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Singapore | Culture

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Socialising at the local coffee shop

Socialising at the local coffee shop

 

Singapore Culture

 

Introduction

Singapore's culture is a real amalgam. For starters there is the unique culture that is retained by the different ethnic groups - the Indians, Malays, Chinese and not to forget European settlers and expats. These can be sub-divided further because the Indians have different religions and the Chinese originate from different dialect groups - Hakkas, Hokkiens, Teochews, etc.

In addition, cultural behaviour has been 'borrowed' from elsewhere when it has been convenient. My theory is that LKY's experience in life has had a very strong influence on Singaporean culture. He was in Singapore during the Japanese occupation and experienced living under a very oppressive regime. This was not pleasant, especially for the Chinese, but he saw that a system that involved severe punishments for crime actually reduced the amount of crime.

LKY was educated in England and although he didn't particularly like England or the English he admired certain things about the way of life there. He also grew up in Singapore under British colonial rule so was not unfamiliar with British culture. He respected the English virtues of politeness and consideration and liked the way they organised things.

The problem for Singaporeans is that there are conflicts within these different cultures and sometimes they just get totally confused with what they want to do instinctively and what they are being told to do. Yes, told to do. Singaporean citizens take direction from the state. There is always some kind of poster campaign going on and it will be advertised everywhere. It might be about maintaining a healthy weight, when that campaign was going on there were posters everywhere telling people what their Body Mass Index (BMI) should be and how to check it. Other favourite campaigns that seem to be ongoing are to speak better English, to keep public toilets clean and to be courteous.

In most Western countries I think that people realise it is not acceptable to push past the people getting off a train while they are getting on but apparently not in Singapore. Posters on the trains and in the stations are required in order to remind the good citizens of Singapore of this basic aspect of politeness. The conflict is because of a certain aspect of Chinese culture .... Kiasu.

Kiasu

Masjid Sultan Mosque, the largest mosque in Singapore - Click for larger image Kiasu is a Hokkien term meaning fear of failure. In Singapore though it has become far more than this. It's not just fear of failure, it is making sure that you keep one step ahead of everyone else all the time. The Kiasu mentality accounts for a lot of behaviour exhibited by Chinese Singaporeans, and remember that the Chinese make up about 77% of the total population.

The example of fighting to get on a train in order to get a seat is a classic example and this is something that all foreigners in Singapore mention. Despite signs asking people on the platform to wait until passengers have got off the train before they board the Chinese fight to get on as soon as the doors open. Getting ahead of everyone else to get that seat is important.

Kiasu can also be observed on the roads as drivers fight to hold position. The Chinese Singaporean obsession with material goods is down to Kiasu. It's important to have the latest car, computer or mobile phone. Cars cost a fortune to buy and run in Singapore yet there is no shortage of the most expensive cars available. Shops are full of the latest electronics gadgetry but there is virtually no market for second-hand items. Where do all of Singapore's old computers and mobile phones go?

Nokia, Motorola, BMW, Mercedes and every other manufacturer of luxury goods must love Singapore. They know that whatever they bring out, so long as it is new and fancy, they will be able to sell lots in Singapore. The shops of Orchard Road include all of the big European fashion houses and any Singaporean worth his or her salt can reel off a list of designer names just like that.

It's shallow, it's selfish, it's greedy, it's uncaring, it's narrow-minded but it's Singapore and the culture of Kiasu accounts for much of this behaviour.

Some time after writing this I was amused (but hardly surprised) to see that the first commercial airline to acquire one of the new superjumbo Airbus A380's will be ... you guessed it ... Singapore Airlines. How Kiasu.

Greed

I hate to say this but whenever I am in Singapore I am always struck by the culture of greed. The Chinese are very materialistic and consumerist. In addition the banking industry that has been set up to generate wealth is also greedy and has brought in many greedy expatriates. On an individual level I have met many nice people in Singapore but generally it is not a place I feel very comfortable in.

The overriding priority with almost everyone in Singapore, it seems, is making as much money as they can at the expense of everything else. What's important in Singapore are the 5 C's. Forgive me if I get this wrong but it's from memory. Car, Condo, Cash, Credit Card, Club (membership of a golf or country club).

You don't hear much about Caring, Compassion, Charity or even Children. The reality of life in Singapore is that both partners in many married couples have to work to survive and to be able to afford the things they want in life. Children therefore aren't part of the equation as they are another expense and prevent one of the wage earners from working for a while.

This has caused a major demographic problem in Singapore, the seeds of which are being planted now but which will have a far greater impact in years to come. There just aren't enough children being born to support the current population in future years. The problem is getting worse as living standards improve. With better healthcare and living conditions people are living longer and becoming more of a drain on the state.

Singapore has introduced special initiatives and incentives for people to have babies. However, with most Singaporeans placing more importance on the other C's than Children the problem remains.

Paranoia

Building evacuation, Golden Mile Complex, Singapore - Click for larger image Singaporeans are quite a paranoid bunch. For them, going outside the realms of their safe little island where the government tells them what to do, to the big wide world where people do what they want is a big ordeal. In my experience, Singaporeans rank with Americans as being the most anal when it comes to foreign travel and are always the ones with lots of safety concerns in Internet travel forums.

They do travel, quite a lot actually, but prefer the cosseted five star type of travel that provides the safety and security they require. Singaporeans travel because living on such a small land mass results in 'island fever' setting in fairly regularly. It's also down to Kiasu once again, yet another way to show they are 'better' than someone else by ticking off a long list of countries they have visited. No matter that they only spent two days in each and were in a hotel most of the time, it still gives them a sense of oneupmanship.

I understand that every public building in Singapore is required to have a bomb shelter. Air force jets can be seen flying around every day and male citizens still have to do National Service. The island seems to live in constant fear of attack but I'm not sure where the perceived threat is from.

When Singapore experienced the SARS outbreak people stayed inside their houses for weeks at a time, wore surgical masks for months and used rubber gloves when they went outside for fear of contamination. A virus that affected very few people virtually brought the island to a standstill. One incident in another country - a terrorist bombing, insurgency outbreak or a dose of chicken flu - immediate stops Singaporeans from travelling.

I was in Singapore in 2004 at the Golden Mile Complex when the whole building was evacuated. Apparently someone said they had felt the building shake. I was quite concerned at the time but later found out this was yet another case of Singaporean paranoia. The building is located fairly close to the Nicoll Highway, part of which collapsed a month before due to excavation work going on beneath it with the building of a new MRT line.

It would appear that ever since that accident residents of the Golden Mile Complex building have been convinced that their building is also about to disappear in to the ground. Now, whenever anyone coughs or slams a door, they imagine the building is moving and it gets evacuated. The picture shows the building being evacuated.

Living On The Edge

Rainbow Lorikeet at Jurong bird park, Singapore - Click for larger image People who are obsessed with always wanting the best or latest material items can never win. As soon as they get what they want there will be something else new out which they then want and they won't be happy with what they've got. It's a big wheel that keeps going round and nowadays the rate at which it goes round is frightening. Mobile phones, cars, cameras, computers, TVs, portable music players, clothes, sunglasses, etc., etc. just keep coming out all the time.

Many Singaporeans are on this wheel and they can't get off. To try to fund this lifestyle they either work continuously or borrow money, or both. It's unsustainable though. Loans have to be paid back and a life of work and toil is not healthy. Credit card debt is at an all time high yet on every corner financial institutions are encouraging people to apply for more credit cards. Mental health issues are becoming a real problem and I was told by a local Singaporean that there is now a waiting list for psychiatric help.

Many Asians don't recognise certain disorders as mental illness. In many parts of the world mental illness is a taboo subject but it seems that Singapore has started to change this attitude. The government is now warning people to look out for symptoms of mental illness and to act on it. Of course, this is Singapore and it takes a government initiative to get people who can't think for themselves to recognise common sense.

October 2004 and it is the latest in a long line of visits to Singapore for me. It's a low key trip where I want to get a few things done but haven't made many plans. Two incidents occur though that quite shock me.

  • Incident 1: a fight on the MRT

    As I board the train I am aware of a big argument going on in the carriage. It is between a woman of about 40-something who is standing up and a man in his 60's sitting down. Both are Chinese Singaporean. The argument keeps going and increases in intensity.

    I grin at a girl standing next to me and she grins back. It is that look that says we find this quite amusing but we are pleased we aren't involved. Quietly, I ask her if she can understand what is going on because the argument is being conducted in Chinese. She can. Apparently the old gent looked at the woman's daughter in a lecherous way. On hearing this I am now aware that there is a girl with the woman. She's around 20 and is very provocatively dressed but is certainly no stunner. To be honest, she has a bit of a slutty look about her.

    As the train pulls into Dhoby Ghaut station the woman lunges at the man to hit him and two passengers intervene to pull her off. As they restrain her the old guy sees this as an opportunity to hit her back so springs up from his seat to lay into her. More passengers intervene to break them apart.

    I have to change trains so get off. Someone pulls the emergency cord and the train is stopped. It won't be going anywhere until the MRT security guards have arrived. I have never seen anything like this in Singapore before. MRT journeys are normally mindlessly boring. No-one speaks or looks at anyone else. The locals sit there sending messages on their mobile phones or reading books by American 'business gurus' on how to make it big in business and earn millions.

    Hundreds of Singaporean men go to southern Thailand every weekend to leer at Thai girls. If a Thai girl notices a man looking at her, she will normally just smile back. In Singapore it is enough to start a massive brawl.

  • Incident 2: a very threatening phone call

    I am not a materialistic person but I enjoy taking photos and want a new lens for my camera. I've priced the lens I want in Thailand and want to do the same in Singapore. There is a place in Holland Village called Parisilk that has a pretty good reputation and I want to give them a call. I do a quick Internet search for their number. It's a seven digit number and all numbers now have eight digits so I have to guess the first one.

    I guess wrong and dial a 9 instead of a 6. I get someone's mobile phone and when I realise it is the wrong number, I apologise. I then dial correctly and get the price of the lens.

    Later that evening the phone in my brother's flat starts ringing. It is a Singaporean speaking that barely recognisable dialect of English that many Singaporeans speak. He sounds agitated and quite irate. I can't understand his diabolical English and tell him he must have a wrong number. He then says something about me calling him that morning and I realise it must have been the wrong number that I dialled.

    He then tells me in a very threatening manner never to call his number again. Actually, I wasn't intending to. It was a mistake - alright? Oh well, he hangs up having vented his anger.

    The next morning my brother checks his answer machine messages. There is another message from this guy but I don't know if he left it before or after he threatened me. It's a load of abuse again and this time he is threatening to contact the police if I ever call him again.

    This is what can happen when you dial a wrong number in Singapore, even if you apologise for doing so.

Singapore's central business district - Click for larger image What on earth is happening to Singaporeans? They are just so on the edge that any little thing is enough to tip them over. Don't look at anyone on the MRT and don't dare to dial a wrong number or the consequences could be dire.

Living in Thailand, I naturally compare these reactions to how Thais would react, and it couldn't be any more different. I witness things in Thailand (especially on the road) that would be enough to make me snap but the Thais never do. Thais are the most laid back people on earth but they are also generally a lot happier than most people.

Are Singaporeans happy? I don't think a lot of them are. They probably try to convince themselves and other people they are by what they've got or how much they earn or where they've travelled to but I honestly don't think they are that happy.

The most worrying thing for me is that Singapore is seen as some kind of a role model for Southeast Asian countries and already Thaksin has started making changes following the Singapore model. Trying to turn Thailand into another Singapore would be the worst thing that could happen to Thais but I don't think the Thai people would ever allow this to happen.

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Get The Best Deal On Your Singapore Hotel Room

Listed opposite are some suggestions for hotels in Singapore based on budget. Each link will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I tend to use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. I generally find Agoda hotel rates to be the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people.

Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.

If you wish to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.

Images of Thailand

Images of Thailand