This month I flew to Singapore once again. On a regular flight like this, you get to know the route pretty well. One’s routine on the flight is fixed in order to pass away the 12 or 13 hours at 39,000 feet as quickly as possible. Keeping a weather eye on the in-flight map display is just a part of that routine.
This time, it struck me forcibly that the route across these countries on the way down to the Far East represented a snapshot of the challenges and problems that face us all as members of the human race:
Europe = almost entirely secularised and experiencing massive economic turmoil.
Iran and Afghanistan = convulsed by war and civil unrest, impact of repressive regimes.
India = hugely complex, terrible poverty, rising wealth, frequent floods and earthquakes.
Malaysia and Indonesia = emerging Islamic powers.
This is a truly a big and complicated world, often hard to fully comprehend. I recognise that in being both British and Western in outlook, I bring a set of prejudices and preconceptions to my interpretation of the issues facing this planet which may or may not be right, depending on your own viewpoint. Culture clash is quite clearly inevitable!
There is a massive battle of ideas going on everywhere – Secularism versus Atheism versus Christianity versus Islam versus Hinduism versus Buddhism.
In this confusing context of the soup of competing big ideas; what is Truth? Who do you listen to and whom can you trust? For me – and without wishing to be hopelessly simplistic – it only makes sense by my belief in God, a trust in Christ and dependence on the teachings found in God’s word, the Bible. Don’t interpret that statement to equate to holding solely to an Evangelical Christian position. Faith is so much bigger than any one interpretation.
Psalm 24: ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in It, the World and all who live in it’.
Back in February, I went to bed early whilst on a business trip to Singapore. In so doing, I missed the Grand Opening Night of the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort, hearing about it the next day en route for the airport. The climax of the opening was the ‘Wonder Full Show’ billed as ‘the largest light and water spectacular in Southeast Asia’.
‘Using lasers, searchlights, LEDs, video projectors and giant water screens to create stunning visual effects, Marina Bay Sands will present a breathtaking 360-degree sensory experience portraying Light and Water creating Life, choreographed to an inspiring original score. The soundtrack is performed by a 140-piece symphony orchestra’.
Fortunately for me, the Wonder Full Show was set to run ‘until attendance levels drop off’, which in Singapore means it could go on for quite a while yet! So I caught it again on my next visit in April. There are two free 13-minute performances each night at 8pm and 9:30pm, increasing to three at weekends.
I watched the spectacle from the other side of Marina Bay, close to the iconic Merlion which was shrouded in scaffolding and enclosed by a temporary 5-star suite; The Merlion Hotel. This ‘room’ is fully booked for each of the 32 nights in operation (yep … only in Singapore!). Great views across Marina Bay though!
Apparently the MBS Light and Water Show cost US$15m not that that’s a problem for the somewhat controversial Singapore IR, centred as it is on a giant casino. In February, it was reported that in nine months, the two IR’s (there’s another one on nearby Sentosa) had already contributed S$3.7 billion towards the City State’s GDP. Incredibly, this made up almost half of what tourism put into the economy during the same period; S$7.9b. No wonder this building project was controversial and no wonder the MBS owners are already thinking of expanding their operations in Singapore!
Airports are under development everywhere. I travelled through London Heathrow this past week. Hurrah – Terminal 2 has been knocked down and is being rebuilt (costing £1bn, opening in 2014). Terminal 1 will be next. Shed no tears, it’s long overdue (as per my previous rant). T3 was crowded, noisy and unpleasant and, on the way back, it took over 50 minutes for my bags to appear! LHR remains the world’s busiest airport – with over 66m people passing though last year – but for how much longer, I wondered, particularly now that its third runway has been kicked into the long grass.
As I write I’m in Singapore, flying home from Changi airport; consistently voted as one of the best airports in the world. It truly is – due to a heady mix involving acres of space, unanticipated zones of peace and quiet plus wonderful levels of efficiency and … the Butterfly House! During 2010, Changi handled 42 million passengers and won 25 ‘Best Airport’ awards.
There’s a revolution going on in the world of the airport. The ongoing growth of the Gulf and Asian airlines is being matched by an explosion in new airport infrastructure. Europe is losing out. Its legacy airport hub system is aging and under extreme pressure as the stop-over traffic moves elsewhere. Airline business and passenger traffic is rapidly moving east. Heathrow, Frankfurt and Schiphol are losing out to the likes of Dubai and Changi, particularly when it comes to flying to Australia. Passengers on the ‘Kangaroo route’ are deliberately choosing to fly with the Gulf and Asian airlines, boycotting European carriers on grounds of lower cost, better service and increased flexibility. British Airways and the European carriers are seeing Emirates, Qatar and Singapore Airlines dilute their traditional market via competitive pricing, newer planes and increased connections.
The impact of the A380 on the travel market has been huge. This is the plane of choice now for many, myself included, despite the recent shock of the Qantas / Rolls Royce engine explosion (since resolved). Emirates alone ordered another 32 of the superjumbos last year to add to the 58 aircraft already arriving. Singapore Airlines currently operates 11 of these planes (with 8 more on order) – but BA has deferred its order for 12 planes and will not take delivery until between 2012 and 2016.
The Gulf States are either building from new or upgrading their airport facilities at a frenetic pace. Their goal is to provide world-class transit hubs from which travellers, especially those from the emerging markets of India and China, can reach the rest of the world, bypassing the need to route via the older European gateways. For these countries, Europe is no longer the hub for reaching the world but simply a destination. Transiting via Dubai is like watching the entire world on the move, with people passing through en route to seemingly every country in the world.
Dubai alone welcomes 120 different airlines from around the world and has just opened the new Al Maktoum airport with its five runways. Qatar is overhauling its Doha airport, completely replacing the current facility. This will open in 2012 thereby doubling its capacity. At 22 sq. km. it will be one of the largest airports in the world, half of it built from land reclaimed from the sea. Oman will complete a brand new terminal building later this year.
The Economist reported recently that ‘there will soon be more capacity at Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha than at Heathrow, Paris and Frankfurt combined’; the revolution in air travel is indeed gathering pace.
The one cloud on the horizon may be the gathering political turbulence across the Middle East, potentially threatening its stability. Will air travellers continue to want to transit via an increasingly volatile region?
Flying to Singapore from the UK presents a number of choices; which airline, which route, which aircraft, what are the seats like, how about the in-flight entertainment etc? As with most things in life, it can simply come down to getting the lowest ticket price. I avoid flying with BA wherever possible as the Middle Eastern or Asian carriers now beat their European rivals’ hands-down in almost every area on this route.
Emirates usually offer lower ticket prices than SIA
Singapore Airlines – in my view, the overall experience is marginally better with SIA
Emirates – two 6 to 7hr legs from LHR Terminal 3 – with a 1 to 2 hour stop-over in Dubai
Singapore Airlines – a direct 13 to 14 hr flight leaving from LHR Terminal 3
Emirates – usually use B777’s with 10-across seating in economy making it feel very cramped. This is the main downside of using Emirates on this route even with the pleasant short break in Dubai.
Singapore Airlines – often uses the latest A380 500-seater double-decker plane on this route. In my view, this is the most comfortable aircraft flying at present – quiet, roomy with lots of space to walk around + a rear stairwell down to the lower deck. If flying economy, try to book seats on the upper deck as this generally gives a superior experience. There appears to be more room around the seats and there is a gap (+ a good floor level storage bin) between the seat and the side of the airplane making it feel much more spacious. I could not use the laptop on the 777 as there was not enough room on the tray but it can be used on the A380 with plenty of room to work, even in economy.
Interestingly, Air France has just announced that it will take on Eurostar in flying the A380 on the short-hop from Paris to London between June and August 2010. Fares are from £80 one way. British Airways do not yet fly the A380 but Singapore Airlines now have 12 such aircraft in their fleet.
Service and food
Singapore Airlines – again in my view, their overall offering is slightly better than Emirates. However, the staff of both airlines offer great customer service and are equally attentive and helpful. I feel that the food on SIA has the edge and is good quality serving up western and regional menus. Both airlines offer good state-of-the-art in-flight entertainment with a wide range of movies and music.
Changi Airport Singapore is – rightly in my opinion – rated as one of the best airports in the world; simply an amazing experience with so much to distract and offer passengers. This time, I discovered the Changi Butterfly House, chocked full of beautiful butterflies and tropical plants – and built inside the airport terminal, truly a delight!
15 hours later, I had the misfortune to land at LHR Terminal 3 which felt grubby, tired and in need of some TLC and a bit of paint + a few wall-hangings!
I’ve experienced two striking contrasts of the impact of Christianity on a nation in the past fortnight as a result of travelling to Wales (on holiday) and then on to Singapore (for business). Proverbs 14:34 says; ‘Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people’ or as The Message rather bluntly puts it; ‘God-devotion makes a country strong; God-avoidance leaves people weak’.
As we toured Wales, it was hard to avoid the towering bulk of the usually grey-coloured Chapels in so many communities. These cavernous edifices often dwarfed the other buildings in the villages. They seemed to particularly dominant the landscape in the valleys of south Wales. These chapels, probably built by the sacrificial giving on the part of the faithful, are now either derelict or have been turned into homes. In the middle of Brecon, the Bethel Square chapel (1852) has been ‘converted’ into a Boots the Chemists shop complete with commercial signage and a glass frontage. I observed only a handful of chapels that remain open as places of worship.
Most of these chapels appeared to have been built in the period from 1860 onwards and, as we know, a major spiritual revival swept across Wales during 1904. I well remember as a boy in the 1960’s being taken to many a Welsh chapel whilst on holiday with my parents. However, life has moved on and now the 1904 Revival is remembered only as an historical event and is totally meaningless in our present culture. As an aside, it was interesting to visit the Christian-run Helwick Lightship, Goleulong 2000 – with its resident chaplaincy – moored in Cardiff Bay, close to the Norwegian Church arts centre and the Welsh Assembly building; www.lightship2000.co.uk.
How different things are in Singapore! This City State has almost 5 million people, living on an island the size of the Isle of Wight, and is home to some of the largest Christian churches anywhere in the world, certainly in Asia. As well as all the traditional denominations, there are two mega-churches; City Harvest Church led by Pastor Kong Hee with 32,000 members, www.chc.org.sg and New Creation Church led by Pastor Joseph Prince with 19,000 members, www.newcreation.org.sg
I felt privileged to attend one of the CHC weekend services and was forcibly struck by the vibrancy, devotion and spiritual intensity of its vast congregation. I felt decidedly old as the average age of the church must be somewhere in the 25–30 age range? I suppose this is not too surprising as Singapore itself strikes one as a very young nation. CHC has four services each weekend held in two locations; two on Saturday afternoon and two on Sunday. The Singapore Expo Centre service which I attended had an estimated Saturday evening congregation of approx 5,500 people! Mind-blowing numbers for those of us from a European background!
The complexities of the logistics in dealing with this number of people is simply awe-inspiring, the technology was as high level as you would find in any mainstream secular production, the worship was stunning and heartfelt, the corporate prayer deafening but above all a very real sense that here were people wanting to both meet with God and to affect their nation and the wider world. In 2011 City Harvest Church, in order to continue to accommodate its ongoing growth, plans a major move to the Suntec Convention Centre in the centre of the city of Singapore.
So I guess that with this background it is not surprising that CHC, together with David Yonggi Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea, is the host for the Church Growth International 2010 Asia Conference from 26–30 May 2010; www.asiaconference.org.sg. The speaker line-up includes Kong Hee (Singapore), David Yonggi Cho (South Korea), Rienhard Boonke (Germany) and Phil Pringle (Australia). Crowds of up to 20,000 are expected to attend this 5-day international event at the Singapore Expo Centre, situated close to Changi airport, another huge logistical challenge for the church!
It is hard to escape the fact that God is moving across Asia and that the nations in this part of the world are very, very serious about their role in spreading the Gospel. Christianity has moved east; the spiritual torch has quite clearly passed from West to East. I look back on what God did in history in the nations of Europe – including the likes of Wales – and simply note that God is continuing to move mightily today in other national contexts. God is not dead, the Gospel continues to change lives around the world and we should take heart and realise that as stated in Habakkuk 2:14; ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea’.
The problems that we face in the UK seem to me to be the result of a rather cynical nation turning its back on God and against the Gospel. We would do well to ponder the Biblical proverb as quoted above; ‘God-devotion makes a country strong; God-avoidance leaves people weak’.