I have often wondered why so many western tourists say they dislike Singapore.
They complain about what they see as its conformism and petty authoritarianism. Now I think I know the real reason they react against the place.
It is hard not to see a double standard in the charges often made by visiting Britons. We come from a country where a few bad tempered words at a football match can become a national scandal. Evidently we are all so emotionally fragile that such words threaten to either traumatise us for life or turn us into racist thugs. Perhaps both. We live in a place where there are strict rules about smoking, drinking and even the words we use.
Nor is Singapore the uniform location that foreign critics often assume. Quite the contrary. In one short street I found a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, a synagogue, a vegetarian restaurant, a kosher coffee shop, a Mexican restaurant and the Singapore Art Museum. The country is a mix of ethnic Chinese, Indians and Malays along with a fair sprinkling of westerners. There are also large numbers of Bangladeshis and Indians working in construction and other industries.
“The rest of us can celebrate Singapore’s impressive achievement in moving from poverty to prosperity in such a short time”
Singapore does have many gleaming skyscrapers but there are also ethnic districts such as Chinatown and Little India. The latter is a bit like a small quarter of Bombay but without the grime. The water is clean to drink, there are no obvious signs of homeless people and the streets are not replete with raw sewage.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what many westerners dislike about Singapore is its modernity. They are unhappy that Orchard Street, its main shopping street, is packed with some of the ritziest western designer brands. They do not like the giant, multi-story, air conditioned shopping centres (although these are a practical way of avoiding the stultifying humidity). It makes them miserable that the MRT, the excellent subway system, is a twenty-first century version of London’s crumbling transport infrastructure. Most of all it disappoints greenish westerners that Singapore’s inhabitants like iPads, designer clothes, hair gel and many of the other trappings of modern life. (blog continues below)
Such westerners would prefer the country to have remained “authentic” (read poor). Or perhaps even better still covered by its original tropical rain forest. They want a place where the natives, if they exist at all, live in primitive harmony with nature. All the better to be “discovered” by foreign tourists.
For such westerners there is a simple solution. They can swap their lives with one of the many millions of people worldwide who live without clean water, access to modern sewerage or a connection to the electricity grid. Nor is anyone forced to use a mobile phone or wear nice clothes.
The rest of us can celebrate Singapore’s impressive achievement in moving from poverty to prosperity in such a short time. A nation where people live in concrete buildings when not too long ago many made wooden shacks their home.
To be sure the city state is far from perfect. It does have many petty rules that its citizens have to follow at the risk of severe penalties. But anyone wishing to criticise this trend would be better off looking at home first of all.
Daniel Ben-Ami is a writer on economics and finance. His personal website can be found at www.danielbenami.com.