Singapore – first world country?

Last week, I read one of the most thought-provoking articles I’ve read in a long time.


It didn’t seem like much of an article, but it talked about things I’ve been thinking for a while but was never able to articulate in simple and non-controversial terms.


Ngiam Tong Dow, former high-ranking civil servant, tells us why he thinks Singapore isn’t really a first world country, despite the government’s best efforts to convince us otherwise.


According to him, achieving rapid economic and financial development is one thing, but fostering a sustainable, altruistic, and stimulating environment for citizens is a whole other thing.


I agree. Singapore certainly isn’t a first world country, let me explain:

We’re one of the cleanest places on earth, but how? A lot of time, money, and effort are put into maintaining the cleanliness, and without the tough fine system I doubt the streets would remain as clean as they are now.


The first time I went to Tokyo, for instance, I was surprised to see it was just as spotless as Singapore, but without all the threatening warning signs and without rubbish bins at every intersection.


As far as I could tell, cleanliness there is based on people’s ingrained sense of being respectful to others and mindful of shared spaces.


Can you imagine the state of Singapore if the fine system was to be removed? Somehow I find it strange that such a small city needs such a strong enforcement of basic principles whereas a huge metropolis like Tokyo does just fine simply by relying on people’s consideration of others…


Another area Singapore authorities tout as a trait of our first world status is safety. Yes, Singapore is a very safe place to live in, especially for families. But security comes at a hefty price.


To most foreigners and many of us Singaporeans, harsh policies such as corporal punishment, the death penalty, and the Internal Security Act seem like very radical and very antiquated ways of protecting society from those whose actions may negatively affect it. Kidnapping, drug import, guns (even owning a firing pin) are crimes punishable by death. Even blowjobs are illegal.


These methods, while consistently being reviewed and amended, remain closely linked to Singapore’s pragmatic approach to stability; crime and corruption have an impact on the way investors see Singapore, and as such must be dealt with swiftly.


This tough stance has done wonders for the crime-free environment of Singapore, but in exchange has created an atmosphere in which divergence from the norm is seen as disruptive or suspicious.


The same could be said for its political environment: Singapore’s economic and financial prosperity rests largely on foreign capital which, according to authorities, despises conflict, change, and risks. True enough, we’ve quickly risen as a regional hub for business, trade, and finance, making us a world economic player to be reckoned with.


But this comes at the price of Singaporeans’ capability to express themselves in the socio-political realm. Expressing diverging opinions is frowned upon and calling for dissent is feared, despite the fact that these two forms of expression are the basis of discussion, enrichment, and even change in all healthy societies.


Unfortunately this particular mind-set influences the way people work and relate to colleagues. Instead of expressing their difficulties or confronting their opinions to that of others, people avoid conflict altogether and pretend like things are OK. Then they either complain straight to the supervisor or just simply quit and try their luck elsewhere…


I think that’s one reason our unions can’t do the job they were designed to do; people are too afraid to get into trouble by saying what’s on their mind. Whether it’s unfair treatment of others or whether it’s standing up for their own rights, most Singaporeans would rather make excuses and live unhappily rather than set things right.


The Internet has of course changed the way we talk to each other. It has also changed the way the government communicates its decisions to us as well as the way we give our feedback to the government. But staying away from “trouble” still seems to be a priority to most.


In fact, political dialogue has been closed-off for so long that venting anonymously online on even the most trivial of events seems to have become a national hobby.


And don’t even get me started on other topics such as education (sure, our kids are good at math and can become great accountants, but is that all that matters in life?), tolerance (lay off the FT, please! I wonder what would happen to racial and religious harmony if the government wasn’t there to force people to get along?), graciousness (don’t worry auntie, the bus won’t leave without you!), and convenience (sure, everything is convenient, but it also makes us lazy!).


Even in terms of pure economic and financial growth, Singapore is doing fine compared to others, but that’s only because the government has such a stronghold on a large part of the country’s main economic players.


I wonder what would happen to economic performance and to investors’ confidence if Temasek Holdings were to let go of all the stakes it has and just let things flow in a truly free market?


Whichever your political colour, all of these elements make it hard to call Singapore a first world country in areas other than economic performance.


As mentioned by Ngiam Tong Dow in the earlier article, Singapore is obsessed with reaching the number one spot and achieving perfect performance, something that by definition will never be reached and will only put further pressure on a population already quite stressed.


I just wish for once we could stop using the same old tired clichés and start discussing the real issues, enjoying what really matters, and making Singapore the true reflection of its people.






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