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Before I move much further on in my trip, I should adhere to my “one country away” rule and give my final thoughts on Singapore.
Singapore is the second country in which I have previously spent time prior to the start of my trip (the other being Taiwan). After my first trip to Singapore in 1999, I became fascinated with the country. I read up on the history of Singapore, I read at least two books on Lee Kuan Yew, and always sort of paid extra attention when something about Singapore came up on the news. I was fascinated by the size of Singapore, coupled with the fact that Singapore has basically gone from a third world country to a first world county (and one of the richest at that), in the span of a generation. Having visited Penang which, along with Singapore, was one of the British straights colonies, I am even more impressed with what Singapore has done.
If the nations of the world were a high school class, Singapore is the kid who studies hard, follows all the rules, gets straight A’s, gets into a very good college, gets a very good job, then wakes up one day when he’s in his 40s and says “where the hell did my life go?” This time I came away with less than I did my first time. Singapore works and works well in one sense, but in another, it seems to be lacking something.
Several times while I was roaming around Singapore, I would find myself in some sort of mall or shopping center and wind up in another completely different mall or shopping center. At time, in certain parts of the city, the entire thing seems like a giant mall. By any international standard, and certainly by regional standards, Singapore is a clean, wealthy, safe, and very green country. The problems of Singapore are the problems of prosperity. (which in the big scheme of things, are good problems to have).
I was able to talk with many Singaporeans during my stay.
One of the things I came away with was how Singapore, while a country, is run almost like a corporation. Unlike many countries in the region, Singapore has very low rates of corruption. In fact, it is the least corrupt country on Earth. They do this by paying civil servants very high wages comparable to that in the private sector, and there is often a lot of shuffling between the two. There is also a lot of targeted investment in certain industries. The current big push is in biotechnology.
One problem Singapore has is creativity. It isn’t a very open country. By this, I don’t mean to imply it is closed in a Cuba or North Korea sense. There is no police state or gestapo. The lack of openness comes from conformity and an unwillingness to stick out. Singapore might be the only modern developed country I’ve visited where I didn’t see any kids with freaky hair hanging out in a public area. The openness which lets crazies do crazy things is the same thing which lets companies like Google develop. This is a problem which Singapore is going to have to deal with in the 21st Century, and it will be very challenging for them, because you can’t “plan” for creativity. It will mean letting go of some control, and that is always hard for governments to do.
One way they have addressed the issue of creativity is funding science. My friend Dave, who I stayed with in Singapore, is a professor at the National University of Singapore. NUS has quickly become the best university in SE Asia, and next to Tokyo University, probably the best in all of Asia. Just walking around the campus, you could tell that Singapore is serious about funding science. In addition to the NUS, there are also several technology centers located around the country.
I still like Singapore, but I didn’t come away this time with the same sort of awe as I did before. My guess is that is mostly a function of having seen a lot more of the world since then. If you were visiting SE Asia, I’d strongly consider going to Singapore for a few days. It isn’t a big country, so you can easily explore the highlights in a few days. If nothing else, Singapore is a great model for how clean and green a major city can be.