Singapore – a soulless success

I’m not sure I can agree with the ethos of a nation where it’s potentially illegal to walk around your own home in the nude.

Singapore’s harsh treatment of those guilty of drug-related offences is well known, and arguably justified, but there are some other laws which appear to have been plucked from a book of Irish jokes.

Incorrect disposal of chewing gum will incur a hefty fine, you could be gaoled for hugging a stranger in the street and forget to flush a public toilet at your peril.

Officers have apparently been known to conduct spot checks if they see a suspicious candidate skulking out of a loo and you could be up to $1000 poorer if you leave a floater.

The result; well – it’s certainly clean – and what this island nation has managed to make of itself since independence from Malaysia in 1945 is stupefyingly impressive.

There are only 5.3 million Singaporeans, but the nation boasts the world’s highest concentration of millionares.

It covers just 700 sq. kms, but boasts a GDP rivalling the leading nations in Europe. It has 12 times the population of Vancouver but just half the crime rate.

Much of Singapore’s financial success can be attributed to its status as South East Asia’s transport and freight hub. The government is also in the process of constructing a new port at Tias, replacing the current facility, which is already the world’s second busiest in terms of total shipping tonnage.

Changi Airport also set a new record in 2013. Almost 54 million passengers arrived or departed during the 12 months and, in his National Day address last August, President Lee announced a master plan for a third runway and subsequently a fifth terminal on Changi’s undeveloped east side, currently used by the military.

These developments could increase the airport’s capacity to a staggering 170 million passengers a year.

The relocation of the port is also to facilitate the construction of a new waterfront city, complementing the recently completed Gardens by the Bay, and moving the military airbase will free up further land.

In fact, lack of real estate seems to be one of the few things that could limit the ambitious policies of President Lee’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), to which there is little effective opposition.

His 2013 National Day address seemed intended to show voters that his guidance will help Singapore evolve well beyond the era of his father, the 89-year-old Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding prime minister.

Under the elder Lee’s austere and technocratic policies Singapore went from 1960s colonial outpost to flourishing financial centre.

Many Singaporeans (three quarters of whom are of Chinese descent) will voluntarily pack grandstands again in 2014 for the most recent edition of Lee’s address.

The country’s seemingly limitless advancement is undeniably impressive but, for all its shiny streets, shopping malls and ruthless efficiency, it somehow lacks soul.

Visitors who come expecting the same sights, smells and fascinating chaos of its less developed neighbours can rightly be accused of not doing their research before landing at Changi, but the Singaporean experience does seem a little orchestrated.

There is a distinct lack of open debate about political or social issues, mainstream media is shamelessly pro PAP, and the views of any strident opposition spokespeople are notably absent from print and broadcast journalism.

A new generation does seem to be questioning the ruling party’s wisdom, clamouring for more say in the country’s direction, but this is almost entirely restricted to social media.

Something I always look for in any city is spontaneous or politically-based street art, but non-commissioned and approved works are considered vandalism.

This is no different in the West, of course, but the punishment here can comprise jail, fines and caning – or a combination of the three. I get the feeling any anti-establishment message would be lost on most locals anyway.

Singapore, as a city state, is also an overwhelmingly urban experience. The distinctive Marina Bay Sands Resort is a suitable visual metaphor of the direction the country has taken over the past 30 years, but this wasn’t always the case.

Around 95 percent of the nation’s original tropical forest has been felled and more than 70 percent of the island’s original biota (flora and fauna) is no more.

Visiting the tiny reserves in which the remaining species are squeezed is a very Singaporean version of eco tourism. Organised, controlled and quite unnatural.

A thick pall of smog can also hang over the city for days on end, mostly a side-effect of deforestation in nearby Sumatra, and it can make being outdoors decidedly unpleasant when combined with the heat and humidity. Perhaps that’s what drives so many into the countless air-conditioned shopping malls.

It all depends on your version of a good time, of course. If you do some research before your visit, enjoy shopping, will patronise expensive (but excellent) restaurants and appreciate public transport that runs to the second – then you will no doubt enjoy your visit.

But, if you prefer a little uncertainty in your life and love a raw travel experience, I suggest simply transferring at Changi and heading north to Vietnam, Laos or the increasingly popular Myanmar.

For an insight into the stark differences between Singapore and one of its closest neighbours you could take the easy half-hour ferry ride across to the Indonesian island of Batam.

I have to admit that I visited with a couple of pals to engage in the very antithesis of a raw travel experience, playing golf.

We went for a round at Batam Hills, a club with an air of opulence and Egyptian themed clubhouse completely at odds with the ramshackle villages surrounding it.

The sphinx that greet you at the top of the drive and clubhouse adorned with hieroglyphics are just weird, but I learned a lot from the young female caddies who were clearly under instruction to be generous with bum slaps and high fives at the merest sign of competence.

The whole experience left me with an uneasy feeling of Western indulgence, but when I quizzed my caddy about relatively wealthy tourists supporting resorts like Batam Hills, she was surprisingly philosophical.

She said jobs at these clubs, or casinos, are much sought after by local girls because the alternative is repititious factory work for one of the many global electronics companies which take advantage of cheap production costs in Batam.

It seemed I was lonely on the high moral ground.

In 1970 the island was 98 per cent forest and had few roads or cars. Now it’s a major logistics base for some of the world’s biggest contractors.

Financially, it has closer ties to Singapore than Indonesia, and now investment is also flowing from China with the establishment of steel manufacturing plants and shipbuilding.

Round completed and cigars smoked, my ex-patriate pals chatted on the return trip about life in Singapore and the country’s insatiable appetite for foreign workers.

Immigrants already make up around 38 per cent of the work force and, in light of a low birth rate, the government has announced it plans to attract another 1 million by 2030. A policy that has actually drawn some mainstream criticism as opponents express concern about the further dilution of national identity.

But Singapore’s greatest fear seems to be a slowing economy and, this bullish attitude, combined with the financial woes of the West, is what keeps skilled ex-pat workers flocking here in their thousands. There is money to be made and a high standard of living to be had – it’s an opportunity to work abroad and actually add to your resume.

It’s an easy place to live and the harmony that exists between the Chinese, Indian and Muslim-Malaysian cultures is refreshing. It’s a hard edge that it lacks and wealth, or at least creating the impression of it, is what seems most important.

I attended a ‘helipad party’ with one of my hosts in the (now closed) New Asia Bar, which afforded stunning 360-degree views of the city. The pricey cocktails were excellent, and we were enjoying the atmosphere, until I noticed a flurry of activity up on the mezzanine level.

Those who had paid to drink cocktails and socialise a few metres above us had started a triumphant chant of; ‘VIP, VIP’, and were pointing down at us plebs.

Singapore’s social scene seems to be an environment where you are largely defined by your career, salary and material possessions. These are not categories where I stack up too well.

One friend described her favourite activity as sitting in the bars on Orchard Road and watching the high-class prostitutes pick up businessmen.

Chinatown’s antique stores and Little India’s art galleries were charming, but I wish I’d known about escort spotting during my visit.

Perhaps then I might have felt I was finally experiencing life outside of the tourist brochure.

6 Responses to “Singapore – a soulless success”

  1. Colin Cook

    Excellent coverage of today’s Singapore. Colourful and accurate synopsis, with brilliant photos.

    • Stuart Walmsley

      Appreciate that Col – plenty of photographic material there, that’s for sure.

  2. Stevie T

    Nice work Stu… Great pics and an interesting appraisal of one of the world’s most regulated cities. Appropriately, I’m a big fan of the ‘Rebel Stu’ shot :)

    • Stuart Walmsley

      Cheers Mr T – I was doing my best to start a revolution of fun. I think Singapore would be a much more attractive destination if you were running it.

  3. Joan (Gaz's Mum)

    Loved your article Stu. Thanks for sharing esp. Photo of Gaz swimming I would like to frame it.

  4. Steve

    Spot on!


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