‘Oh, You Here for Rocket Man!’— A Travelogue

Singapore -
The Capella Hotel (Reuvain Borchardt/hamodia)

It’s 4:34 a.m. in Hong Kong. Pilot says we’re beginning our descent from 38,000 feet. I’ve hardly slept in 24 hours. I know I won’t sleep at all for the next 20. I need sleeping pills. And a good stiff drink…

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So, here’s the itinerary: Fly more than 20 hours each way to Singapore. In between, just 48 hours, report on perhaps the most consequential world summit since the end of the Cold War. And perhaps most inexplicable, it was held not long after President Donald Trump derisively called North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un “Little Rocket Man” and the two leaders exchanged boasts about who had more ability to annihilate the other.

Singapore, an independent city-state island just south of Malaysia, was probably chosen as the site of the historic summit because of its relative proximity to North Korea, and for its status as an advanced, neutral nation. Some refer to it as the Switzerland of Asia.

Just 1.5 degrees north of the equator, Singapore gets rain an average of 167 days each year – and it can be wildly unpredictable, as a downpour may be followed moments later by brilliant sunshine. An umbrella or a raincoat is a must (as are electrical converters, as even the upscale hotels don’t have converters for American plugs.)

Being so close to the equator means little variation in sunrise-sunset times: the variance throughout the year is only around 30 minutes (roughly 6:45 a.m.–7:15 a.m. for sunrise, and 6:45 p.m. –7:15 p.m. for sunset). The Singapore Jewish community probably has little need for zmanim calendars, and no need for Daylight Savings Time in a region with such uniformity. Singapore Time (abbreviated SGT) is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time, and 13 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (8 hours ahead of UTC).

There are currently no direct flights from the New York area to Singapore. Singapore Airlines recently announced that it’d be resuming such flights next October from Newark — 19 hours, the longest flight in the world — but that’s too late for this summit. Shortest flight I could find was on Cathay Pacific, a Hong Kong airline — 16 hours from JFK to Hong Kong, then another four hours to Singapore: 22 hours all told. I generally don’t like sitting in one place for more than 16 minutes.

No visa is required for U.S. citizens visiting Singapore. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people visiting Singapore get a flu shot, as well as vaccinations for typhoid, hepatitis A and hepatitis B. The latter two are typically given in childhood, so check your list of received vaccinations.

President Donald Trump addressing the press (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)
Sentosa Harbor (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)
Kim’s jet in Singapore airport
Marina Bay Sands Hotel (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)

There is a kosher restaurant in Singapore — plenty of info on the kehillah and a Jewish traveler’s guide is available. But I know I can’t count on having a free minute outside my hotel and the White House Press Filing Center (PFC), so I’m bringing food. Lots of it. A big fat suitcase-full, with preservative-laden bread and loads of peanut butter and jelly, canned and packaged goods, and sugar-filled junk that I’d never touch if I had a choice.

Oh, it’s at this point that I should probably mention that I hate, hate, hate doing “diary” articles. A long-running dispute between me and every one of my editors. But hey, employees can’t be choosers, right? Then again, if reading this article will make everyone decide they don’t have to ask me, “So, how was the trip?” I guess it’s worth doing the article, even kicking and screaming.

The flight is nearly full. One large kid with a Communist-star cap speaks perfect English; I figure he must be a North Korean spy. My Premium Economy aisle seat will help my 6-foot-2-inch frame deal more easily with the trip.

At a traffic-free JFK, we begin taxiing at 1:40 a.m. Just as soon as we’re wheels-up, my neighbor passes out and won’t wake for more than 12 hours. An hour in, the meal is served. Kosher-food package includes chicken nuggets in rib sauce, orzo with corn, chocolate mousse, whole-wheat pita, sautéed eggplant, tzimmes (!), tea, Sanka. As an extraordinarily picky eater, I barely touch anything.

And then the lights go out. And stay out. For something like 10 hours. Until it’s time for breakfast, the lights are out, the windows are closed.

As per chaitables.com (Myzmanim.com has a similar service), I put on tefillin less than two hours after takeoff. As we are flying over the Arctic circle, daylight hits us pretty early. The “day” is very short, however, followed by a very long night.

Looking out the window, there’s something nice about being high above the clouds, and the clear sky showing a moon that doesn’t seem all that much higher than you. And clearly seeing the constellations, unencumbered by clouds or city lights.

I can hardly sleep, but with the cabin dark and quiet, the hours pass peacefully. Two or three hours before landing in Hong Kong, the lights go back on and breakfast is served. Roasted-potato omelette, roll, butter, jelly, cherry danish, orange juice, tropical fruit cup, tea, Sanka.

It’s 4:34 a.m. in Hong Kong. Pilot says we’re beginning our descent from 38,000 feet. I’ve hardly slept in 24 hours, I know I won’t sleep at all for the next 20. I need sleeping pills. And a good stiff drink.

I suddenly decide I’m hungry and dig into three PB&J sandwiches.

Touch-down at 5:00 a.m. local time in Hong Kong (the same time-zone as Singapore). As soon as we enter the terminal in Hong Kong, it hits us: the heat. It’s terribly hot. I wonder if this advanced nation has ever heard of air-conditioning. As we exit the plane, two health officials wearing surgical masks are holding thermometers to check the temperature of any passenger who appears ill. Welcome to Asia.

We wait on line in a stiflingly hot security-check area for transit passengers. The Hong Kong version of the TSA confiscates my water bottle, and now I am absolutely dying in the heat. Passing through security, we enter the terminal concourse, and then it hits us: the air conditioning. Somehow, this terminal concourse has A/C. The airport proves to be a pleasure, but for one small fact: It’s early in the morning, hardly any stores are open — except American-style fast-food restaurants — and I can’t find myself a water bottle. I finally get some in the duty-free shop. A Hong Kong water company called Sweet Dreams.

The flight to Singapore takes off on time. The airline lunch is an omelette with baked beans, roasted potatoes and peppers, a fresh citrus fruit cup, yogurt smoothie, roll, butter, jelly, crackers. Nibble at a bit, then eat a few more PB&J’s.

My neighbor on this flight is a businessman who is a U.S. citizen but has lived in Singapore for more than a decade. He seems to have gotten used to airline food, and delights in asking me every five minutes if I’d like “just a taste” of his eggs and bacon.

What does he think of the upcoming summit to be held in his adopted homeland?

This seems to me to be a photo-op for Singaporean politicians to show off their country, that they are neutral.”

“But the Singaporean government does not tolerate opposition or criticism,” said the businessman, who warned that Singaporeans do not enjoy traditional American rights such as freedom of speech or of the press. “The Singaporean government may be neutral between U.S. and North Korea, but it should not be confused with other countries that are historically neutral and do have freedoms, like Switzerland,” said the man, who asked to be identified only as Ray, for fear of government retribution for these comments.

Ray said he doesn’t believe the U.S. should remove sanctions on North Korea unless there is a serious improvement in human rights in that country.

“But in my opinion, the U.S. government is hypocritical on human rights, because it is allies with countries that are massive human-rights violators, like Saudi Arabia. So I don’t believe the U.S. government really cares about human-rights violations in other countries.”

Singapore is sometimes described as a first-world country economically. It has a high per-capita income, beautiful hotels and resorts, and is a much-sought-after travel destination. Though officially a democracy, the same party has won every election for decades. The criminal-justice system can be draconian — most infamously, chewing-gum sales are banned, caning is a form of corporal punishment and is still used, and there is a death penalty for drug dealers.

Ray assures me that I needn’t toss the pack of chewing gum I have on me — gum possession is not illegal, but don’t drop chewed gum on the street if you don’t want to risk a hefty fine.

I breeze through customs (somewhat disappointed; I was hoping to see the cane), and step out of the airport and into — a steam room. That’s what Singapore feels like, everywhere outdoors. Temperature run easily into the high 80s or low 90s, and humidity is often well over 50 percent.

In this country notorious for the high cost of living, one thing is quite cheap: taxis. I step into the cab and ask the driver to take me to the JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach, where the White House press corps is staying.

“Oh, you here for Rocket Man!” he says.

The drive to the hotel is along a beautiful road lined with foliage, though the windows remain tightly shut and the A/C is blasting.

The area seems to be almost entirely comprised of skyscraper hotels. After checking in and grabbing my press credentials, I head over to the kosher restaurant — as much to socialize as to eat. There is heavy security at the Jewish Community Center — the building that includes the restaurant, supermarket, and Rabbi’s offices.

On the way to the restaurant I stop by the Rabbi’s study for a fascinating conversation about the history and the present state of the Jewish community in Singapore. By the time we’re done, the restaurant is closed for lunch and won’t reopen for dinner until several hours later. No time. I head back to the hotel and adjacent Press Filing Center (PFC); that’s the closest I ever get to checking out the kosher eatery.

The White House Press Filing Center is an enormous hall, with workstations for the 353 media-credentialed members. (Two thousand more members of the international media are set up in Singapore’s Formula One racing pit.) One large screen is providing the local tv feed of summit events; the other is showing CNN. Every time important news or videos comes up on one of the screens, dozens of journalists jump out of their seats and run over to watch, with phones and pens and pads to record.

I am seated seven rows from the front, between a Japanese and a South Korean newspaper crew. I am Hamodia’s Singapore crew of one.

The White House has not provided much press guidance to us yet. Other than the fact that the Trump-Kim meeting will be held at 9:00 a.m. Tuesday, no schedule of press events has been provided. (Wise folks have repeatedly advised us to treat this more as a breaking-news event than a staged summit.)

Suddenly, we’re advised that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will give a press conference Monday afternoon. Pompeo, introduced by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, delivers a statement emphasizing that the U.S. will accept nothing less than what has become known as CVID: the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. He takes several questions, mostly about denuclearization and none about human rights, and then leaves; walking away, he ignores my shouted question about human rights in North Korea.

Later that evening, the White House releases the schedule for the next day’s summit, which includes a 4:00 p.m. press conference by Trump with around 425 media members — the White House press corps and a limited number of foreign press members.

I try to relax that evening by swimming in the hotel’s deserted but beautiful 18th-story pool, overlooking the beautiful Singapore skyline. But it’s another mostly sleepless night, and an early day Tuesday, for the biggest world event in recent memory.

Temperatures are 85 degrees and humidity is 75 percent as that extraordinary moment arrives Tuesday, when Kim and Trump shake hands in front of a wall of six U.S. and six North Korean flags. The leaders are followed by seven members of the U.S. reporters’ pool, and seven from North Korea. Care has been taken to ensure complete equality on this trip. We watch the coverage on the PFC screens until 1:15, when it’s time to head to the Capella resort for the presser.

The exclusive Capella is on Sentosa, an island at Singapore’s southern tip famous for its parks, beaches and resorts. It is a secluded six-star resort completed in 2009, which includes the restored colonial-era British officers’ buildings.

Kim is long gone by the time we arrive. The roads to Sentosa have been lined with people all day trying to get a peek at the motorcades. The press “motorcade” of six buses gets no special treatment, and the drive is slow. (The one cop following us actually allows cars to drift in front of him several times.)

The harbor across from Sentosa is full of new, early-stage skyscraper construction. They must not have enough hotels in Singapore yet.

Trump is upbeat and jokes with reporters during the press conference that lasts more than an hour. Most of the reporters’ questions are about nuclear verification, sanctions or human rights. But nobody has asked him explicitly whether he would insist on tying the sanctions relief to the human-rights issue. When the president calls on me, I ask, “Would you ever consider removing the sanctions without significant improvement in the human-rights situation?”

He replies, “No. I want significant improvement. I want to know that it won’t be happening. And again, once you start that process, there will be a point at which, even though you won’t be finished for a while because it can’t happen scientifically or mechanically, but you’re not going to be able to go back. You know, once we reach that point, I’ll start to give that very serious thought.”

The last two sentences of that answer, clearly referring to the denuclearization issue, made me wonder if he was even addressing human rights at all in his answer. He either confused my mention of “human rights” with “denuclearization,” or he heard my question properly and answered regarding human rights, before switching back inexplicably to denuclearization.

I take advantage of my proximity to international press members to ask what people in other countries think of this summit.

Kim Joo Hee, 32, a South Korean journalist, has “mixed feelings.”

“The fact that Trump is quote-unquote trying to bring peace — I don’t think he’s truly interested in world peace, he just wants prestige for himself, attention and media coverage. I don’t buy his authentic concern about peace, but if he does, that’s good for South Korea. And the last thing we want is another war. If through this process, he prevents another war from happening, that’s’ good.

“On the other hand, I have my concerns about the sudden stop in war games between the U.S. and South Korea that Trump announced, as well as his desire for an eventual reduction in U.S. forces in the region. That concerns me because this is key to the alliance and our defense mechanism. Recently, Admiral Harry Harris, former commander of the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM), said at a congressional hearing that if we pull out our troops, Kim would do a victory dance. And that’s what’s happening now.

“Peace is good,” says Kim Joo Hee, “but it’s not a good idea to remove the defense mechanisms so quickly.”

It’s quite late at night when I am done with my article covering the entire day’s historic proceedings. That’s when I am informed I need to do a diary article immediately if not sooner. My one night to check out Singapore will have to wait.