The Lee Dynasty
Politics in Singapore revolve around one man, Lee Kuan Yew, and his family. Democracy or dictatorship? The Lee dynasty and People's Action Party (PAP) have been ruling Singapore ever since LKY was sworn in as Prime Minister in 1959.
Opposition parties have tried to break the shackles of the PAP but have been unsuccessful and subsequently individuals have been dealt with severely for even trying. LKY stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990 and handed the reins over to Goh Chok Tong.
Even so, this was not the end of LKY's influence. The position of 'Senior Minister' with an annual salary of around 1 million SGD was specially created for him and he remained as influential and powerful as ever.
His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, was the PAP's finance minister and deputy prime minister and within hours of me writing this will succeed Goh Chok Tong as Singapore's new Prime Minister, thus continuing the Lee family's dominance of politics in Singapore.
Conflict of Interest?
The government own a large, powerful and secretive holding company called Temasek Holdings. Temasek Holdings manage and control the government's stakes in all of Singapore's largest companies such as the national airline carrier, Singapore Airlines, DBS bank and the aforementioned Singtel, as well as a host of others. They have also started investing in companies outside of Singapore. In October 2004 Temasek issued its first public financial report since it was formed 30 years ago. It made a net profit of S$7.4 billion for the 2003 financial year. I guess that after SARS and the general world economic downturn this was one of Temasek's poorer years. Still not bad though, eh?
The executive director of Temasek Holdings is one Ho Ching who also happens to be the wife of Lee Hsien Loong, LKY's son and Singapore's new Prime Minister.
It's an interesting set up. On one hand you can't criticise what LKY has done for the country. He has shown fantastic vision and foresight to position Singapore where it is in the world today. A visit to Singapore followed by a visit to any other country in Southeast Asia will clearly demonstrate what has been achieved.
Like Thailand's current Prime Minister though, is it right and proper that anyone with such powerful political influence should be so closely tied to business interests? Isn't there a danger of cronyism and conflict of interest?
Politics And Business Interests
LKY was one of the main architects behind the set up of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) which was put in place to provide affordable housing of a decent standard to the population of Singapore. This is essential in the transformation from third to first world and something that countries like Thailand haven't even got started on. The HDB is a role model to developing countries.
LKY is a lawyer by profession, as is his wife, which is how they met. They are both excellent lawyers and set up their own law firm. I was informed by a Singaporean I met in Thailand that all transactions involved in buying and selling HDB flats require legal documentation. This documentation is paid for by the person doing the buying or selling and, by law, can only be done through one law firm. Guess which one that is.
Don't Mess With The Government
The Singapore economy was suffering badly in 2003. In addition to a general global downturn, Singapore was hit with the SARS virus. The virus had begun in China but had been covered up thus allowing it to spread easily. Paranoid Singaporeans panicked. People were staying indoors for weeks at a time, only venturing outside if wearing a surgical mask and rubber gloves to prevent contamination.
Special body temperature monitoring equipment was set up at the airport and all public buildings and private workplaces were required to check the body temperature of employees several times a day. In hot, humid, tropical Singapore taxis opened their windows and turned off their air-conditioners. The odds of actually contracting the disease was probably millions to one but this is Singapore where paranoia reigns.
People had already stopped travelling once in recent years after the terrorist events in the USA on 11th September 2001. This affected the airline industry for a long time and things had just started to pick up again. Now though there was a new reason for people to stop travelling. SARS.
The national carrier, Singapore Airlines, was haemorrhaging badly and this was not good for Singapore's economy. I remember seeing return fares from London to Singapore being sold on Singapore Airlines for less than 200 UK pounds.
At Singapore Airlines austerity measures were put in place, layoffs were made and wages cut. The problems were not necessarily those of the employees and some of them got upset. A Malaysian pilot who had been living in Singapore for 26 years, Captain Ryan Goh Yew Hock, attempted to stand up for employee's rights by leading a union revolt to defend their salaries.
He was unsuccessful and in 2004 was banished from Singapore. His entry and re-entry permits were cancelled by the Immigration Authority and he was officially declared persona non grata. He subsequently moved to Australia. His actions were seen as a threat to Singapore's economy and upset Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew; not exactly the best person to upset if residing in Singapore.
Prior to this incident Singapore expelled an American diplomat in 1988 for meddling in Singapore's internal affairs. The Singapore government has this small island state very tightly controlled and does not appreciate people from outside coming in and upsetting the apple cart.
The Ultimate Nanny State
Living in Singapore is straightforward. Be a good citizen, work hard, don't do anything you shouldn't do, pay your taxes and the government will look after you. You will be provided with somewhere to live, a job and a decent infrastructure. You won't lead the most exciting of lives but you will be fairly safe and will have access to the things you need in life.
Don't worry about deciding what to do with your life, the government will tell you. In most societies people get their sense of right and wrong and their direction in life from parents, peers, educators, mentors, etc. In Singapore this role has been taken over by the government.
Singapore is famous for its many poster campaigns. Apparently, basic courtesy and consideration to others is a foreign concept to many Singaporeans so poster campaigns are regularly undertaken to remind them. The MRT is always full of posters for the latest campaign.
Courtesy on the MRT is a big one. Letting passengers off first and not shoulder charging past them in order to get on to the train to get one of the available seats doesn't come as second nature in Singapore. It requires a poster campaign. Spitting all over the place, a Chinese favourite, is also not seen as being very courteous or hygienic so posters tell people to stop spitting.
Eating lots of Western junk food and getting overweight causes heart problems and other ailments. You didn't know this, right? Well, Singaporeans do as there was a big Body Mass Index (BMI) poster campaign with instructions on how to check your own BMI.
Speaking better English is a good thing in these days of open markets and globalisation. It seems obvious to me but Singapore has had a long-running poster campaign to remind its citizens - the 'Speak Proper English' campaign. The 1996 campaign to encourage Singaporeans to speak Chinese (the 'Speak Mandarin' campaign) rather backfired. The ability to speak Mandarin became a requirement when applying for jobs and upset Singaporeans who were of an ethnic descent other than Chinese. Anyway, it turns out that speaking English is a more useful skill.
On the subject of language, a horrible version of English known as 'Singlish' is spoken widely in Singapore. It is not unlike the Malaysian version of English, a rude, vulgar version of the English language punctuated with "ahs", "lahs" and other grunting sounds which is hardly intelligible to most native English speakers.
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