Impressions of Singapore, do you have any? Before my trip I heard very similar comments from a wide range of people, all with the common consensus that there’s just something missing in Singapore. Not knowing what it was but being told “you’ll see what I mean”, left me intrigued and feeling the need to solve this seemingly unknown mystery. I’ll share some of the things I was aware of before heading there, admittedly not a lot. Supposedly there are more shopping malls per capita than anywhere else in the world, the people of Singapore’s love of all things designer, their reputation as the fine dining King, expats galore (plenty of Aussies recruited there for work purposes), city of cleanliness, humidity all year around, fines for many things unheard of in many other established countries around the world (selling or chewing gum included), the presence of capital punishment & their hard line approach to drugs.
Interestingly, despite arguably being best known for the sheer number of shopping malls & its culinary expertise, not one of the masses of people I spoke to named it as the place to shop or rated their food amongst the best tasted. I don’t know about you but if I’m only known for two things you’d want to be a leader in both of those areas.
My underlying mission was to discover why Singapore was the way it was. A fan of food, shopping, cleanliness & designer products, on the surface there was much I should love about this country. As I walked around in the humidity I did feel the sense of something lacking. As a relatively well travelled individual I find that each country, each city you visit has a distinct feel. Whether it’s your absolute fav city in the world or a place you probably won’t plan to return to again – there is this unmistaken feeling that particular place owns. A certain vibe or spirit that can’t be forged or replicated, its unique fingerprint. That was it! That’s exactly what was missing from Singapore. Now I was left wondering why this was the case.
I’m a big fan of architecture and design and Singapore definitely has some well engineered and designed buildings and bridges. While I was impressed with the design of many things (including shopping centres, hotels, buildings, even recycling bins!) that alone did not provide that feeling, and I was in search for Singapore’s signature feel afterall.
Week 2, as I left my hotel for my daily exploration, in order to cross the road I was required to use an underpass. As I descended underground, immediately I noticed a bunch of break dances practising, flips, spinning on their heads – very talented. I was captivated by their devotion to their skill & drawn to watch them excel in their craft. Initially, with blinkers on, my eyes only focused on the breakdances. Eventually my lens widened and I noticed a group of rollarbladers doing drills to the left of them, towards the other corner were a group of younger skaters practising different tricks on their boards, behind them a small group of kids on their bikes attempting some tough tricks on their pegs – impressive. None of these youths were aggressive, loud, confronting, rude or in the path of those people like myself who were using the underpass to cross the road. These kids had single handily created something special. Finally I felt something – this amazing youth, street dancing and sports cultured hub. A huge smile emerged across my face, I then told a few of the kids they were amazingly talented and I was on my way, finally satisfied with finding the stamp of Singapore’s signature feel that these youths supplied. The “Unknown Underground” I thought.
Hours later, I headed back towards my hotel & thought I’d use that underpass again, see if those kids were still at it or if a new bunch of youths were strutting their stuff. Excited about the glimpse of talent I’d be privileged to witness next I was instead unpleasantly surprised by the silence and emptiness that confronted me. It felt completely different, almost eerie, a sudden disappointment and sadness engulfed me. What had happened?
Most of the youths had cleared out and then I noticed a trio of 3 policemen standing in front of the same group of skaters, who were now sitting on the ground against the wall waiting to receive their punishment. Clearly, I was confused as they were the tamest group of skaters I had ever seen in my life. Yet I stood there watching this one policeman call out each name, the kid would stand up, receive their fine, while the other policeman called each and every one of their parents ( I later found out after chatting to one of the kids). It was only then that I noticed the black graphic of a skater on the wall behind them, inside the well recognised red prohibited circle with the diagonal stroke through the skater graphic. Ahhh I finally understood. Of course, no skating allowed. What those cops didn’t realise is the impact those fines ultimately had on Singapore’s signature.
I felt disappointed in Singapore and all their rules. These kids really weren’t causing any problems at all. Finally, a spirited group stamping their signature on Singapore and they were stopped by the cops. Really? Was this necessary? Was this what everyone wasn’t able to pinpoint – Singapore being silenced by authorities? I started to think, was it only clean because it was enforced? Were they quietly tame because they were forced to be? Speaking to many people and hearing many problems but never once seeing anyone object or protest to any of these strong issues that were seemingly wrong doing a great deal of people.
The more locals I spoke to the more unattractive the picture on the canvas became. What happened to freedom of speech? Well for starters you cannot speak out against the government. No one dares to utter any comments on or talk out against the government at any given time. They must give full support – this is governed. How? All those living in Singapore are aware of the penalty of the alternative. Imprisonment, made to be bankrupt, homeless – its life ruining so it’s best to stay silent. What happened to those who don’t stay silent you might wonder. Well, simple really, they’ll work out how much you are worth, if its 1 million you will be prosecuted for three million, forced to declare bankruptcy. This affects your whole life, your families life, your ability to travel and start fresh. In the end it’s simply not worth it.
I believe this lack of freedom of speech has affected the people of Singapore – in a large sense for many, their spirit has been squished. I continued to hear a reoccurring theme to those I spoke with during my almost two month stay. Many live the only way they know how, silenced they work hard and wait for the next recruit of wealthy people to be imported into the country they call home. There’s a huge gap between 24 year olds driving Ferrari’s and Lambo’s, young women with Hermes bags, 23yr old designers with stores in premium locations (all of which probably own a Vertu mobile phone), those who drop $10K on the one meal and those who will work hard for the rest of their lives to pay rent, make ends meet and to support their families.
Interestingly, Government ministers in Singapore are the highest paid politicians in the world. A quiet point of contention you would imagine when comparing their high salaries to the sheer small size of the population of the country. Singapore has consistently been rated as one of the least corrupt countries in the world, again, interestingly this c word was dropped by many Singaporeans when describing their dislikes of their country.
According to BCG, Singapore has the highest number of millionaires per capita than any other country on earth. They’re the second richest country in Asia behind Japan. Yet, the state’s measure of income inequality has worsened in the last 2 decades. Which now puts it in a league with the Phillipines and Guetamala & worse than China (according to the World Bank).
The Government argues that their hard line approach to laws are enforced to protect their people. One area of concern is gambling. They currently charge around $100/pp for local Singaporeans to enter a Casino, to deter them from doing so. My question is, if they are so strongly against gambling why are they building new casinos? Why do they have casinos at all? If Casinos are the evil of the earth. Is the government more than happy to lure wealthy travellers from neighbouring Asian countries? Are they more than happy to take non-Singaporeans money? Or is it that they’re simply caring for Singaporeans and trying to curb a potential rise in gambling addictions while being unable to forfeit the money they would otherwise not obtain without these casinos?
The price to own and maintain a car in Singapore is second to none. Anyone who would like to purchase a car or motorbike is required to bid for a Certificate of Entitlement(COE). At times you are required to bid for the right to own a car, the current price is $70K (which the Government charges). This fee increases over time and is addition to the cost to purchase the car, road taxes, registration fee, additional registration fee (150% of the car’s open market value) & customs duty, which is much higher then neighboring countries, not to mention the insurance. Let’s not forget the high cost of fuel. In the governments defence this is all in attempt to deter people from purchasing cars as they’re apparently running out of road space.
I jokingly mentioned to someone that at least when they crossed the border to Malaysia they could fill up their tank at a much lower price. Apparently not according to the Governments laws. If you drive over to Malaysia – they check your tank before you leave. Before you depart if your tank is not at least ¾ full you will be forced to go and fill up your fuel tank before you are allowed to cross the border or you will be fined accordingly. Singapore actually has a requirement that your tank can only be ¼ empty. This restricts you from filling up your tank in Malaysia.
The average cost of rent in Singapore is quite high, S$8-9k per month. With the mid band income level around $2-3K, together with the lower income level, many are struggling to cope with the high cost of living. How do you cope? I asked a local who fell into this category. “Silent suffering.” He responded. He went on to tell me that many work hard until they’re 85 or even 90 years of age. Sadly, I did notice many very elderly, seemingly unwell cleaners. Unfortunately, the suicide rate in Singapore is on the rise, particularly amongst those elderly members of the community, where feelings of helplessness are incredibly high. This juxtaposed in my mind with the number of younger adults driving Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s which you constantly see on the road, even further highlighting the extremity of the gap. After speaking to many locals I heard a lot of stories of those in their mid 20’s driving rare luxury sports cars and after witnessing this for myself along with many other of life’s luxuries I’m not sure why I decided to go to the source but I did. I was passing the showroom anyway, why not stop by for a quick chat. The salesman I spoke with at the Lambo showroom confirmed that the last two people to purchase a Lambo from their showroom was in fact a couple who were both under 30 – they purchased one each. I was told that this was a common occurrence. Previous to that was someone in their mid 20s who apparently dropped a clean 2million in their showroom. So there you go – the wide range of people I spoke to plus my own observations were reliable sources afterall.
Where are all the Singaporeans? States & cities with a range of diversity typically have an even richer culture and a specific vibe. Yet, even this was amiss in Singapore. A country of ex-pats? What was going on.
Those who live in Singapore come from a wide range of countries, many Australians, get paid to transfer over and relocate, get paid well, live for a period of time and return home eventually. They enjoy the country, for them the issues aren’t a great concern as eventually they return to their home country. These temporary residents, a tag-team of expats, stay for a while, then leave as the new set lands. This contributes to the loss of Singapore’s natural signature. Think of a soccer team, football, NBA, NHL side recruiting and luring top players with money. Those recruited to Singapore are on the wealthy end of the scale and can afford their absurd taxes on cars etc to boost up the government further. Sure, money goes back into planting trees, plants and keeping everything clean and perfectly groomed – around 10%.
So what are Singaporeans left to do?
The majority of Singaporeans once they reach their 30s make plans to leave. Knowing that once they’re older they will be fed up with Singapore’s system. They travel, find a country that is feasible to make plans to migrate. It saddens me that so many Singaporeans cannot envision their future ‘home’ to be in Singapore. Since the large core of Singaporeans are left to flee their country the core spirit of Singapore has been diffused.
Before arriving I was told Singapore was missing something, that there was a lack of something that people weren’t able to place. While the kindness and sense of humour of many Singaporeans is quite unique – there is a sad underlying issue in this country. No natural home grown exports and wealthy human imports. The excessive control of the government affecting the spirit of Singaporeans and a sense of falseness in the front that everything is ‘right’ in this country. Strictly governed by so many laws you create an almost robotic society with a lack of voice, flare, spirit & the missing unique signature.
Every country has its issues. Despite being enforced, at least they’re a super clean country, they have that – although I can be quite messy, I appreciate & welcome cleanliness. As this thought had finished forming in my mind a baby rat scurried straight towards my open shoed feet. I just managed to move my feet in time to allow it to bolt past me as I was on my way back to the Fairmont Hotel (a mere 20 steps away).
Thankyou to all those who shared your stories, but chose to remain anonymous.