Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Thirteen things to like about Singapore and Five Issues to Consider

It has been over two decades since I last lived in Singapore. My childhood homes have been demolished and rebuilt as unrecognizable new entities. My first real primary school has relocated. Much of Singapore has changed. Yet, much remains the same.

I think what is primarily different to me is my perspective as an American. When I last lived here I was a Singaporean (and very young). There are so many promising things about this beautiful nation-state – yet there are also large question marks looming behind them.

So follows the ruminations of an ex-Singaporean citizen and a past, present, and future American citizen. Take it in the spirit it is offered in: guarded, cautious optimism.

Thirteen Things I like about Singapore, lah:

1. CPF. This stands for “Central Provident Fund.” It is a forced system of savings that automatically deducts around 13% of a given paycheck and deposits that money into an account that buys Singapore government bonds. The yield is low (the Singapore government surely makes quite a bit of money on those funds) but the account is yours and you can monitor its growth and development from Day One. Once you reach a certain corpus in the account (I think around $30,000SG), you can also start diversifying your portfolio, choosing investments other than government bonds. When you retire you can start withdrawing from this account, and at a certain age, can choose to withdraw the entire amount at once. This does everything right that American Social Security does wrong:
a. It is limited in scope. You can only withdraw what you put in.
b. It is not optional.
c. The account is yours to manage and upkeep, not part of some amorphous, accountable-to-no-one “pool.”

2. Home ownership. There’s not really a day that goes by that a Singaporean won’t take the opportunity to point out to you that 93% of Singaporeans own their own home. Due to the proactive opportunities afforded by the HDB (Housing Development Board – Singaporeans love acronyms, not only because they are neat and clean, but also because they are understood across language barriers), most Singaporeans effectively own their own homes. When you have that many property owners in a society, you get a lot more people who care about clean streets, clean neighborhoods, and low crime, because guess what – they feel like it’s their town. This drive for home ownership is overdeveloped, however, so much so that a young married couple would rather live separately at their respective parents’ homes rather than rent a “starter apartment.” In America, as in most countries, no one would ever expect a young couple, as a common practice, to buy a brand new home as newlyweds. In Singapore, it is a sine qua non (and often what a girl will expect when dating a guy…)

3. Cleanliness. MRT stations. Streets. Stores. Restaurants. Singaporeans have been trained to keep the place generally clean – and compared to many cities in the world, Singapore is spotless.

4. Courtesy. My very first day in Singapore, when I only had big bills on the bus, someone offered a $1 coin so that I could pay my fare. It’s things like that, or the fact that there are special seats on buses and subways for the elderly, the disabled, and the pregnant – and that people actually get up when such people need seats – that prove that you really can program a people to be polite, if you keep repeating mantras over and over and over.

5. Safety. In three weeks in Singapore I did not hear a single police siren. Not one. In an area of 240 square miles, housing 5 million people, there are only 11,000 people in jail. Follow the rules – or you will be punished. Since Singapore doesn’t have a history of letting criminals off the hook, many who would play at crime just decide to be “good” instead. Despite the good-natured tip I heard from several to “watch for pickpockets” I never once encountered even the shadow of such an encounter.

6. Encouragement to travel and recreate. On the subways you will find ads for travel to Macau or Taiwan or Malaysia. Get away – you deserve it – is the message delivered on the subway to the common man – and Singaporeans do travel – all of the Singaporean couples I encountered during my stay had left the country for a vacation in the last year. Americans, cursed by Puritan imbalance, have guilt about taking even a week off. Singaporeans have no such trouble.

7. A strong economic base. People are working round the clock in Singapore. There are road and construction projects everywhere. There is no shortage of jobs nor any sign of a recession in Singapore. I watched unparalleled spending in every possible way while I was here.

8. Sensible monetary policy. Instead of allowing a cartel of private banks to steal money from the public (like the United States does through the Federal Reserve System), Singapore has a guarded and fairly conservative monetary policy that allows them to do things like give (not loan) $5 Billion to Indonesia when the Tsunami hit in 2004. When a government can just give $5B to a neighbor, you know that they have a strong portfolio. Singapore famously weathered the George Soros theft-cum-monetary implosion in 1997 and that’s because they had and have steady hands at the till.

9. Public transportation. There isn’t a place in Singapore not reachable by some combination of walking, buses, subway, and taxi – and not at sky-high prices. Singapore has made a conscious and concerted effort to make the entire island accessible to anybody during reasonable hours. The system is efficient. I never waited more than 20 minutes – even during non-peak times – for a bus, never more than 5 minutes for a train, and never more than 2 minutes for a taxi. There are 10,000+ taxis on the island.

10. National Service. Despite the irony of the fact that I specifically repudiated my Singaporean citizenship over a refusal to do the mandatory 2.5 years required of all Singaporean males, then went on to enlist in the United States Marine Corps Reserve while in college, I have always thought that national service (for males only) is a good thing. While there has been discussion over the years for the females to do it – some local women say that their girls are too spoiled – this has never really gained traction. However, if National Service were required for women, there could certainly be training in nursing and other practical arts that women excel in – for combat has not ever been, nor will it ever be, their primus modus.

11. Small Business is strongly encouraged. Not only did Singapore dedicate the majority of its “bailout funds” to small businesses, but everywhere you look, there is a small business – be it the corner food stall, small store, niche item store, or whatever it might be, there are thousands and thousands of small businesses on this little island that flourish because people don’t believe you have to have category killer megastores like “Best Buy” or behemoths like “Wal-Mart” to live (in fact, Wal-Mart opened, failed, and closed in Singapore some time ago).

12. Health Care is affordable. Because I happened to be sick when I arrived –from an ongoing sinus infection which I had before I left, I had two opportunities to use medical care in Singapore. On one occasion, my wait was 15 minutes, and my visit and meds cost $30US without insurance. The same visit with insurance in America would have cost me $70. What is wrong with that picture? On another occasion, when I wanted more powerful medicine, I waited an hour, but was seen at nearly midnight, and was charged $40US for a consultation and the shot. That would have probably cost over $200 in America, again, with insurance.

13. Food. Singapore’s #1 selling point to tourists: you can spend 30 days here and eat different foods three times a day for all of those days and still not have eaten everything Singapore has to offer you. Singapore has given me ten pounds of additional body weight to take back to America to work off.

So there are 13 things I like. Never let it be said that I did not start with the good news first. The remaining points are items that I think every Singaporean citizen should care about (and Singapore is a lot more engaged democratically, partly because not voting is an offense that can cost you the franchise) because if they are not addressed, all of these “things I like” (except, perhaps, the food, thankfully) will be imperiled in some way.

Five Areas of Concern about Singapore, lah:

1. The PAP. The People’s Action Party, founded in part by Lee Kuan Yew and led for many years by him, has governed Singapore exceptionally well over its very short history as a sovereign nation. That being said, in its we-know-better-than-you style of governing, it has effectively crippled its people. Robbed of a charismatic or effective leader, the system will be a dead weight, as Singaporeans have been taught to be good followers, but have hardly been schooled in how to lead. They have not been thought smart enough to do that for themselves, and so the government does things like arrogantly erecting 32 toll booths throughout the city, with another 32 to come soon, with no explanation other than fiat. Singapore works fine because Lee Kuan Yew and people he formed are still in power. How will it work when he’s gone? The party is called “Pay and Pay” and “Poor also Pay” for a reason. When will Singaporeans turn the tap off? When will Singaporeans lead instead of being content to simply follow?

2. Cost of living. This cost only continues to rise and is obviously due to limited land space – that’s not something Singapore can do anything about – and puts Singapore into a constant frenzy of building, working, and consuming. Wash, rinse, repeat. While I think that the HDB’s do-good policy of providing subsidies to those who need it is brilliant, at some point in this century Singapore will absolutely run out of livable space. Then what? Singapore has to have a sustainable growth plan – one that realizes maps – and countries – have boundaries.

3. Singapore, like America, is a nation without being a people. When you say “Singaporean” you could mean “Malay” or “Chinese” (the majority) or any number of races. The same problem happens with “American” though as a country founded primarily by European immigrants, we do have a dominant group of ethnicities (much like the Chinese dominate in Singapore). As the demographics develop in this century it will become clear that those ethnicities who have an identity (note: people have an identity when they have common cultural ties: food, clothing, religion, etc.) as a people will constitute the nation (we in America will become mostly a Hispanic country, as they are the only demographic really interested in having kids, apparently). Those who do not, will not. This ties directly into my next point, which is

4. Singapore’s declining birth rate. Without fail, throughout the march of history, as civilizations have increased their disposable wealth, their birth rates have declined. A declining birth rate is the sign of a narcissistic people, self-absorbed and so blind to the wonder of the world that they possess neither the generosity nor the sacrifice to pass it on to another generation. Show me a civilization that thinks children are a calculation on the same footing as “career” or “vacation” or “lifestyle” and I will show you a civilization that will be shortly extinct, irrelevant, or both. Singapore recently offered a monetary incentive for a third child –precisely (and ironically) the wrong response – people don’t have children because it “makes financial sense” – they have children because they are obeying God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, and because they love the beauty of our world – no matter how flawed or fallen it can be at times – so much that they want to share it with others. Children are not assets, though he who has a large family will never have to worry about medical insurance or retirement. The ancients knew that. We, too smart for them, have forgotten.

5. It is alarming to me that the most conspicuous, most talked-about new development in Singapore is – a casino resort. Is this what Singapore aspires to lead the region in? Instead of spending an extraordinary amount of money on actually building a world-class university that can compete with institutions in Britain and Australia, Singapore is content to watch the flower of its youth go to study in foreign countries where inevitably, they fall in love with the culture and…don’t return to Singapore. How tragic it is that Singapore has concluded that the biggest contribution they can make to the global economy and the biggest investment they can make in their future is another boring, vacuous, dime-a-dozen casino resort. We only need to look to Dubai to see where “impress others” development leads to. If Singapore wants to be serious about leading – which as I pointed out, the PAP doesn’t foster – it needs to educate its leaders at home in a world-class university – not abroad. That’s just one suggestion. I’ll leave it to Singaporeans who know their country best and have the courage to lead, not just follow, to consider alternative sources of pride than the Integrated Resort.

Singapore’s mythical symbol is the Merlion. Fierce yet gentle, a giant model spits out water daily at One Fullerton, directly across from the construction site of the new IR. It was recently struck by lightning, a very bad sign for a still-very superstitious Chinese population. Let us hope it was not a bad omen, but perhaps rather a wake-up call to a smart, resourceful, good-hearted, and hard-working populace.


Anonymous said...

Often we forget the little guy, the SMB, in our discussions of the comings and goings of the Internet marketing industry. Sure there are times like this when a report surfaces talking about their issues and concerns but, for the most part, we like to talk about big brands and how they do the Internet marketing thing well or not so well.

Ivan Chew said...

That's a refreshing perspective. I enjoyed reading your views on what you liked about Singapore (plus, you've lived here and you know what you're talking about).

Oh, about this -- "When will Singaporeans lead instead of being content to simply follow?" -- I've come across quite a few Singaporeans who're leading in their own way, outside of the government. That much, I'm confident, as a Singaporean :)

Stephen Heiner said...

Thank you, Ivan! Cheers.