Readers' Submissions

Reflections on Singapore

  • Written by KK
  • August 11th, 2009
  • 15 min read



Almost three years ago, I submitted a piece that was titled "The Singapore Option" which has subsequently received some feedback. It was interesting to see that while ex-pats tended to think my initial impressions of Singapore were far too rosy, an indignant Singaporean felt offended at my treatment of his beloved homeland and felt I was much too negative. A lot of time has since passed and this April I left the country after my company decided to relocate their European operations to Prague, a very sensible choice I might add, and a good one from my point of view as I received a decent payout. I could have probably found another similar job in Singapore (all my ex-colleagues did) but after two and a half years I was in no mood to stay on and decided to take a long break travelling in SE Asia and spending a few months with my parents and siblings back in Hungary who luckily live in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Having seen quite a lot of the world and especially Asia and Europe I find it very interesting to compare different places and cultures. Here is my take on Singapore including some lesser know facts, with the benefit of hindsight.

1. Singapore is still part of the British empire.

This will shock most people coming from an English-speaking background but I think it is obvious to anyone coming from a different culture. In the strictest official sense there is no such thing as a British Empire any more, indeed it is now generally known as the Anglo-American empire or Les Anglo-Saxons. On many non-formal levels though the links between Singapore and the rest of the Anglosphere have never been severed. You only need to consider a few facts to see what I mean:

– Singapore is part of the Commonwealth whose official head is the Queen of England. The Queen does not have any direct authority over Commonwealth countries (except Canada, Australia and New Zealand where she is head of state), but do not doubt that her informal and personal influence in the Commonwealth is huge. One only needs to look at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games or just look at a G8 meeting photograph, where she takes centre stage to see that her power is far greater than is commonly believed.

– British warships have been replaced by American warships in Singapore ports, but given the nature of the "Special Relationship" between Britain and the US little has changed in reality, only the emphasis has shifted in favour of the US. It is also a little known fact the Singapore troops are generally trained in Australia or the US. The RSAF (Royal Singapore Air Force), an offshoot of the RAF, has a base in the US where it stations a number of US-made warplanes and trains its pilots. When Singaporean men (who need to partake in two years of compulsory military service) serve abroad, as in Australia or the US, they wear the uniforms of their host countries.

– Singapore is a key member of the ANZUS military block, the other signatories being Australia, New Zealand and the US. These four countries are as close military allies as NATO countries would be. In fact ANZUS was designed as a complementary military organisation to NATO and was intended to project Anglo-American sea power into Asia.

– Lee Kuan Yew, the "father" of Singapore is a Grand Master in the 33rd degree of Freemasonry. His son and daughter occupy the two most important positions in Singapore (Prime Minister and CEO of the Singapore Investment Authority) and doubtless also are Freemasons. As anybody who has done research into how secret societies operate will know, loyalty to a secret society generally trumps loyalty to one's own country. Like America, Singapore was founded by Freemasons and I have no doubt that their influence is still huge.

– The entire Singaporean elite was educated in Britain or some other Anglosphere country. They speak English as their first language and their ancestors pledged allegiance to the British Crown. Towards the end of the 19th century they decided to discard their Chinese-Malay language and fully integrate into the British system by teaching their children only in English. Many have served in the British Army and the Colonial Administration in high positions and it is their offspring that are now running the country. This English-Speaking elite is collectively known as Peranakan or Straits Chinese and is also prevalent in Penang and Melaka. They have a fascinating culture that would be worth another submission. If you are in Singapore, do not miss the Peranakan Museum which is incidentally next to the Freemason building.

– Singapore follows English Common law with some local modifications. A British law degree is just as good in Singapore as it is in Britain and many local lawyers have received their degrees there.

– Any educational qualification received in Singapore is generally accepted all over the Anglosphere and vice versa enabling easy movement of labour. It is far easier for a Briton to take up work in Singapore than it would be in Europe, where he has to face language barriers and often a requirement to convert his degree into the local equivalent at considerable time and expense.

– Colonial Administrators have been replaced by Ex-Pats. All over Singapore, in the best night-clubs, restaurants, condos, hotels and office buildings you see white faces. Their job descriptions might have changed, but these are still the very same type of people that used to run the Empire. They are running business empires instead of political empires, but the end result is the same.

There are many other examples but I think you are starting to see my point now. The British empire might have formally dissolved, but an informal one still very much exists and the evidence is all around you.

2. Singaporeans are friendlier than Thais.
Yes, I know I must be out of my mind. Still, after my last couple of trips to Thailand I had to come to this rather surprising conclusion. Just travel a few times back and forth between the two countries and you will agree. No-one's going to stab you, punch you, rob you, rip you off, jail you for made-up reasons while in Singapore. Waiters, Immigration and service staff will not give you the attitude either. There are no double standards or double pricing, you will not be treated any differently because of your race or nationality.

3. Singaporean Chicks are way hotter than Thais or Indonesians.
Again, just fly to Singapore, go to Clarke Quay or Boat Quay on a weekend and then tell me that I'm wrong.

4. Singapore is possibly the only place in Asia where you can meet and date Indian chicks (forget India. Nearly impossible).
There are two awesome Indian discos, one on Boat Quay the other on Clarke Quay. Some of the girls in there are out of this world and quite friendly.

5. Singapore has its own cuisine, called Peranakan.
This cuisine can also be experienced in Penang and Melaka, which were administered from Singapore in colonial times. It is a blend of Malay, Chinese and Portuguese flavours and is really quite heavenly. Do give it a try if you are around the Straits of Malacca.

6. Singapore has the best Indian food outside India, minus the food poisoning you would undoubtedly get in the Mother Country.
Places to try: Riverside Tandoori between Clarke Quay and Boat Quay, heavenly Indian buffet for 14/19 SGD Lunch/Dinner. There will inevitably be some hot Indian chicks to rest your eyes on. For cheaper options try the Lau Pa Sat food court off Raffles place. Little India is dirty so I would be careful when choosing a restaurant and steer clear of the street stalls unless you don't mind sharing your food with the occasional rat or cockroach.

7. There is an Arab quarter in Singapore around the Arab street area with the best Arab food in the region. It can in no way be compared to the similar extremely filthy area in Bangkok. This place is clean and soothingly atmospheric with a few traffic-free streets, great food and lots of Shisha-Smoking youth. A good place to meet Malays, who I think are the friendliest among Singaporeans.

8. Singapore has the best nightlife in the region.
No compulsory closing times and so many bars that it would take a lifetime to visit all of them. The coolest area is Peranakan Place off Orchard Road which has a few bars in traditional Peranakan shophouses and an atmosphere unmatched almost anywhere else in Asia. On the downside, alcohol is ridiculously expensive.

9. Singapore has the best airport in the world.
A well-known fact and a delight to experience.

10. It takes fifteen minutes to get from downtown Singapore (say Boat quay) to the airport by taxi.
I have done this trip many times and it has never taken me more than 25 minutes. I do not know of any other major city where this is possible. There is also an MRT going to the airport for those that can take it slow (and cheap).

11. Singapore is the world's third biggest financial centre and number one in Asia.
It is not for nothing that Singapore is called the Switzerland of Asia. The Lion City has very low taxes and a good regulatory structure plus firm rule of law. Overseas Chinese in the region park their money in Singapore and will usually own a condo or house as well.

Now let's examine some stereotypes about Singapore and see if they are true.

1. Singapore is a fascist dictatorship.
True, but only if you accept that the US and the UK are also fascist dictatorships. I would suggest that in Singapore you get far less hassle from the police, the tax authorities, airport staff, security guards or surveillance cameras than in those two countries. On the downside you do not get the illusion of a one-party state masquerading as a two-party state and you cannot protest government policies in public, neither can you go on strike. The newly established Speaker's Corner near Boat Quay is a rather lonely place. I suppose Singaporeans do not live under the illusion that their vote counts. Call me cynical but I think they are right not to care about what politicians are up to.

2. Singapore is a shopping mall with UN representation
Partly true, but if you venture out a bit, you can find historic streets and buildings, beaches, parks and extensive nature reserves. The centre of the Island is primary rain forest where you can spend a whole day hiking. There are also numerous parks, the best of which is the Botanic Gardens.

3. Singapore is boring
This used to be true, but is becoming less and less so. True, there are too many people and too little space, but there is still plenty to do here, not least there are some fascinating museums, massive bookstores and a very good library. There are also beaches, parks and a huge variety of restaurants and bars. Still, if you are into long walks in nature, fishing, hunting, outdoor sports etc, you're better off going to Idaho or New Zealand.

4. The humidity is a killer
I will have to agree with this, though the evenings are quite pleasant and if you live near the East Coast you won't even need air-con due to the sea-breezes. Plus it could be worse. You could be living in KL!

5. Singapore is a Chinese country
An oft-repeated mantra. I would suggest that while partly true, the reality is far more complicated. I have Singaporean friends who complain that there are more and more mainland Chinese moving into the country and are thus making the place more Chinese. It is also true that you pretty much need to be Chinese to achieve anything in political or business life. The lower rungs of the ladder are reserved for the Indians and the Malays. Still, Singaporean Chinese have more in common with Chinese Canadians or Chinese Americans than with their mainland brethren. It must also be noted that while Singapore likes to play the Chinese card in business, when it comes to politics, traditions and military loyalties, it is firmly aligned with the West. If there ever was a war between NATO-ANZUS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries, Singapore would be fighting against China and not with it.

6. They will hang you for chewing bubble gum
Rubbish. The misconceptions regarding Singapore's supposedly harsh punishments are truly staggering. While it is no Sweden, criminals that get caught are treated decently, though drug traffickers and murderers receive the death penalty. As for minor offences, people regularly jaywalk and leave rubbish on the streets yet I have never heard of anyone getting fined for it. Some unruly ex-pat teenagers have been caned for hooliganism, but this is one area where the Singaporeans are way ahead in my opinion. Caning spray-painters and hooligans should definitely be introduced in every country. I am all for it.

7. Singaporeans are obsessed with money and status (face)
Probably true, very much so in the case of Chinese Singaporeans. However, Americans and Russians are also obsessed with money, yet nobody chastises them for it.

8. Singapore girls prefer Ex-pats
A very common stereotype, not least among Singaporean men. My experience is that your attractiveness to local females directly correlates with the size of your Ex-Pat package. No pun intended :) It must also be noted that the vast majority of Singapore girls are very conservative and few Chinese parents let their daughters date non-Chinese. The famed SPG (Sarong Party Girl) is generally Indian or Malay from a less affluent background or Western-Educated and thus prefers westerners because she will have more in common with them. It is quite common for Singaporean girls to spend their weekend in church rather than in the clubs and many remain virgins to both sex and alcohol until marriage. Most Singaporean couples get together in University and get married shortly afterwards, leaving fewer singles from which foreigners could choose from.

9. Singapore is a card-board America
Not entirely without ground. Like America, it is an English-speaking, multiracial nation of immigrants. It has the skyscrapers, the giant shopping malls, obsession with money, the highways, the wide avenues, high-pressure work environment, women with attitudes and gargantuan expectations towards men, etc… If you get below the surface and spend some time here, you will see that the differences are far greater than the similarities and often to Singapore's advantage. Singapore has plenty of walkable neighborhoods, excellent public transport and cheap taxis, so you don't need a car. It has legal prostitution but very little crime. People go out and eat out a lot and spend a lot of time reading. Bookstores and libraries are always packed as are cafes, restaurants and parks. Most people are educated, well-informed, well-travelled and speak multiple languages. In these respects it may resemble Switzerland or Sweden but certainly not the US.

10 Singapore is squeaky clean as are Singaporeans.
Errm, no. Sorry, but no. Clean by Asian standards perhaps…
You can say many things about Singapore. It is definitely tidy, well-organized and great effort is being put into fighting dirt. However you are still in the tropics and you can encounter plenty of dirt in the HDB heartlands, Little India or Geylang. There are also far too many rats and cockroaches for my taste. As for the people, yes, young Singaporeans are clean, but a lot of old people are not. Peeing or crapping into elevators and stairwells is still a problem as are foreign construction workers with poor hygiene.

11 Chinese food is great
No, it isn't.
OK, so they do a decent duck, roast pork or dumpling soup, but too much of Chinese cuisine is just bland and tasteless. Pork-knuckle soup, Chicken Rice, fried vegetables and soy sauce in absolutely everything is not my idea of fine cuisine. Everything is fried or boiled and spices are off-limits during the cooking process, unless it's soy sauce, palm oil or MSG. Fortunately, other options abound in Singapore.

12 Singapore is Expensive
It would appear that eating out, public transportation, airport taxes and general goods cost roughly the same or slightly more than in Bangkok, while being cheaper than in Ho Chi Minh City or most Western capitals. Apartment rentals are also cheaper than in most western countries, though hotels are more expensive. Services are cheaper than the West but dearer than in Bangkok. Alcohol and cigarettes are more expensive than almost anywhere else.

13 Singaporeans are square-headed
If, under square-headedness you mean someone who obeys superiors without questioning, tries to fit in, doesn't try to change the established order, respects hierarchy and would not dress or act in a way that offends others then you are right. In this case all Chinese are square-headed. However Asia is a densely populated continent and if people tried to live according to their own rules, there would be chaos and mayhem. It might be unfair and boring, but it works. Still, if you are in the party mood, you'd better get drunk with some Australians or Irish if you want to have fun. Singaporeans just don't have it in their system, with the exception of some Malays and Indians.

14 Singapore is a gated community
Quite true, I'd say. For many rich people all over Asia, this is the place where they can actually walk on the streets, go shopping, drive around and generally flaunt their wealth without fear. This is achieved through a rigorous immigration process and tight borders. A criminal does not stay on the loose very long on this tiny island as there is simply nowhere to hide and it is impossible to leave the country without being caught.

Stickman's thoughts:

Very interesting indeed. I have two good friends living in Sing, one Kiwi and one Aussie, and both love it there.