Singapore sees drugs, not money, as the root of all evil. Singaporeans love money. Its what makes this island city-state at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula — a onetime pirate’s lair — one of the greatest economic success stories in the world.
And it’s the absence of drugs that helps make Singapore, hands down, the safest and cleanest city in all Asia.
No police sirens, not a drop of blood in the streets, virtually no crime, unemployment almost non-existent. You won’t find a cigarette or candy wrapper anywhere. But you will find palm-shaded parks, a picturesque riverfront, museums, art festivals, spectacular gardens with a famed orchid collection, and flower and tree-lined boulevards all over the city. Throw in an envied education system and first-rate medicine and you’ve got a mini-Eden.
All the turbo-charged cash flow from the robust economy, ongoing growth and healthy tourist industry have generated so much spendable income that that Singapore claims to be home to the two biggest shopping malls on the planet. The fact is that Singaporeans are so busy enjoying their prosperity and enviable standard of living they simply can’t afford he have something as distracting and potentially disruptive as drug trafficking upset their very full apple cart.
That’s why Singapore is dead serious about their policy of zero tolerance. If you are caught with drugs, it’s a mandatory death sentence. No appeal. No exceptions (I remember the shocking story some years back of three young Australian backpackers who were convicted and went to the gallows).
So I was braced for what I imagined might be an unpleasant experience at customs: bags torn apart, sniffing dogs, latex gloves, full body searches, security police with automatic weapons everywhere. But instead, we walk right through a green gate marked “nothing to declare” and hop without delay into a waiting cab. No guns, no dogs, just a smile and a wave from a petite lady security officer.
I’d also been warned that they’d put you in jail for spitting or chewing gum.
That’s not the case. You won’t go to jail for spitting, but they’ll slap you with a fine stiff enough to make sure you never do it again. You won’t go to jail for chewing gum, either but you can’t buy gum in any story. I should have known about the gum when I noticed a bored-eyed fashion model chewing a huge wad right in the face of a customs officer checking her passport.
All this regulation may sound unreasonable to most independent-minded Americans, but I find myself thinking that maybe a little behavioral discipline in public places isn’t such a bad idea. One thing is for sure in Singapore: you never have to look over your shoulder, and everybody is so polite and nice to everybody else it’s almost eerie (a necessary skill no doubt mastered from living in such a small country).
If all the predictability does nothing for you, you can find a little more color and ethnic funk in Chinatown, Little Arabia and Little India, where you’ll discover the “hawker” street food the city is famous for. Some of the best fare is served in the worst-looking dumps: plastic chairs, neon lights, roaming cats, cement walls, wet floors. But what comes out of the open kitchen is pure culinary magic. It’s all about the food.
Singapore is strategically situated at the gateway of the straits of Malaga, an ancient maritime trade route separating the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean from the South China Sea and Pacific. At the height of the British colonial period the straits were the East India Company’s superhighway, shuttling exotic goods between Madras and Canton and points in between, including Singapore. It’s not surprising that pirates once made this place their base of operations, or why, until recently, Singapore was the world’s largest container ship port (those bragging rights now go to Shanghai).
The earliest inhabitants of this Asian crossroads intersecting two oceans and two hemispheres are said to have been a maritime people called Orang Laut (people of the sea), who settled here many thousands of years ago. A few of their descendants are still here, on small farms in the country, just over the border with Malaysia, and in fishing villages. But the place that came to be known as Singapore is today as alien to these people as the moon.
In the 19th Century, a peripatetic young Pole-turned -Englishman named Joseph Conrad (nee Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) set out to sea to find his fortune. He washed up in Singapore. A place he called home on and off for much of the 1880s, and where he found inspiration for some or his best work, including Lord Jim, a story derived from a real-life tale of a captain shamed by a tragedy at sea. In those days, Singapore was a town of churches, colonial administration buildings, boarding houses, tidy parks, quiet residential streets where the Brits built their homes away from home, private clubs, and a picture postcard tropical waterfront bristling with sailing vessels from every corner of the globe.
Yet in spite of all the colonial western influence, the east, which gave the island its original cultural identity and true history, never went away. The native population grew right alongside the new, westernized Singapore. The river was alive with Arabian sanbuqs, local perabas and Chinese junks. Floating sampan villages lined the length of the Singapore River, creating horrific pollution and a noisome stench that remained a sharp point of contention for more than a century. It wasn’t until 1970, five years after Singapore gained its independence, that the sampans were finally removed, the water people relocated, and the river cleaned up. To this day, many people here still mourn the loss of the sampans — even though no one misses the nauseating reek that went with it.
For all their days of glory, the British are apparently not missed. Today landfill has erased the famous waterfront. What few colonial buildings remain have been dwarfed and overshadowed by new construction, stripped of any reference to the colonial era and converted to other uses. So there’s nary a trace of empire. For example, Queen Victoria is immortalized in a fountain monument in the corner of an historic downtown park. But there’s no mention of her. She’s painted white and lime green and if you didn’t recognize her face you’d never know who she was.
Where once you were likely to see Englishmen in pith helmets and white linen suits promenading prominently in the streets, today Singapore is an ethnic melting pot. Chinese account for the majority, followed by Malay, Indian, Indonesian, and a sizable colony of expats from all over English- speaking world. The city/ country is dotted with mosques, temples, churches and synagogues.
The fact is that Singapore has become unrecognizable to anyone older than 25. In just the last quarter century, most of the city’s history has been demolished and plowed under in the name of progress and a rush to join the modern world — replaced by colossal, gleaming skyscrapers.
If you’ve ever savored a Singapore sling, it originated here in the famous long bar at the colonial-era Raffles hotel, named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, an enterprising colonial administrator and officer of the mighty East India company. Raffles came from quirky aristocratic British family that allowed it’s a pet sun bear (a small bear) to sit at the table for meals. The bear had a particular taste for champagne and the flesh of the exotic mangosteen fruit. Tragically, Raffles’ promising career was cut short when he suffered a stroke and died in Singapore at the age of 41.
It was Raffles who claimed Singapore for Britain in 1819, which is when the island’s economic fortunes really began to take off, and when Singapore suddenly acquired its classic British colonial architectural look.
Singapore is not unlike Disney World — clean and shiny on the outside, but not so perfect, and certainly more complicated behind the scenes. The pedal-to-the-metal race to westernize, and the heavily-biased tilt towards an aggressively competitive corporate culture have created a hybrid modern society like no other. In fact, it’s fair to say that the clash between old Asia and new Asia, and the simultaneously rapid integration of East and West, is nowhere more manifest than right here.
The outcome is clear — westernization is the winner, old Asia the loser.
Nowhere for thousands of miles will you see a skyline like this — a jubilant reproduction of Miami Beach, Manhattan, Chicago, London and Sydney, all hurled up in a glittery gallery of glass and steel. At night, the downtown business district becomes a massive light show. On the reclaimed waterfront, now pushed ahead half a mile, stands an eye-popping architectural wonder called, prosaically, Marina Bay Sands. More boat than building, this 55-story conference center/ 2500-room hotel/shopping Mecca and art center looks like a gigantic Noah’s Ark on three legs. At night, it hovers over the edge of the city like a colossal UFO. Nearby is the Singapore Flyer, a huge Ferris wheel resembling London’s famous new landmark, The Eye. Together, they give a kind of Disney theme park feel to a city that otherwise takes itself very seriously.
After dinner, we climb to the roof of our hotel and step out under the night sky, struck speechless by the light display, from the office towers all around to the bridges lit cherry red and neon blue below, to the strange, hovering UFO on stilts just across the park. And over there is the Flyer, a ring of sparkling jewels reflected in the park lake.
This is the stage where SE Asia is performing the first act of a blockbuster new play that will redefine everything in the years ahead. Helping write that script is a leadership that worships prosperity, in league with a shadow government of family businesses and a kind of corporate syndicate that is the real power behind the scenes.
Singapore’s ethnic power structure is unique: Chinese at the top, running everything, from financial services to manufacturing. In the middle, the blue and white collar worker bees who actually make the place run smoothly: civil servants, customs and security people, small business owners, taxi drivers, hotel workers, secretarial and clerical support staff, teachers, lawyers and doctors. These people are largely Tamil Indian and Muslim Malay. At the bottom, living in conditions most westerners would describe as urban poverty, are the people you rarely see outside their own neighborhood cultural enclaves in Chinatown, Little India and Little Arabia. These crowded communities are self- sustaining hives of micro commerce, and operate for the most part within their own confines. Otherwise, the poorest of them are employed as laborers, menials, servants and street cleaners.
The stark disparity between the very rich and very poor has triggered a little- reported phenomenon: a startlingly high number of suicides among poor people who often bet their life savings at the casinos and wind up broke. To try to curb the suicides, the government has mandated that Singaporeans pay $100 to enter any casino. Non-Singaporeans get in free and are free to kill themselves all they want. If you happen to be an entrepreneur with money to invest, Singapore will welcome you with open arms — and no restrictions. No sponsorship or local partnerships necessary, as in most other SE Asian countries. Just walk right in, get your papers stamped, and start paying taxes.
But if you are looking for social security or any other kind of sympathy from the government, forget it. No safety net. You’re on you own. Saving can be tough in a place as expensive as Singapore. That’s why so many retirees wind up driving cabs.
Whether Singaporeans are driving cabs, sweeping streets, walking dogs, changing beds in a hospital, or running a global business, chances are you won’t hear them complain. They’ve all got family, relatives or ancestry somewhere else, so they know what it’s like and how tough it can be outside their little city of Oz. They know that Singapore is the greatest success story in SE Asia, and they count themselves lucky to be part of it.