Travel

Experiencing Singapore (2): Preconceived Notions vs Reality

I don’t think Singapore is very much on the radar of the average Western guy. However, there are some preconceived notions flying around, which I’ve heard over and over.

The first is that Singapore is a highly developed country that doubles as a tax haven (and playground) for the rich. I think this statement is generally true. Corporate taxes are very low, and there is no capital gains tax. As a consequence, you will see a lot of top-of-the-line 7-series BMW or S-class Mercedes-Benz cars on the road, and supercars are easily spotted as well. However, what is maybe not so well known is that the average Singaporean is very well taken care of by the government. Unlike the West, though, you do not get money for nothing. Instead, the government helps you out with some of the basic expenses of life, the biggest of which is arguably a place to live. The majority of Singaporeans live in public housing, commonly referred to as “HDB”. That is the shorthand for “Housing Development Board”, which is the name of the government agency that ensures that Singaporeans — no, not you filthy expats on temporary contracts! — can have an affordable place to live. Even on a quite modest salary, Singaporeans can afford their own small place. Those people may have to squeeze their partner and two kids into a two-room apartment, but with a regular salary, a large four or five-room “HDB” is quite easily affordable, and certainly more affordable than similar options in Western cities. There is one important caveat, though: housing via the HDB is only leased for 99 years.

This is how around 85% of Singaporeans live

Another very common remark is that Singapore is a very authoritarian country. Amusingly, when my girlfriend and I attended a banquet some time ago in Europe, she was asked by an elderly gentleman whether Singapore is a dictatorship. That is, strictly speaking, not true. However, what is true is that the ruling party has an iron grip on politics. The life of the only credible opposition party is certainly a tough one. In day-to-day life, though, Singapore simply appears to be an extremely well-run country. I expected policemen on every corner, but instead the people are extremely well-behaved. While it is true that there are heavy fines for, for instance, eating on public transport (S$500) or littering (S$1000?), this isn’t enforced because there is constant police presence but because people adhere to the rules. As a consequence, Singapore is a very clean country, unlike the dump of a Western country I live in.

Law and order put a smile on my face

Many Singaporeans seem to believe that their country is extremely crowded. While the population has been increasing dramatically, largely due to immigration from mainland China, it is not the case that Singapore is overly busy. Yes, I have used public transport during both the morning and evening rush hour. The trains are very spacious, so they don’t even compare to, say, the London tube. Also, I spent quite some time on the London underground having basically no space at all. Rush hour in Singapore is a far cry from that. Admittedly, I am a lot taller than the average Singaporean, so my perception is also a lot different.

Supposedly, the busiest street is Orchard Road, which is allegedly the equivalent to London’s Oxford Street. I walked down Orchard Road both on the weekend and during the week, and at no time was there not a downright obscene amount of space available for pedestrians. In comparison, Oxford Street in London is often packed to the gills, so much so that it is almost impossible to either not bump into people or for people to not bump into you. The busier tube stations like Embankment or, before the remodeling, Tottenham Court Road, are also a lot worse than a busy Singaporean MRT station. For you New Yorkers out there, think of Union Square. That place is a lot less busy than Oxford Street in London, but still busier than any of the allegedly busy places in Singapore I’ve seen.

Singaporeans, at least those you meet in the west, often point out how “multicultural” their city is. This might net them some points with the Western libtard crowd, but Singapore is only multicultural on paper. The Chinese are the majority, the Indians and Malays are the minorities. There are also some white westerners. Just like in the West, there is relatively little mingling going on. You rarely see mixed race groups, albeit some Chinese may have a token Indian or a token Malay friend to demonstrate that they are not racist. If I hadn’t known it, I would have thought that Singapore is essentially a Chinese enclave, so few Indians and Malays have I seen, due to the very high levels of segregation. For instance, at the Meetups I attended, I encountered two Indians, but easily five times as many whites, and ten times as many Chinese. On a big conference I attended, there were so few Indians and Malays that I could have counted them with both hands, possibly with just one hand. Oh, and if you hear that there are a lot of “ang mohs” (white guys) in Singapore: no, there aren’t. They are a very small minority that is, however, quite visible as they are normally taller than the dominant race, i.e. the Chinese, and in some industries they indeed have a noticeable presence.


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