Mar 25, 2007

Impressions of Singapore

The Trees

Singapore is famous for it's cleanliness, and yes it is clean. It is famous for it's lack of crime, and yes, it is remarkably safe. But what you don't always hear about Singapore, but that will stand out in my mind more than anything else about the city/island/nation is the profusion of trees and other foliage.

The trees were everywhere, clustered about every building even in the heart of downtown, in the yards of every home, lining every roadway, gracefully arching over even the freeways. They did so much to beautify and dress up Singapore. Everywhere was verdant foilage. The overpasses were festooned with brilliant pink bougainvillea spilling out of concrete planters and dripping over the sides of the overpass. Tall rows of royal palms lined paths on great green open spaces near the MRT station, and everywhere trees, trees, trees. Some of the less ritzy areas, the HDB public housing complexes and such, wold have looked so much more unattracive if they hadn't been surrounded by trees.

It seems like in most urban areas, the trees are the first to go. Perhaps they could take a few lessons from Singapore and leave the trees.

The Hawker Stands

Ubiquitous around Singapore are the hawker stands—whether the air conditioned indoor food courts in the malls, our outdoor complexes on the street corner—they are the authentic Singaporean dining experience. They look somewhat like food courts found in American malls, with numerous food concession stands with vivid pictures of the menu offerings pictured above the stand. Usually each stand offers a slightly different menu—maybe all seafood at one stand, noodles at another, vegetarian halal offerings at a third, with drinks and desserts purchased at separate stands respectively. The food is very cheap (about $1.80 to $3.50 per dish in U.S. dollars) and I’m told that many Singaporeans rarely eat at home and just eat at hawker stands every day. As has been typical of my eating experience in most foreign countries, the authentic food of the country while certainly edible and sometimes even tasty, is not exactly appetizing to my Western senses. The strong, foreign smells in the hawker stands, the overly bright pictures, and the difficulty in identifying the food in the steaming trays before me seemed to kill my appetite much of the time. Still most of the time I managed to pick something I could enjoy and in some cases, I struck gold as with the roti john I ordered at an Indian food hawker stand on Tuesday. Delicious! I liked it so much, I went back and ordered up some roti prata and a fried banana at the same stand.

The People

Singapore is a fascinating, exotic, and beautiful place--city on an island that is a country. The people are a multi-ethinic mix of Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Eurasian people—all speaking English with a sharp accent that sometimes sounds Indian, sometimes Chinese, sometimes something else. Despite our own multi-ethnic community in Saipan, Singapore felt distinctly foreign: the large Muslim population with women in long dresses and hajibs, the many Hindus with characteristic red dot on the forehead. While the people didn’t seem overly friendly or warm, I found that there were always those around eager to help, starting with the Visanathi (sp?) the woman behind the counter of the Esso station who gruffly let me use her phone and offered my a cold bottle of water and two bags of fruit bread for the kids when we were stranded outside the Union lodging at 3 in the morning. There were people who offered exchange for our bus fare. There was an Indian lady who helped us get on the right bus to the Singapore Art Museum on Wednesday. There were friendly and generous merchants in Little India and on Arab Street that took the time to chat with us and even teach us a little about their culture.

This pretty much destroyed my working theory on the costs of Singapore’s strict and highly regimented society. The nation is very prosperous—I don’t think I ever saw any real poverty stricken areas such as one would find in Bangkok or Manila, virtually crime free, and clean as a theme park. But the government is extremely strict. The Singaporeans even joke about it—you can by t-shirts that mock Singapore a “Fine City” for the many fines in Singapore—fines for littering, smoking, eating and drinking on the subway, and so on.

A sampling of some of the "fine" signs found all over Singapore. The above were on the metro. I'm not sure where Holly saw the one below! Presumably not a bathroom. . .

As we rode into Singapore early Friday morning down smooth, clean parkways, the cab driver bragged about the safety and cleanliness of the city. He told us about it’s 30 year old HDB flats (public housing developments) that still looked brand new thanks to the government requirements that the buildings be refurbished and repainted every seven years. He described with some pride the $500 fine for littering, with a $1000 fine for second offense in addition to the public humiliation of having to do community clean-up service while wearing a large sign and appearing in the news for the whole nation to see your shame. As I listened to his stories, I told myself there must be a cost to this society. Something must be lost inorder to maintain this kind of strict regulation. And for awhile I thought that something was in the cheerfulness and happiness of the people. I expected I would find Singaporeans repressed, suspicious, wary, exacting, harsh—always looking over their shoulders.

Our first day in Singapore, as we walked to Thomson Plaza I noticed occasional patches of litter and I thought rather smugly, Aha! I expected perfection—nothing less—of Singaporean’s fabled cleanliness, and now here was proof that even they, with all their strictness, couldn’t do it. I figured I’d rather be in the good old U.S.A. where yeah, maybe we wink at littering, but at least we hadn’t lost our national cheerfulness.

Except of course the Singaporeans turned out to not be somber and repressed. Certainly no more or less than people anywhere else. Maybe they actually liked their society the way it was. Maybe there was no “cost.”

Which got me thinking: Maybe one size doesn’t fit all. Maybe the American culture with it’s emphasis on unfettered freedom, a more casual attitude towards “minor” laws, and much less involved government isn’t the template for all people and all cultures everywhere.

I mean obviously a Singapore style government would never work in the U.S. We wouldn’t stand for it! We’re too much about the rights of the individual to go long with the kinds of harsh laws and harsher punishments found in Singapore. Anybody recall the outrage when an American citizen was arrested in Singapore and caned for vandalism. But just because they wouldn’t work in the United States doesn’t mean they don’t work somewhere else.

I spent a lot of time studying the vast tracts of HDB housing and I was struck by how successful they are. One source tells me that 87% of Singaporeans live in these flats of varying levels of luxury. There are similar urban high rise areas in the U.S. but they have fallen into disrepair, are plastered in graffiti, riddled with crime and drug use, the holding pens for America’s minority poor. Singapore’s public housing by contrast is clean, relatively well-maintained, with zero crime and drug use, and a government mandate that each complex must be 1/3 Indian, 1/3 Malay, and 1/3 Chinese. Each complex has it’s own schools, playgrounds, food court, parking garage, mosque and temples. This is the original Great Society dream except in the United States it failed miserably and in Singapore it seems to have been successful. I think in the U.S., especially among conservatives, there is the rather arrogant assumption that such a program cannot work anywhere because the idea of Big Government sponsored is inherently and fundamentally flawed on the most basic human level. It would appear that they are wrong. However liberals who presume that such a program would work anywhere have also proven wrong. A starry-eyed view of the basic goodness of humanity doesn’t take into account the cultural values and mores, the weight of community expectations that can make or break such grand social experiments.

What I believe Singapore illustrates is the power of harnessing the basic human greed and self interest that turns the wheels of free market capitalism, combining it with a heavy handed government mandates and a zero-tolerance policy, and adding people whose culture values the subordination of individual desires to the greater good of the community as a whole to create a “perfect storm” of order and prosperity. For this system to work the people have to see little value in expressing oneself through graffiti on public property, experimenting with mind-altering drugs, being able to eat and drink wherever you like with having to fear more than a slap on the wrist. This is a country where the tobacco products sport not just a little surgeon general’s warning—but huge, graphic photos of the most horrific diseases caused by smoking—rotting feet, cancer gouged cheeks, mutilated teeth and gums all in vivid, living color. Every smoker is forced to advertise each time they take out their pack of smokes—“this is what I’m doing to myself.”

Tobacco products in Singapore with lurid warning labels. Tempting, huh.

Of course I’m oversimplifying. I’m sure there are myriad other factors—Singapore’s small size for example. A Singaporean merchant commented to me on how large the U.S. and how difficult it must be to “control.” I thought, Buddy, you have no idea. We don’t take kindly to anyone controlling us. Another factor may be Singapore’s ideal location as a center of shipping and commerce which certainly contributes to it’s wealth. The ethnic harmony may also result from the fact that the ethnic groups do not have a history of hatred and oppression crippling them.

But the point remains simply this: A distinctly “un-American” system works in Singapore. It seems instructive that other countries—say Iraq, for example—might not benefit from a governmental system that mimics that of the U.S. without taking into account the culture and values of the people in that country.


Mr. Grant said...

I enjoyed our chat, the cornbread, and just hanging out. Thanks for opening up your home. I appreciate it.

I liked your idea that different forms of control work in different places. Democracy is great for us, but other forms worked well in the history. It's good to keep an open mind.

Sean said...

Anytime, my friend.

I'm still working on my theory. . .I really do believe in basic human rights and whatnot. I'm just thinking maybe there's more ways to achieve that then the Standard American Approach.

Mom said...

very insightful analysis. Makes me stop and think: Which is closer to God's kind of government, the freedoms found in America or the controls found in Singapore? The outcomes say a lot about the methods, but the methods leave me there an even better way to go?