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.