory Monument being one dastardly good example, they may be right. But in the study of a country’s culture, much can be learnt through a foreigner’s observations behind the wheel of a car, or even just as a passenger. And this shall be my testament of why I will always love Bangkok more than my own country.

For starters, bumper-to-bumper traffic is not uncommon in either Singaporean and Bangkok roads, but the typical driver in either state would react very differently.

The typical Singaporean (driver or not) simply does not have the patience to deal with expressway stoppages of more than 10 minutes at a go, nor are they able to graciously deal with jammed stretches of road more than 25 minutes in waiting time. Note whenever you hit the CTE before the PIE exits, that 1 in 8 cars will make concerted efforts to cut into and out of lanes in the vain hopes of just being 1-2 car lengths faster than the lane they were originally on.

In Bangkok, jams are a way of life, infused to such a level that it has become a component of the phenomenon that the locals and expatriates have termed “Thai time”, where tardiness is expected, and schedules elasticised by 1/2 to 3 hours depending on traffic conditions, among other, less explainable holdups. This being the case, drivers in Bangkok tend to be a lot calmer when dealing with traffic jams, which explains why garland sellers seem to think walking down the middle of a jammed road knocking on windscreens can be such a lucrative business. (I personally love buying their steamed peanuts while in the car; it’s got a sort of rustic, drive-in theatre kind of feel to bite into nuts while going nowhere fast.)

Another notable note; tailgating and driving within inches of the cars next to you. In Singapore, this is strictly frowned upon, and often seen as an act of aggression. While on a Singapore expressway and some larger main roads, me and my wife will sometimes (but not often) encounter testosterone-driven tailgaters in heavily modded Japanese Frankensteins, indicating we should either go faster (and flout the given speed limit, not to mention our poor Nissan Sunny engine) or get the hell out of the way. My wife loves dealing with these speedsters by doing the exact opposite; slowing down to 80kph and making sure they don’t have an opportunity to overtake us for at least a 2km stretch and thoroughly annoying the young punks.

In Bangkok however, tailgating and the disregard of personal space is a way of life, but not as an act of aggression, but as an act of consideration. For the most part, Thais do maintain lane discipline as a rule, but as the road gets more crowded, space becomes a commodity, but unlike Singaporeans who generally drie closer to prevent others from cutting in front of them, the Thai approach is exactly the opposite. The reason for the squeeze is, surprisingly, for the road users to be able to maximize their advances further on into the traffic, and the creation of new lanes where lanes should not exist propagates that advancement. How would one know this is an act of courtesy and not a maneuver of patience? In Thailand, you can switch lanes even in the tightest squeezes, simply because most of the time, the other cars will give way to you.

The third thing I can say about the comparison of driving cultures is probably the only good thing I can give the state of Singapore traffic (and probably the one thing that makes the most difference in deciding whether to make that leap of faith and deciding to drive in Bangkok). Our transport infrastructure is extremely well defined and well maintained; the LTA has made every effort to make our roads safe, our traffic lights work near 100% of the time, and enforcing road regulations to such a degree that to flout it would be near inconceivable. Hence, expressways will only move at a maximum of 30kph above limit, and most of the daytime, no one will even overstep that boundary. Drunks don’t drive, and if they do, you can almost be sure they won’t drive again. And most accidents are cleared in record time, no matter how severe (save that one time with the overturned private bus on the speed lane of the PIE a few weeks ago). The roads are always clean, the road markings always clear, and most of all, the drivers always obeying the law.

In Bangkok, I wouldn’t go so far as to say traffic infrastructure is sub-standard, but more often than not, traffic signs, lights and road clarity are not something you can take for granted. At times, one does feel the planning of roads to be self-serving (why have the busiest junction run around a monument, and plant all the major bus routes there instead of allowing alternative diversions which can quicken the pace of traffic by leaps and bounds?), or leaving something to be desired (Bangkok City is filled with unmarked, unnamed lanes, certain lanes in te CBD area change direction at certain times of the day, and traffic lights can go on red for up to 5 minutes at a stretch, and then it turns green for 15 seconds before starting it’s 300-second clock again).

For all my studies into the cultures of our neighbours vs. our own, my experience in driving within these 2 states has really impacted my views of each, and am also able to simply define each culture with a formula of inverse relationships; in Singapore, a 1st world government to service 3rd world citizenship, and in Bangkok, a people, attitude and culture deserving of 1st world status, but marred by 3rd world infrastructure.

Such simplification would invariably lead to this all-important question: is a nation’s success to be judged by the efficiency and effectiveness of its government, or by the attitudes and culture of its people, or if both, which should be lent more weight?

2 thoughts on “Driving into Cultures: Bangkok vs. Singapore”

  1. Coincidentally, your observation about Singapore mirrored that of Taiwan dunno-what-ese Li Ao, who also said that Singapore is a first-world country with third-world people where the young female population is fast approaching homogeneity in a fast diversifying society (according to your wife).

    1. As caustic as Li Ao’s remarks were, after reading his post-commentary explanation (which didn’t absolve him much), I can’t say I disagree with him, even after 4 years.

      I’d place him as the Simon Cowell of Chinese Asian political commentators; brutally direct, doesn’t mince his words, but point-blank honest in his opinions nonetheless.

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