Singapore Bursts With Energy, But Change Can Be Disturbing

BY Michael D. Mosettig  February 10, 2011 at 11:00 AM EDT

Singapore merlion and towers (Peter Garnhum via Flickr Creative Commons)

Beyond the forests of tall buildings that dominate Singapore’s skyline, a visitor can feel — if not necessarily see — the presence of China.

A tiny city-state of nearly 5 million people (more than 70 percent ethnic Chinese) occupying a 263-square-mile island on the tip of the Malay peninsula, Singapore lives in a neighborhood increasingly in the shadow of a vast nation of more than a billion people. Its bustling economy, now fully recovered from the 2008-09 crash, draws strength from China’s, and its many think tanks and academic policy centers debate how Singapore positions itself between China, the United States and other regional players.

Singapore’s size belies its influence in a dynamic Asia-Pacific region, where China may be the growing economic force, but its political muscle and diplomatic influence are still being tested.

Maintaining its freedom of action and maneuvering room are central tenets of Singaporean policy. Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore to independence and who now holds the title of Minister Mentor, makes no secret of his wish that the United States and the West stay engaged in the Asia-Pacific region. Singapore is not officially an ally of the United States, but the U.S. Navy is a visible presence in its seaports.

Lee has more recently been telling the other growing Asian power, India, to step up its regional engagement. Though more a reflection of past tensions with Malaysia and Indonesia than a deterrent to China, Singapore’s conscript military includes officers who can do reserve duty up to age 50.

A first-time visitor can accumulate a collection of senses, experiences and contradictions. But going any deeper into a political system dominated by one party, and where following the local media requires an ability to read between the lines, is tricky at best. One senior Western diplomat said, “Learning what is going on here is like peeling the layers on an onion.”

But locals and Westerners agree that the issue currently stirring city politics, as it is in so many countries, is immigration, colliding with a tight housing market and general fears of inflation. From all over Asia, workers come to a job-generating economy — built on the pillars of shipping, finance, refining and high-end manufacturing. Local officials worry about a declining birthrate, now well below replacement levels, among both Chinese and Malay families, and they juggle that against conflicting needs for skilled labor and the anxieties of their constituents.

The sparkling, roomy airport, which also serves as a major transit point for tourists from all over the world heading to cities and resorts throughout Southeast Asia, is a reminder just how far behind the United States is falling in infrastructure. A constantly expanding subway system (private car ownership is discouraged by high user fees) moves more than 1.5 million commuters daily from apartment complexes to office towers.

Major public investment coincides with detailed government planning (there’s a local museum with an exhibition of future development proposals). But they go side by side with some of the lowest tax rates (zero on capital gains) in the industrial world.

As one of the country’s public intellectuals, former ambassador and author Kishore Mahbubani said with some exasperation, “We cannot understand this negative attitude of so many Americans to government.”

Another ambassador, Tommy Koh, described the four priorities for Singaporeans: family, food, money and gambling. At the moment, Singaporean families are gathering in their homes and local restaurants for one of the biggest holidays of the year: ushering in the lunar new year of the rabbit.

Food is celebrated every day, from fancy hotel restaurants to a local fixture known as a hawker center that offers one of the best combinations of tasty food and low prices in the world. Food stalls line the walls, open tables fill the middle area, and visitors are best advised to go to the stalls with the longest lines to order local specialties such as chicken rice. These are predominantly Chinese, but the city’s Malay and Indian districts also offer top-flight ethnic cuisines in restaurants that seem to be open at all hours.

Singaporeans are increasingly combining two favorite activities — food and shopping — in a nonstop collection of malls filled with high-end international stores. The air-conditioned malls and food courts offer locals a getaway from their small apartments and the ever-present heat and humidity just north of the Equator. The newest and fanciest of these is a complex that combines shopping with a recently opened casino that is free for foreigners but charges a $100 entrance fee for locals.

Singaporeans are proud of their country’s development as a first world economy in which different races and religions seem to coexist (evangelical Christianity is gaining force among many young Chinese, and Christians now account for nearly 20 percent of the population). But some express concern that the city they grew up in is changing too quickly and modernizing too abruptly.

Many of the shophouses, two- or three-story structures that characterized colonial-era architecture, have been subsumed into newer and taller developments. Fortunately, a few others are being preserved or gentrified in the original Chinese, Malay and Indian districts created by Sir Stamford Raffles, who secured Singapore as a British possession. The districts are full of bustle, especially these New Year days in Chinatown, alight with red lanterns and tiny side streets jammed with shoppers.

One example of dubious change for a visitor is the fate of the once-famous Long Bar at Raffles Hotel, the symbol of British colonial grandeur that played host to many famous visiting writers and celebrities. The bar has now been displaced from the old hotel and moved into — you guessed it — an adjoining mini-shopping mall.

The sense of too-rapid change was expressed in a novel, “City of Small Blessings,” by another Singapore public intellectual, Simon Tay. He writes of a retired couple who are about to lose their house to a development project. Their son, back from Canada for a visit, goes to the old neighborhood in search of a photographer’s shop:

No one knows where the shop has moved to, or if it will open again. No one can know where my mother’s picture is now.

We used to say we would build this country regardless of race. We used to talk of taking care of the poor, of giving all an opportunity a home. There are new buildings, grand renovations, new and plentiful blessings that one should be grateful for. But what used to be, was something more even if they were fewer, more modest. Those were the things we worked for, earned, made from little or nothing.

These are words of caution in a country bursting with energy, plunging into the future, pushing development to the outer edges of the island where tigers roamed 80 years ago, and playing a role bigger than its size or population would dictate in an increasingly self-confident Asia.