I recall a number of years ago studying the phenomenon of what Edward Said called 'orientalism'. It was a quick overview for me and I delved into it only briefly, but there was something which stood out at me and continues to do so to this day. A classmate of mine, in her deeper research into the 'west vs. east' dichotomy, showed me a map of what she called 'the Western huddle' showing the Western countries congregating in clusters: Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, all the usual suspects. I do not recall the source of this map, but on that particular version two anomalies glared at me, two countries which were included as being 'Western' yet stood on their own: Japan, for obvious reasons, and Singapore. The latter intrigued me and I was reminded of it over the last few weeks as the city popped up on my newsfeed with increasing regularity.
For all intents and purposes, the city-state is a dictatorship, the only one in what could be described as the 'first-world club' of nations. It has gotten into this club by being one of the fastest growing, one of the most modernized nations in Asia and continues to steam ahead even as the rest of the world is still economically anemic after the most recent recession. It has been in the news lately graced with the honour of being proclaimed the world's most expensive city. At the same time, it has also received an even more dubious title of being the world's most miserable city. Curious as to what this unusual country, a growing blip on the geopolitical map, was up to, I have recently travelled there myself for a week to see what's what.
The initial impression reinforces the first of the two titles. From the gleaming Changi Airport, to the brilliant network of highways, all the way to the swanky downtown filled with high-end retailers, the city exudes wealth. Yet almost immediately one begins to note a stark wealth gap, beginning with the subdued immigrant workers huddling in the back of small trucks streaming down the highways, to the beleaguered-looking shopkeepers peering out of stalls lining the back streets of the city. When contrasted to the gleaming cars which can cost as much as a quarter of a million dollars for what we in the West would pay less than fifty thousand, a strange unease began to grow out of my egalitarian sensibilities.
To be clear, I am no stranger to such disparity in incomes. The most graphic example that I can recall happened in Moscow nine years ago when, on the way to a theatre, I encountered a Ferrari dealership which, in an artistic flair, hanged one of its models sideways on the outside wall. Below it sat an old woman, a beggar about eighty years of age, wrinkled and stooped, pleading for coins as the indifferent crowd streamed past, their gazes firmly on the shinning red super car above her. Singapore felt exactly the same, even if without such blatant examples for me to recount.
I do not want to oversimplify the point, but one must wonder if such stark contrast is not at the root of the city's misery. In Canada and Australia, and to a lesser degree in US and Europe, it is highly impolite to be blatant with one's wealth. While we have Hollywood, just as Russia has Moscow, to remind us of the wealth we do not possess, there is a physical distance between the haves and the have-nots, the poor and the middle class relegated to the countryside, the suburbia, the ghettos. Singapore does not have this luxury, and combined with the cultural tradition of displaying one's wealth as a symbol of one's status, the public is reminded daily of everything they can not, and likely never will, afford, while the upper class is daily confronted with the reality that in a dictatorship their position is never secure in the long-term.
Having said all that, I remain optimistic. In sixty years Singapore went from a quiet fishing village to a world-class metropolis. With a strong education system, growing economy, and political stability, I am looking forward to visiting it in another sixty years. The city's food, however, dictates that I return much sooner than that!