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Thoughts on returning from Singapore and Bali

There is always something surreal about flying to Singapore from Delhi. From complete chaos at the Delhi airport — a traffic jam on the roadway, an elbowing throng at the door, and then a scrum for seats and a dash for overhead baggage space — you deplane to the complete, respectful silence of a very expensive, very efficient dry-out camp. Or, anyway, what I imagine one to be like. Singapore is the national version of the Betty Ford Clinic.

Though they thrive on chaos, Indians are fascinated with the place because of its weird hyperorder. Singapore is generally the first country that Indians visit when they go abroad, and they tend to go again and again for the duty free shopping. There's a kind of simultaneous admiration and scorn for the place, too, which is captured perfectly by an old joke — the butt of which is not entirely clear.

Lalu Prasad Yadav, the notorious longtime chief minister of Bihar, India's most backward state, hosts Lee Kuan Yew on a visit to India — showing him Patna's broken roads, benighted jails, open-air toilets and the like. “Give me Bihar for three years,” Lee tells Lalu, “and I can turn it into another Singapore.”

“A year!” retorts Lalu. “Give me a week, and I can make Singapore into another Bihar.”