SINGAPORE: THE ANTI-BANGKOK
by RJ Furth (April 2012)
I was walking down Orchard Road in Singapore when I saw two rebels. They were smoking cigarettes while walking down the street and letting the ashes fall on the street. These rebels risked a fine of a few hundred dollars, which they chose to risk rather than stand by one of the ashtray posts that dot public places. It was a minor act of rebellion, the only one I saw during my two days in Singapore. Nobody jaywalks. Taxi drivers don’t try to jack up the price or claim that their meters don’t work. I tried to tip two taxi drivers and both returned the tips. One even accepted 20 cents less because neither of us had exact change. If Bangkok (which I wrote about in my last travel commentary) is sitting at a greasy barbecue while wearing dirty jeans and a torn T-shirt, burping and wiping your mouth on your sleeve, heavy metal blasting on enormous speakers, Singapore is high tea at the Savoy in London, wearing a white linen suit, eating cucumber sandwiches with the crust cut off and sipping tea, Yo Yo Ma gently playing in the background.
I first came to Singapore in 1981. I had the opportunity to visit in 1976 but avoided it because Singapore border security was infamous for turning away young people with long hair and backpacks. Even then Singapore was a rigid society that frowned upon any act of rebellion. When I finally visited Singapore I enjoyed the cleanliness, the order, the lack of traffic and noise. Even then some people were not fond of Singapore, complaining that it lacked funk, repressed people, controlled politics. All of that is true and continues to be true to this day. If you are uncomfortable with government control, censorship and reduced freedom, if you like it down and dirty, Singapore is not for you. The Singapore government (which is democratically elected, though political opposition is weak and insignificant) decides what is best for the people. This is where urban congestion charges were used for the first time. You must pay dearly to drive in the center of the city, which eliminates traffic problems. (London uses the same scheme.) Taxes on cars are brutally expensive and are designed to get rid of old cars. The result is that there is no traffic in Singapore. Cars are new and spotless. I saw three Lamborghini’s and two Ferraris; I didn’t see a single junker. The poor use public transport.
T-shirts carry the slogan: Singapore Is A Fine City. There are fines for spitting, dropping trash, smoking away from designated smoking sections, eating or drinking on the immaculate subway, causing public disorder. There are no live sex shows, though I saw prostitutes on Orchard Road. They were lovely and looked clean and well-fed. Prostitution is legal and regulated for health and safety. A friend told me there was a place known as Four Floors of Whores. I didn’t visit it, but I imagine it looks like a high class spa. Movies are censored on TV to remove bad language and nudity. There is very little crime on the island. There is no trash on the streets. You get the picture.
Singapore is an interesting place to consider the debate between individual freedom and social welfare. Although it is not a police state and people don’t fear speaking their minds on most issues (insulting the founder, Lee Kwan Yew, will lead to an expensive law suit you are guaranteed to lose), citizens lack many freedoms that people in the United States or Britain take for granted. The payoff is excellent-and free-social services. Hospitals and health care are wonderful. The educational system is one of the best in the world; Singapore students rank among the top on science and math tests. Life expectancy is among the world’s highest.
I rarely recommend Singapore as a place to visit. The charm it once had is mostly gone, replaced by an antiseptic version of Asia. Singapore’s Chinatown, once rich with old shop houses and Chinese medicine shops and old women in traditional clothes, is now mostly tourist shops selling T-shirts and expensive jewellery. Little India remains fascinating with colorful Hindu temples and great inexpensive restaurants, but it is small and so clean as to seem like a Disney version of India. Sandy remarked that it was just like India, except without the smell, the dirt and trash, the beggars and poverty and handicapped people. Singapore does have some highlights. It has the best zoo in the world and an outstanding aquarium. The food is excellent,varied and safe, though Western food is no bargain. It is not a place that is worth traveling around the world to reach. However, I remain fond of Singapore. If you’ve been traveling in funky places in Indonesia or Thailand, if you’re tired of hassling with taxi drivers or your stomach is upset from bad food or bad water, if you want a safe place to take the kids, Singapore is an excellent choice. I enjoyed my 48 hours and I may return, but I never dream of Singapore, never miss it, rarely have flashes of it as I do about Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. As they say, Singapore is a fine city.