Singapore: Would I want to live here?
I have already been traveling for six hours, with 38 hours to go. I am flying out of Singapore’s Changi Airport, and am down to one piece of peppermint chewing gum, a staple of my carry-on supplies. I search several shops; mint candies are everywhere, but no gum. Then I remember, in Singapore gum is illegal! I am a criminal for possessing the one small piece of gum in my bag. In defiance, I pop it in my mouth and chew it openly until it loses flavor. Nobody notices. No police come for me. Damn.
Singapore is a strange place. Disneyland with the Death Penalty is how William Gibson described it. Affluence, swaying palm trees, gracious brightly colored colonial shop house rows, some of the best food in the world, a downtown of glinting skyscrapers, Singapore resembles an urban Club Med resort more than a nation. It’s the Switzerland of Asia – if Switzerland were a tropical dictatorship.
Singapore is famous for its harsh laws and regulations. The Singaporean friend I was visiting on this trip had been jailed for a full week last January for taking Benadryl, an over-the-counter allergy medicine that sometimes tests positive as a methamphetamine. Seven days in jail for allergies – no apologies. Littering, minor vandalism, and even failure to flush a public toilet may be punishable by jail or violent corporal punishment, such as a bloody caning. If you have a weak stomach, don’t search online for images of caning; it is much worse than you imagine. Commonly accepted western freedoms such as political expression, the press, and public assembly are forbidden. Yet these restrictions may be largely responsible for Singapore being one of the most racially, ethnically, and religiously tolerant nations in the world. It is also one of the world’s most technologically advanced, best-educated, healthiest, wealthiest and fastest growing countries, making the U.S. by comparison, to borrow a presidentially endorsed description, look like a “shithole country.”
Hyper-modern, ultra-clean and efficient, and almost entirely free of poverty, homelessness, crime (especially violent crime), and the other social ills that blight other developed nations such as the U.S. (and nearly crush all of its neighbors such as Indonesia), this tiny tropical island of a city-state is seen by many as a sort of paradise. Its position at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula positions it as the vital center of trade between the South China Sea, Java Sea, Bay of Bengal and Gulf of Thailand, and is today the world’s busiest transshipment port, even busier than Shanghai. By contrast, the busiest such port in the U.S., Los Angeles, is number 17.
Singapore is the world’s third richest country, with 2017 GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power parity) exceeding $90,000. The US is #12, with equivalent GDP of $59,000, less than two-thirds of Singapore’s. Singapore’s many new skyscrapers climb swiftly toward the clouds even faster than the few remaining towering rainforest trees that used to cover the entire island; the burgeoning downtown and financial district skyline will be unrecognizable if you don’t visit often. At certain vantage points, it already resembles something out of science fiction. More than 90% of Singaporeans own their own homes, and if you can’t afford one, the government will make it affordable for you. Trade and finance have made Singapore rich, but unlike the U.S., that wealth is not held almost exclusively by a small oligarchy of the super-wealthy. Much is re-invested in the people: education, healthcare, infrastructure, social well-being, and the economy, while still maintaining the strongest and most technologically advanced national defense in the region.
As examples of infrastructure, I could start with the immaculately clean, modern and reliable Mass Rapid Transit system, or MRT, while perhaps second to Hong Kong’s, makes anything in the U.S. look downright Victorian, in the bleakest Dickensian sense. The MRT train also connects the entire city, that is to say the entire country, to the airport. No cars necessary.
That’s a good thing, because owning a car is outrageously expensive. A Certificate of Entitlement (COE), which is essentially a license to own a car for 10 years, costs around $50,000 USD. A driver’s license costs almost $3000 USD on top of that. And all that’s before you even purchase a car, which will run you many times what it would cost in the U.S. For example, a no-frills Toyota Corolla averages about $150,000, as compared to $18,000 in the U.S. Don’t even think about a Volkswagen, much less a European luxury car. All this is intentional government policy, to keep Singapore’s traffic and air pollution to a minimum. But then, who needs a car? Trains and buses go everywhere, nearly free bicycle and scooter rentals are on every corner, and if you really want to experience an authentic 20th century combustion engine*, there are plenty of taxis and Uber-like Grab cars. *For now: they will all soon become self-driving electric vehicles.
Singapore’s Changi Airport has been consistently rated for many years as the world’s best airport. In shocking juxtaposition to America’s squalid tumble-down cattle chute approach to airports, Changi is like a luxury resort. It succeeds in being one of the world’s busiest airports while still making passengers feel pampered and unhurried, and with, believe it or not, has plenty of opportunities for fun. Don’t believe it? Google “Jewel Changi” and take a look at what the airport will be by next year.
It is already impressive. I had arrived in Changi that evening of the chewing gum from Thailand, obviously an international flight, and due to my own poor planning, I had to 1) go through Singapore entry immigration, 2) pick up my checked bags, 3) re-check them onto Singapore Airlines for my flight to New York, and then go through 4) Singapore exit immigration, and 5) security before I could proceed to my next gate. All of the above took nine minutes (9 minutes!), plus some walking time. Staff were professional, courteous and helpful. I had enough time afterward to take a hot shower for a few dollars, have a drink and a snack at a bar, do some shopping in what must be one of Asia’s largest malls, and enjoy the lovely butterfly garden.
Every time I arrive from Asia at one of America’s grim, decaying international airports, such as LAX or JFK, I am immensely embarrassed. I can see it in the eyes of my fellow passengers who are experiencing U.S. infrastructure for the first time. I know what they are thinking: This filthy crowded claustrophobic warehouse with peeling paint and water-stained ceilings is a major port of entry to the richest country of the world? I want to explain that the U.S. is a reluctant prisoner of its past; we haven’t advanced much beyond systems and procedures – and most importantly the attitudes – developed in Ellis Island days 120 years ago. The dilapidated buildings can also be forgiven. However, it is impossible to defend the rude, arrogant and officious staff who treat their customers like criminals. I never understand why someone who obviously dislikes and/or cannot interact well with people would accept a service position. Or is it that these are good people who go home and are nice to their kids and neighbors, but at work are understaffed, under-trained, abused by management, or simply selected with “power-trip” listed as one of the job perquisites? It is difficult to fathom.
When later entering JFK and asked if I had brought anything from overseas, I explained I had only some sealed, packaged dried fruits and nuts, which of course is permitted. The clerk cum prison guard yelled angrily, “And what else!?” as if I were about to confess I had brought several decapitated human heads and a large vial of Ebola in my Travelpro bag. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that.
Fortunately, I was well rested because I flew on the five-star Singapore Airlines, always rated among the world’s top airlines. I don’t have to explain how that experience might differ from flying on one of America’s formerly proud carriers, none of which today is rated as better than three stars, and barely deserves that. I would no more take United or American or Delta on a transpacific flight from New York than ride on a donkey cart from there to Buenos Aires. U.S.-based cabin crews seem to be drawn from the same employment pool as the U.S. immigration staff.
I have often been berated by friends for complaining about U.S. infrastructure as whining about “first world problems”. Yes, of course: that is the whole point. If the U.S. wants to continue to be perceived as “first world”, then we have some serious problems. At this rate, it will not be long before leaders of more advanced nations start referring to the U.S. as a shithole. If all you know of the U.S. is its airports, airlines and other transportation systems, we have been a shithole for a long time. Cambodia’s Phnom Penh airport is decades more advanced than anything in the U.S. Pre-college education and affordable healthcare are already rapidly swirling down that hole too.
More importantly, there is a strong correlation between how societies treat their first world problems and how well they do in their second and third world problems. What motivation does an average American have for investing in society, when he or she knows it is going into the pockets of billionaires, to de-fund their education and healthcare, and building border walls (nearly worthless even if you are anti-immigrant when 40% of illegals arrive by airplane). A different kind of society, one that cares enough about its people to build and maintain top-notch schools and universities, world-class affordable healthcare, traffic-free litter-less streets, efficient subways, crime-free neighborhoods, and even airlines and airports that don’t feel like a gulag: this is a society with citizens of all socio-economic strata who are much more likely interested in contributing toward its continued success.
Regarding immigration, unlike the U.S., Singapore is actively encouraging people from other countries to take up residence there. Singapore has the world’s lowest fertility rate, a rate so low that it cannot maintain its population or its economic growth. Instead of loathing the decline of Singapore’s traditional Chinese majority (their version of our Caucasian majority; the native Malays are a small minority, though form a larger percentage than the U.S.’ native population), and instead of building walls and building up hate groups against foreigners, Singaporean society is heartily welcoming an influx of immigrants. While some come from developed countries, most immigrants come from much poorer countries. They come from rural China, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Thailand – essentially Singapore’s version of our Latin America. Although these workers have many different languages, traditions, and religions, including many Muslims, horrifically vilified in America, there is virtually no ethnic or religious conflict, almost zero crime or terrorism, almost no illegal drugs, and the economy continues to grow rapidly.
Despite all the growth, development and massive urban revitalization efforts, Singapore is not an artificial city such as Dubai or Doha. Even with all the central planning, it has a vibrant and unique culture all its own that has grown organically as a major regional capital for more than a thousand years. It is like the U.S. in one way, in that its culture is an intermingling of many ethnic traditions, primarily Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indonesian and other Southeast Asian. Being the epicenter of an important trading route for centuries, there are influences from Africa, Arabia, and all over Asia. And being a colony of first the Portuguese and Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries and then more influentially by the English in the 19th and early 20th century, Europe, especially in its architecture, governing philosophies, urban planning concepts, and of course its language, plays a prominent role. English is the most commonly spoken of the four official languages, followed by Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.
The greatest expression of Singaporean culture is its food, literally a melting pot. Just like America, Singaporean food mostly comes from somewhere else, and you can find almost every type of cuisine, but they find ways to make it their own. Hainanese chicken rice, nasi lemak, roti prata, laksa and many other wonderful noodle dishes such as mee rebus or siam, chili crab and black pepper crab, nasi goreng, and satay are a few examples. It is mostly boldly flavored, but not as spicy as Thai or some Indonesian food, and most often offers a balance of spice, sweet, sour and savory. Chili, shallot, peanut, lime, fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, spring onion, fresh and dried fish and seafood, and every kind of fresh tropical fruit imaginable are what come to mind for me. Every country in the world seems to make fried chicken exactly the same way and claim it as a unique national dish, and this is true of Singapore as well. This is why KFC outsells McDonald’s in Asia, but why eat either when the local food is vastly better, much fresher, and less expensive. Traditional Singaporean Chinese, known as Peranakan, food is quite good and usually far less greasy and heavy than much Chinese food.
Of course you can also get a perfectly cooked medium rare rack of lamb with foie gras paired with a wonderful French wine. Italian and Japanese food are especially popular. Western food tends to be expensive, largely because many of the ingredients (most notably western chefs) need to be imported, but more traditional Singaporean food is unbelievably cheap.
In some Southeast Asian countries, lack of hygiene is part of why food is so low-cost. Not true in Singapore, where there are very strict health and safety requirements. The kinds of freshly prepared and delicious “street food” that you find in places like Bangkok and Saigon are all collected into government-inspected “hawkers’ stalls” centrally collected into a series of malls throughout the city. It is easy to know which stalls are best: look for the longest lines (or to speak locally, queues) of locals.
Regarding local dialect, if you’re describing something that has one term in British English and a different one in American English, almost always use the former in Singapore. Lift, not elevator; boot, not trunk; nappy, not diaper; jumper, not sweater; queue, not line.
It takes a while to get used to the accent, which is similar to the English, but more expressive, Chinese-tonally variable, yet clipped, and percussive. “Card” is pronounced “Cot”. It is also spoken rapid-fire, the way many Indians speak English. To me, it sounds almost like hip hop. Singaporean English doesn’t have the elegance or graciousness of British English, or Thai, but those are luxuries most Singaporeans don’t have time for.
Singapore is becoming internationally known as a gambling center due to the relatively recent construction of two massive casino resorts, Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands, the latter of which is probably now Singapore’s most iconic skyscraper: that building with the giant boat-shaped infinity pool that connects its three towers at the top. Singaporeans must pay $100 SGD ($75 USD) to enter, which is meant to keep local gambling problems to a minimum while still reaping the lost fortunes of unfortunate visitors, most of whom try and fail at their luck.
The old joke used to be, Question: What do Singaporeans do for fun? Answer: Get on a plane. But now there is more to do, and more is being planned, if you have the money for it, which most Singaporeans do. Still, many Singaporeans travel for fun. Imagine living in a place where it’s possible easily to take weekend trips to Bali, Bangkok, Hong Kong, the Maldives, Phuket, Borneo, Kuala Lumpur, Siem Riep (Angkor), Penang or one of the thousands of other beautiful tropical islands and interesting historic cities or sites, mostly all within a couple hours’ (inexpensive) flight.
A paradise? An extraordinary social experiment success? In many admirable ways, yes. It’s a wonderful place to visit, especially as a respite from the chaos of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. But would I want to live there? No way! Or Perhaps I would.