Singapore: First Impressions

Hey there! I’m back.

Actually, I’ve been back for about a week or so, but between jet lag, and digging out of email/work/laundry, I haven’t even had a minute to start going through my photos and trip notes and coming up with some blog fodder.

But, this morning’s news is reporting on the death of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. So I better get my ass in gear and write something about my recent first visit to Singapore.

Marina Bay Sands
Things to know about Singapore: it’s really, really hot.

My travel-buddy/man-panion for life (XFE) and I actually learned a bit about Lee Kuan Yew at the very excellent National Museum of Singapore. We had gone to the museum primarily to escape the pervasive, bone-soaking, spirit-wilting heat and humidity that is Singapore in early March. The museum is in a blended building, half white colonial stucco, half modern cubist wonder surrounded by rolling green hills and landscaped trees. The important thing and main draw for us was the existence of the blasting, government-subsidized air conditioning.

Disappointingly, the majority of the museum and its exhibits were closed for renovations. But, they did have a condensed, Clif Notes version of the museum’s contents in the basement. It was a really great exhibit. The first part was a bit confusing, something about five kings and a boy who fought a giant swordfish and then was killed by the Sultan who feared him. Anyway, a big mix of legends and facts.

But things really picked up with some great exhibits on the different ethnic groups and immigrants that had come to Singapore when it was a colonial entrepot and trading post. The museum also had a great exhibit on Singapore’s occupation by Japan in World War II, and a brief exhibit on Singapore’s separation from Britain, the city-state’s internal struggle to become independent and self-governed, and it’s brief stint as part of the Federation of Malaysia.

A big player in Singapore was Lee, who was elected as the country’s first Prime Minister in 1959, and served in that capacity until 1990 (He remained a “senior minister” in the Cabinet until 2004, and “minister mentor” till 2011.) Quartz describes Lee’s ruling style best:

Lee led Singapore from a colonial backwater under British control to one of the world’s most thriving financial centers, and he did so with a tight grip on power. He has been criticized for instituting wide-reaching censorship, limiting civil rights, discriminating against gays and migrant workers, and generally maintaining a one-party autocracy for almost half a century.

That’s because Lee engineered one of the world’s most impressive growth stories—one that everyone from American Republicans to Chinese communists have both openly envied. (“Benevolent dictatorship has never looked so good” one columnist wrote of the Singapore in 2012.)

The tiny, resource-poor country’s GDP per capita skyrocketed under Lee to one of the highest in the world, behind just oil-rich Qatar and private banking center Luxembourg, according to the IMF.

We actually got a bit of a glimpse into the general public’s discontent with this one-party autocracy situation. We were in a cab one evening on our way to the Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay, a Las Vegas-worthy light and music show involving these tree-like structures that soar up to 160 feet.

Gardens by the Bay

Anyway, our cab driver asked us where we were from, and then launched into a grumbling monologue of discontent with his government’s structure. He told us that they’d had the same ruler/ruling party for six decades (Lee’s son is the current Prime Minister), and that wasn’t democracy, and how the people of Singapore have suffered under this dictatorship. He said the rich were getting richer while the poor were getting poorer.

I have to admit: I was shocked and more than a little annoyed. I was in the middle of reading a book about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge — a book about a horrific history in which real humanitarian atrocities were perpetrated by a real political wackjob dictator. Meanwhile, everywhere I looked in Singapore was prosperous and new and shiny and so technologically advanced.

But that cab driver’s rant is not unfamiliar to me. Not at all. You hear it in the U.S. all the time, especially the phrase, “the rich are getting richer while the rest of us get poorer.” I’m sure if I’d dug a little deeper, he would have blamed immigrants, or corporations, or the educational system, or real estate prices, or whatever other boogeyman he was currently facing or competing against.

Perspective is a luxury, I guess. I understand that on a random Tuesday a cab driver in Singapore is not likely to think about how there are people in other parts of the world, say, Cambodia for example, who are just trying to recover from brutal histories and get to somewhere even remotely as economically advanced as Singapore. We all grumble and bemoan our own political systems, and don’t care or think about who our audience is or what perspectives they bring to the table. It’s practically a human trait to complain about other people doing better than we perceive ourselves to be doing.

I don’t know if Lee was a horrible leader. I don’t know if that cab driver in Singapore might have been richer if a new, completely different party was elected every four years. There are certainly some people in the U.S. who would say that no, a new party doesn’t necessarily mean prosperity, or even anything remotely like it. But it does seem to me, an outsider, that Singapore–a small island nation with no natural resources that was practically decimated in World War II–did alright at the end of the day. It’s a good legacy to have.

Singapore night view

(Here’s another really good Quartz article on the rise of Singapore under Lee’s policies.)

3 thoughts on “Singapore: First Impressions

Leave a Reply