In my opinion, Singapore is one of history's great success stories. Particularly for those of us who cut our teeth on development economics, or who just lived through the political misfire of America's electoral nightmare and the chaos it is sure to bring, Singapore seems like a paragon of stability and good governance.
The tiny island-nation was founded around the turn of the 19th century by Thomas Stamford Raffles, himself a fascinating character in history. The man flailed around Southeast Asia for about two decades while literally everyone he knew including most of his immediate family died of malaria, bucking the leash being held by his overlords in the East India Company and anchoring his name to everything he could possibly find; which was a lot of things because he was fond of traipsing around jungles making maps, taking notes and giving indigenous people really weird names, like Dick.
Back then Europeans would get sick all the time in Southeast Asia, probably because they insisted on wearing suits wherever they went. When they got sick the doctor would usually advise the patient to “take some air”, which meant getting on a ship and puttering around the sea for a few days and then abruptly dying. The state of medicine was so deplorable back then that oxygen was considered an effective treatment for malaria. Still, the British did manage to produce a remarkable number of maps during this time.
Speaking of boats, it also took months and sometimes years for messages and directives – which had to be transmitted by those same malaria-curing boats – to go back and forth between the Malay Peninsula, London and sometimes India. Raffles discovered that instead of waiting around for a year to get a reply to his message, he could just do what he wanted, figuring that events would already have worked themselves out by the time he received a reply from India House in London and nobody could stop him anyway.
And he was right, most of the time. This is probably what it will be like when we finally land a colony in Alpha Centauri, since it will take a message traveling at the speed of light about 4 years to reach from there to Earth, leaving lots of wiggle room for the shenanigans of ambitious space colonists eager to name asteroids after themselves. But I digress.
Singapore, owing to its strategic location in the Straits of Malacca, became an important cog in the machinery of British imperialism as a shipping port, centre of commerce and naval base for the projection of British power. Of course, it’s a well-known and somewhat darkly comic tale now but there was nothing funny about it for the British or Singaporeans when the heavily fortified island was easily captured by the Japanese in 1941. The fatal flaw in their defences? The big guns were pointed in the wrong direction. The Japanese rode in from the North on bicycles. Hubris kills empires.
After World War II, Singapore wrestled with its post-colonial destiny as did the rest of Southeast Asia. A union with Malaysia was aborted after a short trial period. This left tiny Singapore, with its ethnic Chinese majority and lack of natural resources, isolated at the foot of a much larger, predominantly Muslim neighbour. It is hard to imagine now, but the future must have seemed impossibly vast and unknowable back then.
Essentially, what happened after that – the Sparknotes version – is that Lee Kuan Yew and the People’s Action Party took the reins of the polity and forced it onto the path of rapid modernization in the span of a single generation. The economy aped the Japanese model of bootstrap industrialization followed by a seamless transition to a booming service economy. The government invested heavily and efficiently in healthcare, housing, education, infrastructure and the military; social reforms emphasized English language skills, family ties and traditional values (word of warning - for real - don't do drugs in Singapore!). Say what you will about Singapore, and not everybody holds it in as high esteem as I do, but it is indisputably an urban planner and technocrat’s wet dream come to life.
The result is a standard of living and per capita GDP that rivals any country in the world, two public universities that this year leap-frogged most of the Ivy League in global rankings, virtually non-existent crime and impressive large-scale infrastructure projects like the central catchment basin and reservoir that have led to a near total self-sufficiency in vital resources like water. People also complain about the MRT a lot, but coming from Los Angeles I have found public transportation in Singapore to be almost like a gift sent from Heaven.
If you go to the National Library (which is also, by the way, first-rate) and peruse some of the old photographs of the slums that existed in Tanjong Pagar just a few decades ago and then compare those to the bustling, commercial neighbourhood that exists now with its sleek high-rises sitting cheek-to-cheek with historically preserved shop-house districts – well, you can’t help but admire it. If you are a public policy nerd like I am, anyway.
In this respect, the country is an unqualified success story. Some people bang on it for being kind of boring. It is true that in order to achieve its goals of rapid development, massive urban planning projects were rolled out that produced lots of large and monotonous high-density housing complexes that all look the same. It is also true that the country is small, so there is by its very a nature a cap on the amount of physical spaces one can explore.
Still, I think the Urban Redevelopment Authority has been pretty balanced in preserving and incorporating green spaces while meeting the functional demands of an expanding population. Most of the island is definitely a case of function over form, offset by some bold landmarks like The Esplanade or Marina Bay Sands, but I think it works just fine. Nobody is ever completely happy. If we were, what would be the point?
There is still plenty to see and do in Singapore, especially outside of the main tourist spots. A trip to the basement of Peninsula Plaza, with its pungent Burmese cuisine that you can smell from across the street, is one of my favourite ways to spend an afternoon. Up in the Northwest corner, just across the way from Johor Bahru, there is a rarely-visited migratory bird sanctuary and a gaggle of organic farms, not to mention the racetrack where you can not only enwealthen yourself but beer is actually reasonably priced. Joo Chiat down by the East Coast is a terrific example of historically preserved architecture and gastropubs by day, the best place to eat pho during the afternoon, and a quintessential spot for people watching once night falls.
But for my money, on a hot balmy night - which is to say, every night - nothing beats kicking back and having a cold Tiger beer at a local hawker centre while chatting with some 65-year old Chinese uncle who used to be a taxi driver. As part of the government’s supremely nerdy attempt to suppress social deviancy through fiscal policy, alcohol is absurdly expensive in Singapore. In Clarke Quay a pint of beer can easily top $20.
The cheapest way to drink - other than in the dank and depressing confines of your own room while watching Full House re-runs on Youtube - is in hawker centres, outdoor eateries and drinkeries where you pull up a little plastic chair at a little plastic table with a couple of strangers and knock back a big bottle of Tiger for the reasonable price of $6.50 or so. The beer is cheap(ish), the food is good and the local colour is tossed in for free.
After one such night I returned to my drab, monotonous high-density housing block which is truly on the edge of Singapore. If I exit my door and gaze outward, there is nothing to see except rain forest, an artillery range where the Army blows things up in the middle of the night, and then somewhere in the steamy blurred distance is Malaysia, where you can still see the ghostly shadow of 200-year old boats carrying Englishmen out to sea to die.
As I made my way down the hall bathed in the washed out glow of a fluorescent bulb, I spotted an object off to the side in the gutter. It was large and dark, an enormous, light-swallowing thing. In fact it was an insect, an impossibly large bug of some kind, lying on its back perfectly still except for two front pincers. With these pincers it was slowly reaching out into the air in an agonizingly purposeless and terrifying facsimile of a human being begging for help. Surely, this is what Gregor Samsa looked like.
I stared at it for a few moments then went inside and fell asleep. In the morning it was gone. Sometimes I wonder if it was ever actually there at all.