Sunday, January 27, 2008

More, more on Singapore!

I am on my last day of a 2.5 week swing through APAC (Asia Pacific). I have been in Auckland, New Zealand for the last five days and will write about that soon. But first, some thoughts on the first stop of my trip....

Singapore was a fascinating place. It seems to be something of a benevolent dictatorship. Strict enforcement of laws, I saw police wandering down very busy Orchard Street with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders and their fingers on the triggers!. Minimal freedom of speech rights - my friends from Quest Software joked as we sat at a restaurant for dinner that officially we could be arrested, since you were not allowed to gather in groups of three or more. And public criticism of the government is strongly discouraged or avoided. The newspapers had a "feel good" feeling to them, with minimal coverage of terrible events around the world and lots of articles promoting positive lifestyles. But they also contained articles that raised clear concerns regarding quality of life issues for residences. Definitely not any sort of oppressive feeling as I walked around the very crowded streets, or rode the bustling metro.

No, overall I got the sense that the Government of Singapore offered a very interesting "deal" to its citizens: behave and follow the rules, and we will give you very little to complain about. For example:

* Mass transit is of incredibly high quality and low cost. The metro was clean, modern, beautiful, absolutely packed with people. The bus system - yes, I actually took a public bus, which totally amazed some of the tech people I met; I guess that wasn't a very standard tourist/American thing to do - also seemed very comprehensive and efficient.

* There is strong discouragement to own and drive a car. Singapore is a very small island and they are very concerned about environmental quality, about overcrowding. So there are very high taxes on cars. Stanley of Quest told me that the Subaru Forester that I paid about $22K for in Chicago would cost something like $80K in Singapore (assuming he meant Singapore $, that is at least US$45K). And there is a mandatory electronic metering system - every car must have a sensor installed in it. And as you drive around through the busy areas, you are dinged small tolls. Drive during rush hour? Extra charges...and so on. You have to be well off to own a car. But that's OK, because mass transit is so fantastic.

* According to one friend, 85% of the housing stock is government owned and maintained. Individuals can buy 99 year leases on the properties - almost all of them apartments in substantial complexes. So in effect people own their own homes, but the government guarantees good upkeep, painting them every five years and performing other maintenance. So there is a more of a sense of their own government caring, and a personal investment in keeping one's home and environs nice.

Of course, I saw only a small part of the island and talked to only a small fraction of the population, admittedly from the more affluent, high tech sector. Still from walking around the streets, from taking the bus, from visiting the Bukit Timah nature reserve, I didn't get the sense of a lot of suppressed anger or dissatisfaction. Instead, everyone I met was polite, friendly, even enthusiastic....

The motto of the Singapore Government is "Integrity * Service * Excellence" and I have the strongest impression that they actually take this mandate seriously.

Here in the US, we value our rights and our Constitution, and well we should. But in the meantime, our government has been hijacked by right-wing Christian fundamentalists and corrupted by the widespread purchasing of votes and legislation by multinational corporation. Fifty million people have no health insurance, our infrastructure is falling apart, public education is failing, crime is rampant, government workers at all levels are considered losers and often do very shoddy work. Hundreds of millions of guns flood the nation and are used by the mentally unbalanced and criminal elements to kill thousands and injure many thousands more each year. Our economy is a house of cards (over $1 trillion in credit card debt alone) and big chunks of that economy are now being snapped up by foreign governments and companies - including the Government of Singapore!

Singapore seems more and more like a darned good deal these days.


Zannnie said...

You wrote a post which has an interesting view about Singapore. Most parts of what you wrote is very true.

Steven Feuerstein said...

Thanks, Zannie. And of course your post begs the question: what did you think was not very true?

Anonymous said...

Singapore cannot be compared to a country.
Singapore is only large town with two huge natural resources:
- a harbour
- tons of (sorry, a lot of) cheap workforce with no (sorry, little) rights.

Singapore should be compared with other large towns with sea access in the World:
Hong-Kong, New-York, Lahaye, San-Francisco,

Truth said...

"But in the meantime, our government has been hijacked by right-wing Christian fundamentalists"

I can assure you had our government been hijacked by right-wing Christian fundamentalists our country wouldnt be in the shape its in now.

What ails America is evolution/secular humanism crowd...

Zannnie said...

well, if you insist, for example,

''behave and follow the rules, and we will give you very little to complain about''

most singaporeans behave. most singaporeans follow the rules (faithfully) too. somehow, the 'little to complain' is not quite, in my opinion not that the people like to complain, just that where there are rules and where there are too many of them, there are tendencies of conflicts. in this sense, you will be really surprise to find out how much people still complain there at where they are living in this city with 'a deal';)

Robert HO nric S0197974D said...

1. A tiny city on a tinier islet of 42km x 23km is DEAD EASY TO MANAGE. Proof here :



4. Please, please, visit Hongkong before you lavish erroneous praise on Singapore. Singapore is a poor copy of Hongkong. Please get your facts right.

Unknown said...

Hello, interesting post on Singapore. Sometimes i do feel lucky about being a Singaporean, however you know there are inevitable times you just seem to detest this "strict" country. But, the "strictness" has it's beauty i guess.

michael said...

It's only illegal to gather in more than 3 persons in PUBLIC. Restaurants and covered areas are considered PRIVATE and gatherings in big numbers are allowed.

Also, Singapore is not such a cheap labour any more. For cheap labour, you have to look elsewhere I'm afraid. :)

I've lived in many countries for 20 over years, and everywhere I go, the majority follow rules with no problems. It is a minority that wrecks havoc. This category of minority in Singapore is well under control. That's why the order and cleanliness.

thegreatsze said...

I am glad you had a good stay in Singapore. You have summarized the positive aspects of Singapore well.

Every country in the world has a balancing act to perform when it comes to quality of life. Singapore has chosen to fall on the safe-but-boring end of the spectrum. To be fair, we have few places of natural beauty, so there was something of a predisposition to begin with. We have, I think, done well with what we were given.

Apart from what zannnie has already said, the primary complaint about Singapore is that it is a rather graceless and materialistic society. This is a fairly philosophical complaint, but this is unsurprising as the complaint comes from well-fed Singaporeans who already have had their necessities and basic needs met. Our social graces lag behind our economic prosperity.

It is difficult to visualize the Hobbesian state of things in Singapore maturing to something more civilized. At present most Singaporeans are only interested - directly or indirectly - in the pursuit of status. The pockets of alternative lifestyles are too isolated and spartan to ignite any widespread acceptance of non-materialistic paradigms.

It is sad, but it seems that we will be pushing and shoving to get on the MRT trains until the day introspection comes to be common currency. Perhaps it will be in time for your next visit; but more likely not.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the view on Singapore and the picutres. Also thank your friend Zannie for her comments.

Unknown said...

There definitely are lots of rules in Singapore, and whether one feels "stuffed" by them is purely subjective, so I shall not comment more on this... But putting "Strict enforcement of laws" and "police wandering down very busy Orchard Street with automatic weapons" into a single sentence projects a misleading imagery. These patrolling, armed policemen are there as a form of visual deterrent in our anti-terrorism efforts. It may be an overkill (pardon the pun), but I'm sure Singaporeans would agree that these policemen are watching OVER them rather than ON them.

ohseekay said...

I would politely suggest to Mr Robert Ho that since he so strongly believes that Singapore is "a poor copy" of Hong Kong, he probably should not stay in Singapore anymore.

In any case, thank you for your positive comments, Steven. Reading comments such as yours makes me feel proud to be a citizen here, despite the daily gripes about a thousand and one mundane chores.

Steven Feuerstein said...

Dear all,

I have been receiving more comments regarding Singapore, but I have decided not to publish any more of them - some of the replies were getting very "vigorous." I do not think it is appropriate to become a discussion forum. Thanks for all your feedback....