Singapore is a pretty amazing country. Occupying just 268 square miles it’s less than a quarter the size of Rhode Island, the smallest state in the US. Yet its per capita GDP is the 3rd highest in the world – even its total GDP ranks in the top 50, despite being among the 50 smallest. It’s an affluent, high-tech, glistening beacon of progress – the only place I’ve ever been that’s even half as clean or as safe as Japan.
From the moment I started planning my visit I found myself intrigued by nearly every line I read. How on earth could such a tiny speck of geography have managed to achieve so much – and so quickly?
The answer, I soon learned, is far from what I expected:
Government. A progress-obsessed, big-brother government that towers over everything and drives its people to achieve, to succeed, to renew, to adapt.
Singapore is so obsessed with improvement that it’s one of the few places I’ve been where a guidebook printed today would be nearly useless tomorrow; even on my first day in the country I counted dozens of plaques about how or when or why this or that was beautified or restored or improved. They were everywhere.
“Affluent Singaporeans live in an apparently constant state of transition, continuously urged by their ever-present government to upgrade, improve, and reinvent.”
Virtually everything I read about Singapore had some mention of a relentless push for modernization and development. The result has been undeniably groundbreaking: a tiny island country that’s worlds apart from everything else in the region. But you do have to wonder what kind of toll such pressure takes on its people…and how they’ve managed to keep it all going…
…Because as far as I can tell, the answer isn’t all that pleasant. Censorship and oppression. Not the North Korean “we do what we want and nobody can stop us” kind of oppression, but oppression nevertheless:
“On the surface, Singaporeans enjoy a substantial level of social freedom. But, as opposition figures like JB Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan have discovered, once you start making yourself a nuisance to the Singapore government, life can change dramatically. Both men were hauled through the courts and bankrupted by lawsuits and Chee was fired from his job as a university lecturer.”
“The government, keen to be seen as democratic, established Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park in 2000, but imposed firm restrictions on the subjects speakers could cover. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, the novelty quickly wore off and, perpetually deserted, Speaker’s Corner became a something of a local joke.”
“In theory, Singapore has a democratically elected government based on the Westminster system. In practice, however, the electoral laws are biased in favour of the ruling People’s Action Party, to the extent that though 33% of the electorate voted for one of the three opposition parties at the 2006 general election, the government won all but two of the 84 seats up for grabs.”
Yet somehow, unlike any “communist” regime I’ve ever seen, here it all seems to work. Poverty really does seem nonexistent; citizens are highly educated; they’re free to come and go as they please; there’s not a speck of litter to be found; the public transit is as efficient as can be; even the architecture screams of free-thinking creativity. So despite what the government may do, on the surface it feels just fine (pun intended).
I suppose the only way to really know how it feels to be a Singaporean would be to move here and become one yourself. My guess, based on just a week of experience and a few personal anecdotes, is that the middle and lower class love it while the rich elite (who get hit hardest by the taxes and rules) probably don’t. But whatever the case, you can’t argue that Singapore truly is a place unlike any other.