On a collection of tropical islands barely the size of New York’s five boroughs, nestled right up under the shabbiness of peninsular Malaysia, there stands, in complete defiance of its neighbors, a glimmering country of textbook modernity. Singapore, once a beloved British colony, and subsequently ejected from its adopted Malay affiliation for being too economically successful, has risen, quite literally, out of the ocean to claim titles to Asia’s highest standard of living and the world’s most expensive city.
It is both a city and a country, and run with an iron fist. With their unfortunate lack of land, Singapore must import everything, from food to water to oil, and are constantly hauling in sand to expand their shores. All that is most shiny and new is built upon what was recently ocean; 10 of its 60 islands are completely man-made. From the air you might attempt to count the swarm of surrounding ocean vessels, but you will run out of fingers and toes quite quickly – there are thousands, because this is the world’s busiest container port, and with those containers comes all of the luxury for which this city is known.
The difficulty with Singapore is that is gives you a stick against which to judge city planning and public transportation the world over. From its inception as an independent nation in the 1959, the Puppeteers have seemingly manufactured the city ethos around inspirations from the Epcot Center, with a creepy overtone of Brave New World meets The Sims. The place is undeniably gorgeous and runs like clockwork. We, probably erroneously, elected to go there early in our travels.
Our first surprise: the mainland city is a veritable forest, albeit an extremely well-manicured one. Having somewhat of a lack of land to dedicate to just being wilderness, the country has made a determined and immensely successful effort of incorporating the biological jungle right into the concrete one.
Trees line every street, immaculate and lush parks nestle between sky scrapers, and even the government housing (mind you, it is mostly government housing) comes surrounded by sumptuous lawn. The only greenery out of control is the cemetery jungle and its reclamation of any graves not actively being ripped out for the newest 8-lane highway (land is precious, and dead bodies get trumped by roads).
Not content to let trees simply be trees, the Architects have manufactured a grove of SuperTrees, their metal frames looming 16 stories tall, clothed in plush plantlife, and dazzling with an evening light show of Disney-like proportions. They harness sunlight and rainwater and vent exhaust from the nearby and equally staggering conservatories but, more importantly, they are colossal enough to compete with the jaw-dropping architecture just across the road.
Singapore structures give the impression that investors forklifted sacks of million dollar bills onto the lap of a famous architect with the sole stipulation that the radical design inspire tourists to venture round the world to witness it.
This town hosts the two most expensive buildings in the world; the winner, at $6 billion, is the gap-jaw-inducing Marina Bay Sands, a mammoth public resort sporting a luxury mall with its own gondola canal and 5-storey continuous escalators, a casino charging an $80 entrance fee, and a three-towered, cavernous hotel impressively spanned by a banana-split-shaped infinity pool (hotel guests only, and we certainly weren’t, though we played the part well enough to get into the guest-only roof restaurant, where we spent on drinks what would otherwise have been an elevator fee).
The silver medal bearer of expensive architecture dominates a nearby island that sounded so much like Vegas that we instead spent our time in the mainland cemetery thinking it would offer more culture.
With all of this glam, it shouldn’t land as a surprise that Singapore also holds title to Asia’s most mammoth per capita dose of carbon. They can dust the city in a leafy green veneer and engineer all of the grime away, but that every bite of food is imported and that such immense architecture exists purely for amusement means that Singapore’s public image of sustainability is mostly bogus. One would expect a few more solar panels and wind turbines if they were serious about any of it.
Our wanderings carried us through luxury boutiques that would have surely rejected us in our home country. We have ogled 5th Avenue’s New-Yorky glitz, and received a stink eye in every store; here our skin color was a guilt-ridden, nearly all-access pass. An associate in Louis Vuitton gave us a royal tour even after we made it perfectly clear we could afford nothing on the premises (the cheapest object was a $200 credit card sleeve).
Perhaps it was because she was Filipina, naturally disposed to hospitality, and we brought tales from her homeland; perhaps it was because she not-so-secretly agreed that $5000 handbags were contemptuous: our Filipina hostess happily showed us some ridiculous products, led us onto the “bow” of the store, a veritable boat deck overhanging the surrounding lake with a magnificent city view, chatted for half an hour about culture and money and that, no, she did not get to keep the uniform shoulder bag (worth $1000), and then she dressed us up in Xmas silliness and took our polaroid.
She made relatively good money working there, as Filipinos do when they go abroad, but found the accompanying culture lonely and cold. In contrast to the chattiness of the Philippines, this gadget-obsessed population stares at their phones instead of offering smiles. They run a lot though, an oddity for Asia, and are blessed with workout machines in every park, so pudgy they are not.
Being our usual cheap bastards and in the priciest city we could find, we surfed on the couch of a pair of the most congenial, playful, and enlightening Indians one could imagine meeting. Boy and Girl (real names omitted to protect identity) gave us the opposite of a taciturn, Singaporean welcome and instead organized a raucous evening of Pictionary around our arrival, attended by a flock of pilots and stewardesses and an additional ethnic Indian, raised in Australia, with the oddest accent and a hilarious inability to communicate “India” to her Pictionary teammates.
Our hosts desire nothing more than to be American, are willing to settle for Australian, and wonder why the hell we would seek to visit India; they couldn’t have run any faster away from its filth, selfish crowds, and dirge of professional opportunity (healthcare is the only reason to venture there, they say, because competition is so fierce that doctors have mad skills and are cheap besides).
Boy earns a paycheck as a pilot for Singapore Air (yes, we are plagued by jealousy that his home base is the best airport in the world). Girl is a dentist who ran hard into the awful truths of the Singapore work ethic.
This necessary work ethic requires 12 hours days plagued with tasks no American PhD would tolerate, specifically the cleaning of toilets. Doctors’ wages are relatively low, yet the hours so long that workers have no time or energy for home cooking, which is probably for the best as groceries are staggeringly expensive (we often prepare an “American” a meal of tacos for our hosts, and this one broke our wallet, though it resulted in Boy and Girl discovering a tasty new cuisine). A government condo of 1600 sq/ft will set you back half a million dollars and a car, well, there is a reason the streets are nearly vacant, much to the pleasure of pedestrians.
It’s been called the most punitive Disneyland in the world, yet there’s unexpectedly not a cop to be seen. Enforcement of rules must rely on fear, inspired by an abundance of security cameras, plainclothes officers, and the rare penal action. There are few big cities I would freely roam solo at 2am, and this unequivocally tops the list.
You’ve heard of the no chewing gum rule, which results in marvelously unblemished sidewalks. You may have caught wind of canings for graffiti or not flushing a public toilet, but what makes it a true pleasure to move about town is that pedestrians self-organize with every step: on escalators it’s “standers” on the left and “climbers” on the right (and they insist that you follow suit), in stores they are inordinately lithe and considerate with carts (compare to The Philippines where it’s a traffic jam in every isle), and when entering subway cars they patiently stand to the side to actually allow other passengers to alight.
Oh sure, this sort of order leads to a dreadfully predictable, even [gasp] boring culture, but sacrifices must be made. This environment swaddles and distracts you, easing poverty and chaos into foreign concepts. Even in this stew of Asian ethnicities (where Chinese, Indian, and Islamic Malay mix), the heavily-stressed modernity has a consequence of white-washing everything.
Emphasis is on luxury goods (nearly every lady carries a Louis Vuitton), but there is seemingly no panache or even good taste to accompany it. Style here is bought, by importing artists and architects and designer labels. The ONE thrift store in town was closed for reasons unknown and spontaneous creativity is decidedly absent; art is instead discussed, planned and carried forth with impressive precision.
Yet for all of the surface glitz and glam, there runs a marvelously seedy underbelly; it’s easier to buy a bootlegged DVD than a real one. Tailor-made garments and hearty food can be found dirt cheap if you venture into ethnic neighborhoods like Little India, a shock of color in a city of metallic, which was nearly void of tourists because of the recent riot.
Why riot when you have such a standard of living? The pie is not divided with anything resembling equality and this country is notoriously racist. I am unsure of what the national identity is, but Singaporeans know it, and outsiders are only welcomed as tourists, not as residents. Even PhD-wielding Indians cannot rent an apartment under the accusation that they will stink it up with their curry. Foreign grunt workers suffer such miserable wages that they must reside in ghetto dormitories and endure a constant barrage of racial slurs and vocal venom concerning how they are depressing the wages of “real” Singaporeans.
Sound familiar? For a country of once-upon-a-time immigrants, it hits a bit too close to home how poorly they treat immigrants.
Xenophobia is a universal concept, but this government ignores it because cheap foreign workers offer such mighty economic impact. They ignore it right up until the workers riot, and then it’s deportation with hardly a question asked and no policies addressed. Perhaps it is at the urging of the Puppeteers that even the Hindu temples have posted notices that urge against uprising.
The impressive economy cannot continue apace forever, and there will be carnage. But if you keep your eyes on the surface (like you should in any theme park), Singapore is marvelous. If nothing else, find the occasion to fly through their airport. Savor the free WiFi and abundance of comfy chairs and outlets. Stroll about the immaculate gardens (cactus, sunflower, butterfly . . .), feed the koi, luxuriate in a free foot massage, catch a movie or ten in the free theaters, go for a swim. Yes, a swim in an airport. This culture understands luxury – it is what they do best.
But leave before the place makes you soft, because the rest of the world will look mighty chaotic and filthy before long.