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Singapore
Living art on the Singapore river
Living art on the Singapore river  


Introduction

What a fascinating little island this is, a tiny nation state sitting at the bottom of the Malaysian peninsular that has achieved First World status but is located in a region surrounded by developing countries desperately trying to achieve the same thing.

It is never mentioned overtly but the current Thai government are obviously using Singapore as a role model in their efforts to develop Bangkok. Bangkok will never be like Singapore though because it is just a superficial attempt to replicate fancy aspects of Singapore while ignoring the basic building blocks. Typically for Thailand, there is lots of image but little substance.

So, what is different about Singapore compared to its Southeast Asian neighbours?

Singapore has transformed itself from a sleepy Third World backwater to one of the most progressive nations in the first world within 40 years. The island's Information Technology infrastructure is second to none and makes excellent use of the technology rather than using it for fanciful ideas such as computerised fridges that reorder milk, etc.

What is more, Singapore has achieved all this with no natural resources to speak of. Rice, the staple diet of Asian people, will not grow on the island and Singapore cannot even supply enough water for its inhabitants.

The old way of life in Singapore - Click for larger image How has this been done? What makes Singapore different to other developing countries trying to get into the First World? Singapore is being used as a role model by some other Southeast Asian countries but is this a good thing? Singaporeans are wealthier than citizens of surrounding countries but at what cost? Would the people of Thailand for example be happy with the same lifestyle as a typical Singaporean?

My first two trips to Singapore were short stopovers between Europe and Australia to break the long journey. I would guess that most tourists to Singapore don't stay for very long. On my stopovers I got my first impressions and made some superficial observations. At the end of 2002 my brother moved to Singapore with his job and this was around the time I moved to Southeast Asia. Being in the region, and with somewhere to stay, I was able to visit quite often, sometimes for fairly lengthy stays. It was then that I started to see beyond the superficial gloss and get a better idea of what Singapore is actually about. On these pages I will attempt to discuss some of the questions I posed above.

Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore's famous Merlion - Click for larger image It is impossible discussing Singapore without mentioning Lee Kuan Yew, often described as modern day Singapore's founding father. He was certainly the architect for what we see today. A man with an incredible intellect but also gifted with an astute political mind, he was able to turn his vision into a reality. These two qualities rarely go together but occasionally we see such people and they normally have quite an impact on the world.

He has both his supporters and detractors but whatever people may think it cannot be disputed that he is a brilliant man and was one of the key figures of the 20th century.

He was Singapore's first Prime Minister and held this position from 1959 to 1990. Since retiring he has held the specially created positions of Senior Minister and Minister Mentor and still pulls the strings in Singaporean politics. Effectively he has ruled Singapore since 1959 and has not held back in dealing with critics or political opponents. A brilliant man or a dictator? He has been accused of being both. There is no doubt that Singapore would not be what it is now without LKY.

On the negative side there are huge conflicts of interest between the Lee family and Singapore national interests. His son followed him into politics becoming first Singapore's Finance Minister, then Deputy Prime Minister and now he is Prime Minister. His daughter in law runs Temasek, the powerful government owned holding company that has interests in most of Singapore's largest corporations. Singapore is technically a democracy but the reality is that it is a single party state. It certainly has been since 1959 and there are no signs that anything will change in the near future.

However, when looking at how successful this small island state has become who can argue that the way Singapore is run is a bad thing? Certainly many Singaporeans are happy with the current state of affairs.

Business Transformation

Singapore's transformation from a small, swampy Third World island unwanted by Malaysia into one of the world's most advanced first world countries is nothing less than remarkable and a testament to Lee Kuan Yew's vision and political acumen. Whatever criticisms are levelled at LKY he certainly got a lot of things right. Even now, other Southeast Asian countries are making big mistakes when they could be taking a leaf out of Singapore's book.

The island doesn't have a lot of natural resources but it is located in the heart of Southeast Asia at the bottom of the Straits of Malacca, an important shipping lane. Singapore decided to use its prime location to the best advantage and invested in certain industries accordingly. The island had been a port for a long time but was turned into a very advanced and successful container port. In the first quarter of 2005 Singapore overtook Hong Kong to become the busiest container port by volume in the world moving a total of 5.52 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs).

Goods, such as cars, arrive in bulk on container ships from their country of manufacture and Singapore acts as a kind of clearing house, unloading ships and loading cargo on to other ships going to different destinations. Efficiency is extremely important so Singapore has made sure it has the most efficient systems in place to be the port of choice for shipping companies.

Singapore's location and time zone make it an ideal place for international banking. International banks were encouraged to set up operations there and bring in foreign skills. As a result Singapore is now one of the major banking hubs in the world. The lesson here is that sometimes bringing in foreign people with relevant skills is good for the country. Thailand is a country that could learn from this but the false sense of nationalism that exists there excludes many foreigners to Thailand's detriment.

With the huge amount of air traffic between Europe and Australasia, Singapore was also ideally located as a stopover destination. Realising this the authorities built what is probably the best airport in the world at Changi and turned Singapore into a shopping mecca. Hotels and restaurants sprung up to cater for tourists on stopovers.

Muslims in the Kampong Glam district of Singapore - Click for larger image Singapore realised early on that investing in high tech industries was the way to go. There was no benefit in low-tech, labour intensive industry that relied on an abundance of cheap labour such as could be found in the rest of Southeast Asia. High tech business parks were constructed in areas like Jurong that had previously been wastelands and the island was equipped with an advanced IT infrastructure. Broadband Internet for example has been widely available in Singapore for a long time but only now are other countries making it available to the masses. (Regarding this subject it will be interesting to see how Singapore copes with competition in IT services from countries such as India that now have highly trained IT work forces and cheap labour costs.)

LKY's other stroke of genius was to realise that English was the lingua franca of the international business world and to ensure that English was taught in schools. Not having the ability to communicate in English would have been huge a stumbling block with the industries mentioned above but it is a problem Singapore that doesn't have. International banks and shipping companies can communicate in English and foreign tourists feel at home with signs in English and shop assistants they could talk to.

It strikes me that Singapore's move to the First World was ruthlessly realistic and pragmatic. This realistic approach took priority ahead of national pride, patriotism, image or anything else. Granted, in terms of physical size and population, transforming Singapore from the Third World was easier than doing the same thing with larger, more populous countries such as Malaysia or Thailand. But size is not the only consideration.

A place to rest in the Chinatown district of Singapore - Click for larger image Thailand seems to think it can be an important player on the world stage by doing everything itself and just speaking Thai. Foreigners aren't wanted particularly (their money is but this isn't the same thing) and English is not spoken at all well by the vast majority of Thais. Malaysia had a Prime Minister who thought that constructing tall buildings, investing a huge amount of money to host a Formula 1 race each year, building a monorail, a 'futuristic' city and setting up a domestic car manufacturer was the way to achieve First World status.

Mahathir (now gone, thankfully) was obsessed with national pride and Thaksin has his own agenda which has nothing to do with the interests of Thailand. LKY, on the other hand, put these things to one side. He had a vision and ultimately a goal and he knew what he had to do to reach that goal.

The Welfare System

Bridge at Chinese Gardens, Singapore with HDB flats in the background - Click for larger image Singapore realised that you can't truly be a First World country if half the population is uneducated and living in squalor. This fact apparently eluded Malaysia's Mahathir when he was in power. He was quite happy to have the Petronas twin towers and monorail system featured on every piece of tourist propaganda yet at the same time have a large part of the population living in shanty houses unable to afford a decent education.

Thailand is doing exactly the same thing. Huge multi-billion Baht malls and designer shops (such as Siam Paragon) are springing up in Bangkok yet there are millions of very poor people in the country and within a few hundred yards of any fancy mall you will find people living in corrugated shacks.

The Singapore Housing and Development Board (HDB) was set up to provide a decent level of affordable housing for the entire population and the Central Provident Fund (CPF), a Social Security Savings Plan, was set up to assist Singaporeans in saving for retirement, healthcare, home ownership, investment and education. Slum areas, such as those that existed in Chinatown, were torn down and new buildings erected.

This development was not done half-heartedly. The expenditure may have been high initially but paid dividends in the long run. Contrast the different approach used in Malaysia to address the problem of dilapidated buildings in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown. Rather than demolish and rebuild, the authorities have given the disgusting buildings a lick of paint, erected a roof above the street and planted a few palm trees.

Education was another key investment in Singapore's development. The state realised that its future depends on the ability of the young generation so gave them the best education available. This didn't come cheap but it was the best possible investment for the future.

Depressed in Singapore ... again ... but please read my later updates

Morning rush hour on the MRT in Singapore - Click for larger image October 2004 and I'm just back from my umpteenth trip to Singapore. I honestly can't remember how many times I've been now but it's quite a few. There is a definite pattern emerging every time I visit and this most recent trip was no exception.

On my recent visits I have arrived from Thailand and at first it feels quite good coming into a developed country. The initial feeling, especially if arriving at Changi, is one of having arrived somewhere that is clean, ultra-efficient and provides the best the modern world has to offer. The efficiency at the airport extends to the fabulous MRT system, it is possible to walk along pavements without meeting obstacles every 10 yards and, when crossing the roads, cars and motorbikes actually stop at red lights.

For me personally it's a chance to catch up with my brother, get some real Western food and have proper conversations in English. It's also a great place to get things serviced. All of the big companies have service departments in Singapore and do a good job. A couple of visits ago IBM fixed my laptop computer and this time Canon fixed a small problem with my camera.

If I want to look at camera accessories or electronic goods Singapore has a great selection although these things are cheaper in Thailand at the moment if I can find what I'm looking for. The first few days in Singapore are normally very good but then it all starts going downhill rapidly.

After four or five days I realise that not one stranger has smiled or spoken to me. I've been treated with total indifference most of the time as if I didn't exist. As I've tried to board crowded MRT trains no one has made an effort to create any space even though people inside have enough room to stand up and read a newspaper.

Because of the casual way I dress shopkeepers think I am a fresh tourist and try to con me into buying things I don't want. Other shopkeepers play stupid games quoting ridiculously high prices in the hope that I am na´ve and will get caught out.

The Singaporean greed and obsession with money starts to rear its ugly head very soon. As a non Chinese-Singaporean visitor without much money I am a nothing here and treated with contempt at times. Visitors are tolerated if they have money to spend or if they are involved in business which can benefit locals. Money is the god that is worshipped in Singapore and that's how everyone is.

It's not just the locals either. I rarely get through a visit without hearing about the boorish exploits of one or another big-shot expat banker throwing money around on champagne and women.

On this most recent visit I witnessed a fight on the MRT and was the recipient of threats on the phone. (See 'Living on the Edge' in the culture section.) There is a pleasant veneer here that fools a lot of people. Tourists who keep going on about how much they like Singapore because "it's very clean" just haven't got a clue how things really are. Five or six days is normally about all I can take of Singapore and, once again, getting to Changi is a very good feeling but this time to get my flight out.

Singapore as a Role Model

Residence of an early Singapore ruler before British colonialism - Click for larger image Because of what has been achieved in a relatively small amount of time, Singapore is being used as a role model by other countries. Under the Thaksin government I have witnessed Singaporean type ideas in his policy-making such as the proposal to remove vendors from the streets and relocate them into specified zones, ala Hawker Centres.

What cannot be denied is that Singapore under LKY's guidance has got a hell of a lot of things right. The public housing, education and health programmes are unparalleled for this part of the world. City planning, public transport infrastructure and architecture has also been excellent. Compare the beautiful buildings of Singapore to the bland concrete blocks of Bangkok and the efficient way people get around to the constant traffic jams. Consider also that there are many green areas in Singapore to relax and almost nothing equivalent in Bangkok apart from maybe Lumphini park.

It is OK wanting to be like Singapore but other countries are very different. The predominant Chinese culture in Singapore is miles apart from Thai culture and the landmass and population are on a completely different scale. Change in a country like Thailand is possible but will take generations to achieve and the starting point is education of young Thais, not mega transport infrastructure projects in Bangkok.

Despite what the current Thai PM may think, a country cannot be run like a business and a PM cannot act like a CEO taking his cues from American management 'gurus'.

The other issue is a social one. Not everyone is created equal and humans are by nature greedy. Newly generated wealth will want to be kept by the people responsible for generating it. The new generation of educated Thai middle classes have no particular interest in helping poor rural Thais, just improving their own lot.

Divisions in wealth cause divisions in society and social problems. Singapore took ideas from the west to incorporate into its own culture. Other Southeast Asian countries looking at Singapore must do the same but beware of the pitfalls.

The Future for Singapore

Vendor outside a Buddhist temple, Singapore - Click for larger image Who knows but my guess is that Singapore's golden days are under threat. The Singaporeans have been clever in the past anticipating future trends and exploiting those trends. Making English the language of business was clever but now other countries, including Malaysia, have realised this. Concentrating on high-tech, high-profit markets was clever but there is a lot of competition now in the rest of Asia for these markets and labour costs are far lower in China and India.

Technology will remove more people from the money markets. The business of making enormous amounts of money without producing anything, just by buying and selling money on a computer screen, will gradually decrease.

Goods will always need to be physically moved so there will be a need for freight forwarding and efficient ports. Singapore has a very efficient and well located port but it is not immune to competition from its nearby neighbours.

I saw a newspaper article about a survey in Singapore where 75% of people felt insecure about their jobs. They carry on the same way though with their high spending lifestyles. Some Singaporeans have had enough already and have started to emigrate. Australia and New Zealand are popular choices but so too is mainland China, not the busy primary cities like Beijing and Shanghai but secondary cities and the countryside.

In a remarkable twist of circumstances people are now returning to China from Singapore just as millions of Chinese made the difficult journey to Singapore over the last couple of hundred years. It's ironic that their reason for doing so is the same - to get a better quality of life.

Attachment, as all Buddhists know, is a dangerous thing. However, despite the global changes that have already started to happen, Singaporeans are trying to cling on to a way of life that is unsustainable. This attachment will lead to much suffering. Depression and other forms of mental illness will increase. Emigration is one way out but a return to spiritual values could be the salvation for others.

All of the books on Buddhism I have read for free distribution have been printed in Singapore. Although I haven't actually witnessed anyone there living such a life there must obviously be a strong movement otherwise the monasteries, temples and books wouldn't exist.

The demographic situation of the island is completely unhealthy with insufficient children being born to sustain the population. This will only increase the need for foreign labour in future.

Singapore will survive of course but it's not going to be easy for some people.

April 2005 Update

Macaw in flight at Jurong bird park, Singapore - Click for larger image The decision to turn Singapore into a gambling mecca has now been approved. The government has given the go ahead for two casino complexes to be built at a combined cost of 5 billion Singapore dollars. The move is being billed as turning Singapore into the 'Monaco of the East' (I guess that 'Las Vegas of the East' sounds too tacky whereas Monaco sounds sophisticated and exotic). This is just one part of the government's campaign to attract more tourists.

Another US$1.6 billion is being spent on Orchard Road to spruce it up, the aim being to double the number of visitor arrivals to 17 million by 2015 and to triple current tourism revenues. The decision to build casinos is interesting.

What Singapore has always been good at is forward thinking (a completely foreign concept in somewhere like Thailand). Located in a region which concentrated on cheap labour to mass produce goods for a small profit, Singapore decided many years ago to differentiate itself by attacking the hi-tech, high profit markets.

When India and China (and others) started to catch up with the technology they threatened Singapore because labour rates are a lot lower in those countries. For a number of years I have been wondering in which direction Singapore would go next and now it is becoming clearer.

With continuing economic growth around the globe and consequently a growing affluent middle-class population with more money to spend on leisure, Singapore has recognised that the gaming industry is a big money-spinner. But what about the ethics behind such a decision?

Singapore has a majority Chinese population who love gambling with a passion but there are also many Muslims who must be horrified at the decision. Even Lee Kuan Yew has said he is "emotionally and intellectually" against gambling but understands the need to attract visitors.

Singapore has one of the strictest policies on the planet dealing with drugs. Drug use and addiction destroys individuals, families and communities. I'm not sure I agree that penalties should be as harsh as they are in Singapore but no tolerance can be shown.

So, what about the argument for gambling? Despite the fancy casinos, bright lights and holiday atmosphere isn't gambling just as addictive and doesn't it also destroy individuals, families and communities? Isn't there just a touch of hypocrisy or is the real question really about who it is benefits financially from two activities that are addictive and potentially dangerous? If the government benefits it is OK but it isn't OK for drug dealers who will be executed if caught.

Recently LKY has also expressed regret about not building a Formula 1 racing circuit on the island. Again, it has no appeal to him personally but he has realised now it is a big money-spinner. All that matters apparently is making money.

I quite admired Singapore 50 years ago for going against the grain and being pragmatic in their approach. It must have been incredibly painful for the protectionist Chinese to show so much cooperation to foreigners in order to acquire the economic growth they required.

Now that Singapore is a fully developed country I would have more admiration if they stuck to their principles. If something isn't right emotionally, intellectually or ethically does it really have to be done simply because it will be profitable? Is that what the world has become? One-sixth of the world's population has no access to fresh water and what are rich countries doing with their money? Starting illegal wars and building casinos.

December 2005 Update

Crocodile at Jurong reptile park, Singapore - Click for larger image Singapore's reputation as the execution capital of the world continues with the hanging of Vietnamese-born Australian citizen Nguyen Tuong Van. All appeals for clemency were denied, the Singapore authorities stating they have a right to protect their citizens from the danger of drugs. According to the BBC News web site 400 prisoners have been hanged in Singapore in the last 13 years.

Technically Nguyen Tuong Van didn't enter Singapore. He got caught at Changi airport while in transit from Cambodia to Australia but this was just a technicality. He may not have passed through Singapore immigration but he was on Singapore soil. Australians are threatening to boycott Singapore just as they threatened to boycott Bali when an Australian drug smuggler was caught and imprisoned there.

All it will take is for an Australian drug smuggler to get caught and convicted in Thailand and they won't have many places left to go for their holidays if they insist on boycotting countries whose laws they don't like.

Feelings are mixed. Hanging someone by the neck is barbaric for this day and age but drugs do destroy lives and the death penalty is an effective deterrent for most. The Australian press have noted that Singapore is a big investor in Burma which also happens to be a major producer of drugs in Southeast Asia. It's an easy way for the Burmese military junta to make money and they are not worried about ethics or ruined lives.

Nguyen Tuong Van tried to plead he needed the money to pay his twin brother's legal bills. What I find difficult to believe is that every year there are similar stories of drug smugglers sentenced to death in countries which have zero tolerance to drug smuggling.

There is no justification if they get caught. None. Everyone knows the score if they get caught. The message is actually very simple. If you smuggle drugs for a living don't do it in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore or anywhere else that executes convicted drug smugglers.

Another December 2005 Update

Chinese temple, Singapore - Click for larger image I have just returned from another visit to Singapore and something quite dramatic has happened. Singapore looked great on this trip and I really didn't want to leave. As was pointed out to me, nothing in Singapore has changed, so I must have changed. I think I have. What has changed?

I think that after over two years in Thailand I am getting disillusioned with the 'Thai way' of doing things. Everything is image over substance. The Thais obviously like the nice airport and shops in Singapore so have built their own. But that's it.

Singapore's development was done from the ground up and done properly. Once the infrastructure had been built and the economy started to thrive then people started to prosper. Thailand has just cherry-picked certain aspects of Singapore - like the nice airport and shops - and built their own versions but a huge percentage of the population is still poor and uneducated.

The quietness in Singapore was wonderful without a million noisy motorbikes roaring around 24 hours a day. It was good to walk around on safe streets without being barked at by stray dogs and to be able to cross roads without fear of being hit by a car.

There are still aspects of Singapore I don't like. I don't like the Kiasu attitude where people have to get ahead all the time. I don't like how people already in a lift stand with their finger on the door-close button when people are trying to get in. I don't like the constant pursuit of materialism. However, these are minor gripes.

As an avid observer of Thailand two things are becoming very clear. Unless there are a few major shifts in Thai culture, Thailand will never really develop beyond a superficial level. The other thing that has become clear to me is just how many things Singapore has got right.

 

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