Over the past 40 years, Singapore leaped from the Third world to the vanguard of the first. When one adjusts for the purchasing power of the Singapore dollar, the average Singaporean is better off than the average Canadian, a hundred-fold increase in wealth in only 2 generations. The government was instrumental in bringing this about, ensuring stability and order and attracting investments, thus transforming Singapore into the busiest port in the world and a major business hub. That sounds nice, but the emphasis on growth and order came at a heavy price. The laws of Singapore are draconian and the place could best be characterized as a police state. There are cameras everywhere, and the police is very ready to intervene over even the most minor offenses. Littering is punishable by very heavy fines (up to $5000!), and so is jaywalking and even swearing in public apparently! Chewing gum is illegal (yes, illegal because of the potential
for littering), so it's no surprise that the penalties for what are crimes even in other parts of the world are extremely severe. Drug posession is punishable by death, or at the very least crippling public beatings. Speaking of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes are very heavily taxed: we saw specials advertising beer at $20 for 2 bottles! The city has relatively little nightlife for its population as a consequence. It seems like enjoying life is seen as quite secondary to order and prosperity here. So what do people do for fun? Shopping! And lots of it: we've never seen so many malls and such large ones in one city
. And then there's the casinos. Singaporeans have lots of disposable income, so shopaholism and gambling have replaced alcohol, drugs and cigarettes as the addictions of choice.
The city itself mirrors the emphasis on growth and order. The residential buildings in the suburbs are mostly tall apartment buildings which all look the same. The skyscrapers downtown are functional and unimaginative. To a North American, the downtown core feels strangely familiar: there's nothing distinctive about it to show that this is a very different place than far-away Toronto for example. It feels like Singapore has simply copied what they thought was good about the west, meaning the western model of making money. Everything is clean, efficient and sterile. Singaporeans work hard and they work late: there's very few people in the streets for a city which has one of the highest population densities in the world. We see some of them outside the skyscrapers taking their lunch break in business suits and concentrating on their blackberries, but most of them work very long hours. Sometime in the late evening, the metro system suddenly gets packed with masses of tired-looking people staring in the distance. We saw very little evidence of an artistic or cultural life in Singapore. Sure, there are the occasional expensive massive sculptures planted outside the office buildings: copies of famous western artists serving as status symbols showing off the city's achievements
. But museums, art galleries, artistic cafes, live music places and most importantly the distinctive look of the artist in people are conspicuously rare. There's no place in the city where artists sell paintings or handicrafts to passers-by, no lively parks where lovers walk hand in hand. Most of the city core is a giant concrete accessory to the office buildings and the malls. The few parks there are, are almost empty. The closest people seem to get to expressing themselves are the occasional karaoke bars.
Singapore is quite multicultural: most of the people are of Chinese origin, but there are substantial Indian and Malay communities, along with some Western, Arab and African expats. Officialy there's a lot of pride in tolerance and equality amongst the various communities, but in practice we noticed that almost all the menial jobs are filled by Indians.
One bright point in the city is its famous zoo: this is a wonderful place, where one can tell that a lot of thought has been put into ensuring that the animals are healthy and well-adjusted, and into educating people about the perils which so many species face these days. We saw orangutans swinging in the trees above us, and we stood nose to nose with lemurs. It would take a while to describe the whole experience, but suffice to say we spent a great day there.
So to resume, what's our impression of Singapore? A city-state which has done more than any other place to create wealth and prosperity for its citizens, but also a place which has neglected to make sure its citizens are happy, a place controlled in the extreme for the sake of efficency and money. It's a place that has sacrificed its soul for money and an image. Then again, maybe this is just our cultural bias as westerners: after all so many of the advertisments we saw emphasized prosperity and luck as the supreme virtues one can aspire to. Perhaps people are happy just working hard and having lots of money to spend on shopping, and things like arts and having other kinds of fun are simply not important. Somehow we don't think so, though...
After the otherworldy experience of India, Singapore feels a world away. The first feeling that we had was one of elation and excitement. India was certainly an interesting and exciting place to visit, but it had its problems and Singapore is everything India was not: well organized, extremely clean, very modern, easy to get around and people don't bother you. After the initial excitement subsided though, we felt that Singapore, despite all its advantages, was missing something. We spent the first couple of days wandering around the city and discussing what this was more exactly. After a while, the picture became clear. Being a historian, I felt that the answer lies in Singapore's recent history and the evidence right in front of us did not dispute the conclusion. A conversation with a Singaporean businessman on the plane to here and another one with an Israeli backpacker working for a few months here filled in the missing gaps.