Where am I?
A different Asia…
I’ve been using the prevalence of iPhones as a proxy for the economic standing of each country and by this measure Singapore is definitely the wealthiest place I’ve ever been. What’s more, Singaporeans avowedly respect the integrity of any queue. I’d only flown three hours from Chennai but it was so different that I could have flown to the moon.
Everything in Singapore seems to be new and if it isn’t it gleams anyway. True to urban legend, the city is devoid of chewing gum and litter (even though it’s impossible to find a bin when you need one). Its tidiness and efficiency made me wonder why we’re content to settle for lower standards at home – if they can refrain from dropping litter on the street, why can’t Britons? To a visitor, Singapore seems more advanced than the ‘Developed World’ it once aspired to emulate. Rather like when I was in Israel, I wondered how this small nation managed to succeed economically when its neighbours continue to struggle.
Unlike in Nepal, I didn’t feel any guilt at revelling in ‘Western’ pleasures – after all, isn’t that what Singapore’s about? It was invigorating to be somewhere that stays up after 21:30 after two and a half months in India and Nepal.
It is very tempting to bandy about the label Westernised when in Singapore but I’m not sure if this fair. Maybe the lifestyle and attitudes traditionally associated with America and Western Europe (but also displayed in places like Singapore) emerge naturally in any society when the individual is empowered by economic prosperity and education?
What’s the catch?
Several people told me that Singapore is run like a company, autocratically and dispassionately. One resident told me that the country is not to everyone’s tastes – those who flourish there are comfortable with fettered civil liberties.
I went on a guided tour of Singapore Art Museum one evening and the most interesting artwork was definitely an installation called No more tears, Mr Lee, which laments what Singapore has lost in its breakneck economic development. (See page 16 of the linked PDF.)
The next day I was shown around by a young Singaporean lawyer, a clear beneficiary of the city’s astronomical development. He took me to Tiong Bahrur, a gentrifying area where aspects of Old Singapore are still visible; traditional Chinese decorations adorn residential doorways, retail is small-scale and independent and you can dine in unpretentious covered food courts. Communities of older Singaporeans living in 1950’s public housing coexist with an influx of hipsters and their attendant artsy cafés. I thought it was interesting that an area largely overlooked in Singapore’s transformation is being appropriated by the trendy young urbanites it has created.