Final Thoughts on Singapore

Singapore Riverfront
Singapore Riverfront
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.

Chinatown, Singapore
Chinatown, Singapore
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.

Sir Stamford Raffels
Sir Stamford Raffels
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.

10 Replies to “Final Thoughts on Singapore”

  1. You are spot on for your views on Singapore!. I lived there for few years and I believe the country is good in many things but still expensive as compared to similar lifestyle offered by USA or other developed countries. Living life in Singapore is really plug-n-play! ..that’s the best part of it it dealing with govt or going to a crowded mall you can see the discipline! ..great post ..cheers ..sandeep

  2. I am a foreigner living in Singapore. Living in Singapore for two years, I agree with you on some point. I don’t travel as mush as you do so I really don’t have much to compare Singapore to. But from what I’ve experienced, I do feel that the way the government run the state is pretty much like how a private company run an enterprise. There’s an advantage to that however, there are certain trade-offs. Those who opt to live here would have to pay the price of prosperity. Those who won’t, will just have to live elsewhere. And most Singaporeans do have that choice.
    Having said that, I think Singapore has accomplished an amazing feat. And despite having limited space, there are still interesting places and tourist attractions to visit in Singapore.

  3. Lived in many countries, this one not my favorite! Too expensive (for foriegn standards) meaning, I should’nt pay US prices in a place where the things I want are never able to be found. Lower standards, less choices, many malls with high prices, the ones that are lower prices offer lower (much lower) quality. Food well, if you’ve never been to Thailand I guess you would like the food. That too, is expensive, and in a place where Kenny Rogers has a long line that must tell you somthing. If you want to do ANYTHING HERE you better be willing to spend a bundle in anybodies standards. Much to repressed- I am an adult and I don’t need anybody sensoring my films, DVD”s, etc… weather, rains too much, humid. Driving, forget about it. It’s like driving downtown in any big city, no parking- lots of one way streets (like downtown in any big city in US!) I’ve spend a wad in taxi fares I can tell you that. So yes, it’s clean and reletively safe. Am I happy to live in an overseas atmosphere that desires to be so much like America mimus the cool things? Duhhh not my bag that’s for sure.

  4. Like Pinkius mentioned, Singapore is really quite deprived of land and thus almost every available space is built up and our gardens are on the roof top… :) guess the limited resources do really force us to be creative and think out-of-the-box… jus a note. the university should be National University of Singapore (NUS)…. :)…

  5. Possibly you have missed some of the great places that SIngapore has to offer, my first trip I was on a backpackers budget and did find Singapore exensive after India and other SE countries so I did not really explore as much as i could have. On further trips I have found SIngapore to offer so much in places of interest and things to do and a great nightlife!

  6. hi, i chanced upon your travel blog while surfing the net. i'm Singaporean and I actually do like your post on Singapore. what Cathy said about it being not real .. it's not that it's not real …. when you come from a country with lots of land, it's just not the same for you, things are just different. it's real for us because that's how Singapore is and i'm proud that i'm Singaporean. :)

  7. Perhaps they can follow the “fast follower” strategy in business and not need to be a source of true innovation — but can just out-execute.

    1. That's a good strategy that we have been using. However, now that the world label us as a first world country, we are making efforts to do better than that.

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