A Tall Tale of Singapore
“Warning: Death for drug traffickers under Singapore law.”
That’s what it says on the immigration form the flight attendants are handing out. Well shit, I’ve got a bottle of Tylenol in my bag, why didn’t someone tell me before I got on the plane?
Singapore is of course famous for its strict law enforcement. Remember that American college kid who faced being beaten with a cane for a vandalism charge? Yeah, that was Singapore.
I don’t expect to have any problems, at least not that they would involve law enforcement, but hey, never say never. Although I can’t say I’m a fan of their strict policies, it’s difficult to argue with results. How the heck did one of the smallest countries on earth, with near zero natural resources, become such a success story?
In one word: location. Literally at the southern tip of continental Asia, Singapore’s original name, “Palau Ujong,” means “Island at the end.” When some Brit called Raffles showed up 200 years ago he said, “Blimey mate, this island is right at the end.” To which the locals replied, “That’s right dipshit, that’s why we called it ‘Island at the End.”
When Raffles figured out that the local smart-Alecks were loyal to an exiled prince, he went and freed that prince, then cut a deal with him to put the island under Raffles control. He then said to the locals, “Who’s the dipshit now?” built a big house and sat around in a white suit drinking gin.
Well the Brits had a jolly good time running the place, and the island suddenly got popular with people from all over pouring in – more than half of them Chinese. With the British investment came jobs and opportunity, and the population increased 100 times over the next 100 years. Oh and here comes one more: Me.
The plane lands and it isn’t long before the “strictiness” is evident. When airport workers enter the building after coming off the runway they are subject to metal detector screening. To use the airport wifi you need to submit your passport, and they actually scan the thing not just look at it.
Secure yes, cheap no. I’m used to Thailand prices where a four star condo can be had for $600 a month. Not so in Singapore, that might get you two nights at most. In protest I’ve scaled down the luxury meter way down to a “capsule” hotel, where the room is basically a bed in a box.
Anyways, after WWI the Brits built a freaking huge naval base on Singapore. Just one problem with it: No ships. Come WWII, the Japanese said “LOL” and took it over. Well that didn’t last long, and after the war all hell broke loose, with no one running the place and everyone pissed off at everyone else.
The Brits came back, but the locals said,
“What the fuck dudes? You were supposed to be protecting us, but you and your stupid naval base without ships got your asses kicked and then you ran away! Why should we listen to you?”
The Brits said, “Right-O chaps, you run the place for yourselves now, but we’ll still handle defense.”
That made no frigging sense, but it’s always been amazing what you can get people to agree to while using a British accent. Among those doing the agreeing were local Communists, whom the Brits were not too fond of, and so the Brits backed the merger of Singapore with the surrounding non-communist Malay territory.
Presto chango, in 1963 Malaysia became a country, with Singapore a part of it. This however was not a marriage made in heaven. The vast Muslim majority in Malaysia who had been living under a Sultan, had rather different ideas on just about everything than the Chinese majority in Singapore who had been living under the British. Who would have ever guessed?
One nice thing about the British heritage (at least for me) is that English remains the official language in Singapore, although spoken in a near incomprehensible accent, like it’s been mixed with Chinese and Tagolog, which, it has. People seem to be able to understand me just fine, so good enough.
Anyways, Singapore got its independence not by declaring it, or by fighting a war, but when the Malaysian parliament voted unanimously to kick them out of Malaysia. How cool is that? Imagine the USA voting to kick the San Francisco Bay Area out of the country? It’s not so different, and Singapore, the whole country, is much smaller than the Bay Area.
To me, this idea of the small state makes so much more sense than “mega-nations.” A place just large enough to have common cause and values among a clear majority of its people. How could any other way lead to harmony?
Even in the so-called “United” States of America, are they really united? Is everyone getting along? Have you noticed, umm, any animosity lately? Can ‘one size fits all’ political solutions ever hope to be best for a population so diverse in its values?
I doubt it.
Diversity can only have strength when there actually is some, and that means embracing, or at least accepting that different people’s and places diverge in their way of doing things. Low diversity within a community, high diversity between communities.
In its new Independence, Singapore got to define its own way, and that task fell largely to a guy called Lee Kuan Yew. Although elected, Lee put limits on what could be decided by democracy, and became a sort of dictator.
His authority was not so different to that held by the Kim’s in North Korea, but the similarity stops there. For it isn’t a question of “democracy versus authoritarianism” that shapes the fate of nations, but rather what policies that nation pursues. A good dictator can vastly outperform a stupid electorate, and this has largely been the story of Singapore.
Lee’s policies could best be called unbridled free market capitalism with strict law enforcement and social policy. For example, Singapore has no minimum wage, that’s unregulated. But playing a musical instrument in public or chewing gum can get you jail time.
And what was the result of these policies? Singapore changed from third-world to first-world status within a generation, has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world, and more high wage earners than almost anywhere, in fact one out of every six Singaporeans is now a millionaire.
Boom. Results matter. Compare Singapore’s results to North Korea, Cuba, Myanmar, Venezuela, or any other place that has pursued policies that “sound good” like forced equality, or taxing business, or state run everything. Yes, wealth inequality is high in Singapore, but the standard of living is so high that it doesn’t matter. More than 90% of Singaporeans own their own home. 90%.
As I set out into the city, I can’t help but notice how clean it is. Feels almost like Disneyland. Also, for such a large city there is a notable absence of traffic. I would later learn the reason. Just the permit alone to drive a private car in Singapore costs as much as a Porsche Boxster, and… car buyers also have to pay an import duty of one and a half times the vehicles cost. Private cars are a luxury item.
This is one of Lee’s strict laws, Intended to keep the small country clean and uncongested, which it has. I can’t say I like it, but not even my car culture bias can ignore the results. Instead of cars, Singapore has trains, buses, and taxis. Lots of taxis. 28,000 of them.
I did see a Lamborghini though, so there is big money around. Singapore is after all a popular runaway spot for the truly wealthy, including Facebook co-founder billionaire Eduardo Saverin, and investment Guru Jim Rogers.
In spite of, or perhaps “because” of its economic policies, Singapore is able to provide generous assistance to those actually in need, providing free healthcare, school tuition, and rebates on transport and utilities. But the number of truly poor in Singapore is very small, and so the expenditures are minimal, and kept that way by a strict immigration policy.
Foreigners with high value skills may be employed by Singaporean companies, and “millions” of them are. Freeloaders are shown the door. It’s like Milton Friedman said, “You can either have generous welfare OR open immigration, but not both.
I’m here to work too, well, sort of. My “job’ consists of photographing a local attraction. I have a list of the 1001 best places in the world to photograph, one of them’s in Singapore, and since I was in nearby Thailand, I figured I’d stop by and tick it off the list.
A short visit will be enough. Although Singapore has a lot going for it, and I admire the way it came to be and its success, I can tell it’s not for me. I prefer life a bit more chaotic, a bit less controlled, and a bit less serious.
What’s too serious?
How about a $100,000 fine for selling gum? A $1000 fine for jaywalking or annoying someone with a musical instrument, a $150 fine for not flushing the toilet, or jail time for singing songs with obscene lyrics?
I think I’m okay with the toilet thing, but I’ve already jaywalked twice, so I’ve pretty much got to leave the country as it’s only a matter of time before I’m arrested.