My first impression of Singapore was formed in late 1987 when I arrived on a Japan Air Lines 747 in an early iteration of Business Class from Tokyo. I went back to Singapore quite a number of times after that through the nineties and early 2000s on business, but my recent trip was the first in over a decade. I was curious to see what had changed since my first time there 28 years ago.
Three decades ago Singapore was hailed as a modern miracle of free enterprise, a gleaming jewel of unfettered capitalism, and the rising star of Southeast Asian prosperity. It was said to have it all: brand new infrastructure, high tech manufacturing, cheap labor and living costs, a happy and productive workforce, absolute safety, virtually no poverty, a happy populace, and an unmatched quality of life.
Riding by taxi into the city from sparkling new Changi Airport to the sparkling new towers of the city center, I was impressed with the cleanliness and orderliness of everything: the spotless new cars (as if they’ve just driven off the showroom floor), the Interstate-like highway, the flawless landscaping. It all struck me as if the Disney World team of designers had taken a detour to this tiny island nation nearly on the Equator at the south end of the Malay Peninsula for a similar exercise in creating artificial perfection. Row upon row of high rise flats punctuated by factories and commercial sites lined the road. And all seen through the high humidity solar prism of the Equatorial environment. Even peering up at the thousands of majestic palms planted in precision along the roadway made one squint in wonder and awe.
Then I heard a “ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling” bell ringing, a low volume but annoying, persistent noise emanating from the dashboard. I leaned forward and asked the driver if he spoke English. “Of course, yes!” came the friendly reply.
“What’s that tingly sound?” I asked, as politely as I could.
“I am speeding,” he said. “Not much [giggle], but in Singapore every car has a bell that rings constantly if you are over the maximum speed limit, even a little.”
I noticed we weren’t going very fast, and though I don’t recall whether the max Singapore speed limit was then as now (90 km/h (56 mph)), our speed was not swift. Yet the incessant “ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling” became irritating very fast, and it would not stop. I would soon discover that all taxi drivers had learned to ignore it.
But this was my first ride in a Singapore taxi, and I was curious. “Why do you speed?” I asked, innocently.
“Oh, kind sir, because we MUST speed in order to make a living driving a taxi!” came the reply. “The government regulates our speed, yes, but we cannot make money unless we exceed the speed limit in order to make more trips in the day. You see, do you not?”
As an admirer of capitalism and the profit motive, I certainly did see. But I thought it curious that a government so famous for encouraging free enterprise would install so petty a damper on that courageous bastion of small business everywhere, the taxi driver.
Having started a conversation with my driver, I sought to delve into the matter of government control and asked him about some of the laws I had read about for seemingly minor infractions like jaywalking. He chuckled again and nodded, saying no native Singaporean jaywalked or chewed gum because they wished to avoid the high fines.
“If you see people crossing streets illegally or chewing gum, then you know right away they are foreigners.” He laughed. “Better not do it!”
He was correct. Over the next few days I noticed stern-faced uniformed police working in pairs out in force stopping Europeans and Americans for such infractions, including for spitting into the gutter and flicking a cigarette butt into the street.
Over lunch the following day, I asked another taxi driver how he liked Singapore (I had invited him to dine with me). “BORING!” he exclaimed, laughing. “BORING, BORING, BORING! Same-same every day. Nothing to do after work. No fun!” I asked him if he liked being in Singapore if he was so bored.
“Oh, yes! Good place to live. Good place to raise family. Always food, always money, very safe. Just boring!” He laughed again. I asked him what he did for fun.
“I fly to BANGKOK!” he said, his face beaming. “Many GIRLS and SEX there! No sex in Singapore!”
“Oh,” I replied, more than a little surprised. I had not anticipated this line of discussion.
“Then I take bus to Chang Mai to drink SNAKE’S BLOOD!” my driver proclaimed, smiling. “Snake’s blood good for giving man MUCH SEX! I drink only COBRA blood for STRONG LOVEMAKING!”
“Really?” This time more meekly, as I noticed several heads turning in our direction in Muthu’s Curry Restaurant, where we were enjoying scrumptious fish head curry served the traditional way with rice on banana leaves.
“Oh, YES!” he said. “Singapore BORING! Thailand FUN!”
At that instant the words of a wealthy Swiss seatmate on the JAL flight inbound to Changi came back to me. He’d told me that he lived with his family in Singapore because it was the safest place on earth. “Safer than Switzerland?” I had asked, eyebrows raised.
“Absolutely,” the Swiss businessman said. “I can let my 12 year old daughter play in the streets of Singapore at night without worrying about her.”
And so it was. I found Singapore in 1987 to be full of surprises and contradictions. At the end of my first visit, I had begun to think of the small city-state as a unique example of what I labeled benign fascism, a place safe enough to let small children roam without supervision day or night, but with a good many strictures on personal freedom and a muzzled press (e.g., the hullabaloo of gagging the Wall Street Journal which had criticized the Singaporean government). Nonetheless, I fell in love with the country, captivated by its unique charms.
So what’s changed all these years later? Not too much, I was glad to find, among its better attributes.
Singapore is as clean and neat as ever, almost. I noticed the streets and subways and cabs were not quite as gleaming as they seemed to me to be in 1987.
Singapore was a tremendous bargain in the eighties, with five-star hotels like the Hyatt going for a hundred bucks a night and sometimes cheaper. Food was inexpensive, too, and Singapore was the place to go then for cheap electronics. No more. Hotel rack rates vie with London’s as the highest to be found. The cost of living in Singapore has caught up with places like it.
Most manufacturing, high tech and otherwise, long ago fled to cheaper labor and lower living cost markets like China and Vietnam.
Changi Airport has undergone unending renewal so that it is mostly as sparkling as my first impression of it nearly 30 years ago. Everything works at Changi, unlike some modern airports. I landed at Terminal 1 and rode the airport train to Terminal 3, there to connect to the MRT (subway) train to my hotel in the city. The MRT was very crowded with Millennial-age Singaporeans of many ethnic backgrounds—a multi-ethnic population being a hallmark of the city—and was very fast. A young man of Indian ancestry offered me his seat out of respect for my age, a courtesy which surprised me since I don’t often experience that in the USA any more.
The ceaseless energy of the CBD is still very much part of Singapore, and while it’s not as spotless as it once was, I did not see a dingy side of Singapore except at the causeway border crossing to Malaysia, which is as it always was, rather grim and chaotic, about which I wrote in an earlier post here.
Everybody I met, whether public servants, families on the street, merchants, business people, or service personnel, all seemed happy. Contemporary Singaporeans seem to enjoy their country and lifestyle as much as they seemed to in 1987.
I had to wonder, though, if they had since found a way to have fun in their leisure time that didn’t involve flying to northern Thailand to drink snake’s blood. I should have asked.