Singapore

– visited June 2015 –

Singapore is an island city-state located off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It sits at the entrance of the Strait of Malacca, a vital shipping lane connecting the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Modern Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles as a trading post of the British Empire. For the Malays its island location made it uninteresting, the city of Johor on the mainland was much more important. Colonial powers love islands though, they are easier to take control of and defend.

In World War II, the Japanese invasion of Malaya culminated in the Battle of Singapore, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the defeat “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”. British forces had planned to liberate Singapore in 1945. However, the war ended before the plans were put into practice sparring Singapore another round of fighting. Singapore gained self-governance in 1959, and in 1963 became part of the new federation of Malaysia, alongside Malaya, North Borneo, and Sarawak. Ideological differences led to Singapore being expelled from the federation two years later, thereby becoming an independent country in 1965.

Since then, Singapore has developed into one of the richest and most developed countries in the world. In 2015, it is ranked 11th in the Human Development Index ahead of countries like Sweden, the United Kingdom or Japan. The person most linked with Singapore’s success is Lee Kuan Yew who ruled the country from 1959 to 1990. No worries, he remained influential afterwards as Senior Minister without portfolio (1990-2004) and Minister Mentor (2004-2011). As he finally retired, he had held senior positions for 52 years (and his son was in power). Lee Kuan Yew had just died three months before my visit. An exhibition in the National Museum pays homage to him.

Singapore has gotten a lot of things right. On old pictures from the 1960s, you still see plenty of one and two storey houses with tiny boats lining the river. In the background, the high-rises are starting to go up. By now, it is full of skyscrapers. Economic development happened quickly. During the 1980s, Singapore began to shift towards high-tech industries, such as the wafer fabrication sector, in order to remain competitive as neighbouring countries began manufacturing with cheaper labour. Singapore Changi Airport was opened in 1981 and Singapore Airlines was formed. The Port of Singapore became one of the world’s busiest ports and the service and tourism industries also grew immensely during this period.

That success has come at a price, civil liberties were curtailed, some control exerted over the media and public protests limited. Libel suits were brought against political opponents. The rules are tough. I arrive by bus from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. The bus company advises people about objects that are forbidden to bring into Singapore. Controlled drugs are uncontroversial, fireworks understandable but the list also includes “board game money” and “chewing gum”. “Subversive or seditious materials” are also forbidden and that opens a wide field to supress opposition activity. Penalties are high: Smoking somewhere on the metro system is about 660 € (I agree), eating or drinking is 330 € (what?). Think twice if you really want to take that bite. I come across a food-stall in the metro, a sign announces “TAKE AWAY ONLY: No Eating & Drinking in the MRT Station”. I was being told that undercover police officers observe the streets.

When Lee’s rule was criticised for curtailing civil liberties, he argued that such disciplinary measures were necessary for political stability which, together with the rule of law, were essential for economic progress. Lee once responded to critics of his style saying: “Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society.” Singapore has free elections which the People’s Action Party has won since 1959. In the recent past, the victory margins are diminishing (2011: 60,1%).

Singapore has mosques, churches, temples, museums and plenty of shopping malls. In the backstreets, you can find small and cheap eateries. I enjoy the Singapore City Gallery with its exhibition about the planning of the city. On tenet that burned itself into my mind: Pedestrian underpasses are all planned to contain maximum space for shops. In this way, the space is used as economically as possible and the underpasses are kept in a good state and are an inviting environment. The Marina Barrage has an exhibition about Singapore trying to become more sustainable, vital for a small city state.

Marina Bay is the showpiece of Singapore’s development. The bay is surrounded by plenty of skyscrapers, the Singapore Flyer ferries wheel, the ArtScience Museum resembling an opened lotus flower. Visible from all sides is the Marina Bay Sands Hotel with its three towers that are topped by a 340-metre-long SkyPark. The Gardens by the Bay have two huge greenhouses (one with cacti) and 18 futuristic, artificial trees. The lower parts of their steel construction is covered by flowers. I kind of feel out of place at Marina Bay, too many expensive things, I feel more at home in the gritty backstreets somewhere else.

I head to the Pinnacle@Duxton. This 50-storey residential development has won acclaim for its architecture. The seven 156-metre-high towers are interconnected by skybridges on the 26th and 50th floor forming a possible jogging track, playgrounds, a sky garden or just a place for a walk. The whole complex has been built by the Singapore Housing and Development Board (HDB) as subsidized public housing. Singapore has an astonishingly high home-ownership rate, over 90% of the resident population owns a home. 78,7 % of Singaporeans live in public residential developments provided by the HDB. I meet a resident on the sky garden, his headdress makes him easily recognizable as a Sikh. “Our government is taking care of the people”, he says, “look what they have built here and it is affordable for everybody. Why should I want another government?”