Singapore. The Lion City. A tiny island-nation, just thirty-one miles east-to-west and seventeen miles north-to-south—less than half the size of the county I now live in—and yet the home of over five million people.
Understandably, the city is very vertical. When I visited the city, I walked on bridges that connected seven fifty-story high-rise apartment buildings. Bridges were on the twenty-fifth floor and fiftieth floor. In contrast, the highest building in Minneapolis, the big city of my home state, stands only fifty-three stories tall! It was dizzying to walk open-air on the fiftieth floor and look down on a jogger on the twenty-fifth floor.
The city is very green. Plants have been imported from tropical regions all over the world. In the memoirs of the founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, it was told that about 8000 plants were imported and about 2000 survived. Buildings often have trees on lofty floors in open air. Of course, the island also has some natural habitat, complete with monkeys and other wildlife. At the Singapore Quarry, a place with true cliffs across a small like, I saw a white-bellied sea eagle flying and a monitor lizard swimming. I even saw many of the “houseplants” of my youth!
The city is also quite clean. Even chewing gum is illegal, as is spitting—apparently, a cultural habit of the Chinese. And although it is very humid, situated on the equator at sea level, Singaporeans often find their “air-con” nearby.
The city is also safe. On the weekend of National Day, when schools were off the next day, I saw children riding around on bikes or scooters in public places at ten at night. Women can walk alone down the street. The reason? Cameras are everywhere—for example, on every floor of government-built high rises, which comprise eighty percent of the housing. The promise is that within twenty-four hours, a criminal would be caught. Sentencing is swift. Trial by jury has been eliminated, I believe, for all crimes except murder. Even having drugs brings the death sentence. And lesser crimes are still punished by whipping (“caning”).
But the city is not free. The joke, only half in jest, goes, “Singapore is a fine city. You can be fined for anything.” The price of bringing a so-called “third-world” city to first-world status within one generation was the loss of freedom. One shanty town first had roads built through it, then the residents were moved to government-built housing. One family, for ten years, still kept chickens in their apartment “flat”, with the children bringing in grubs every day for feed. This scene epitomizes for me the abruptness of the change, which did not allow time for much of the populace to adjust culturally. Street vendors were also moved into food courts, where each vendor received a storage-shed area with a pull-down door for preparing food. I found the food well-made and relatively cheap, with roasted duck on rice and a bowl of soup costing less than five Singaporean dollars.
Apparently, the churches are also monitored. An unidentified man may visit a service with a camera and take pictures of the premises. Words against other religions are outlawed. The reason? With an ethnically-diverse population inhabiting a tiny island together, Singapore is very jealous to maintain a sense of national unity. Not unlike America at its founding, Singapore found itself in a volatile situation with people identifying more with their subgroup than the nation. Tensions especially occurred over ethnicity and religion. The native Malays—honored with the national language, although English is the functional language (except in the military)—are Muslim, but a minority. Also present are Hindus of Indian origin. The entire population is three-fourth Chinese, speaking Mandarin—and each housing development maintains this same distribution, so as to prevent (for example) Muslim neighborhoods. Shrewdly, the national police are actually from Nepal and live separately and secretly, until an altercation ensues, in which case none of the major ethnicities can blame the other for the use of police force.
The Muslim presence is interesting. Surrounded by Malaysia and Indonesia, both Muslim nations, Singapore appears tiny and vulnerable. When the British were pulling out their forces around 1970, Singapore solicited and received help from the Israelis—also surrounded by Muslim nations, but even more hostile—whom they called “Mexicans”. Even today, a Singaporean can receive a separate passport to go to Israel, so that visits there are not seen by the neighboring Muslim nations. A clever nation indeed.
In readying the nation for battle, Singapore not only developed its military arsenal, it also encouraged its populace to own their own home—often a government-built flat purchased with government loans—to build up the will to defend the nation. Each young man also does two years of “national service” in the military. Apparently, missiles in Malaysia (just to the north) are pointed at Singapore, so that every high-rise flat has its own bomb shelter. Of course, attacking Singapore would draw ire from many nations who have a vested interest, even tall skyscrapers, in Singapore—a point not left unnoticed by my host.
The city owes its origins to its location. On the famed Straits of Melaka, one of the world’s true bottlenecks for shipping, it is a strategic port—the reason that Great Britain established a colony there in 1819 under Stamford Raffles. Standing on the eastern shore on my last day in Singapore, I counted seventy ships anchored in the sea. Truly an awesome sight!
The price of quick prosperity has been taken in the area of freedom. In one sense, the government breaks my paradigms. It is democratic and socialist. Of course, for all practical purposes, there has only been one party (the PAP) in its fifty-four years, so voting can have a hollow ring. Although not a “benevolent dictatorship,” because dictators are not truly up for election, Singapore is (as one citizen described it) a “nanny state.” The socialism is real. The government provides most services and has solicited much business—and yet, this socialism has not created a welfare state. Citizens of Singapore, both men and women, work. To not work, such as a being a stay-at-home mom, would be countercultural. The nation strongly pushes its economy forward through education and government incentives.