Sunday, January 21, 2007

Notes From Singapore – Dramatic Differences In Similarity

Singapore is hard to know if only because it gives you so many looks.

On the one hand it is a small island off the coast of Malaysia with four million people and no natural resources – not even water.

On the other hand, everything is here. Orchard Road is Rodeo Drive on steroids. It is materialism magnified -- Armani, Cartier, Fendi, Boss, Vuitton, Tiffany, Dunhill, Chanel, and the list goes on. If high-end retail is heaven, this is where you go if you’ve been a very, very good shopper.

Indeed, Singapore is one of the few countries in the world that is more materialistic than even the United States say the social scientists. And, like the U.S., materialism has not brought the people of Singapore more happiness. To the contrary, studies show that materialism here, as in the U.S., negatively correlates to life satisfaction.

So, it would be easy to write this place off as just another in a long list of societies caught up in the “Best Buy Syndrome,” but such a characterization would be neither accurate nor fair.

Singapore is different and it took me a while to put my finger on it.

Unlike most countries where more has become the point of living, there is comparatively little poverty here. Some attribute it to the excellent public education system, but I sense it may be more because Singaporeans are raised to understand that their special place in the economy of the east comes from their talent and their focus. Almost all are raised bilingual – English and Mandarin -- the two most important languages of world commerce. And many, if not most, speak at least one other language. Children on the subways study intently as they make their way to school. They are serious as a heart attack about success.

Singaporeans are also multi-cultural. While many developed nations are working overtime to keep immigrants out, Singapore has long had an open door to immigration. Chinese, Malaysians, Indonesians, Japanese, and Indians all come here for work and, until recently, few Singaporeans seem bent out of shape over that reality.

Even more striking is religious diversity here – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus have all figured out a way to get along. Perhaps it is because Singapore as a nation is only 50 years old and no one has yet staked a “claim” to the place. Or maybe it simply that there has been enough to go around, regardless of head wear.

And, it is safe, making it very different from most other places. More than one cab driver has bragged to me that a woman can walk down Orchard Road at three o’clock on any morning alone wearing expensive jewelry and nothing is going to happen to her. Statistics support that proposition.

The Singaporean’s view of government is likewise different from other reverentially materialistic societies. The average citizen here living in a four-room flat with three school-age children receives subsidies from the government of between $18,000 and $36,000 U.S. dollars every year, this to assist with the cost of housing, education, and medical treatment. Government-subsidized housing is the standard, not the exception, and even the most humble of apartments is well built, clean, and notably there is no embarrassment associated with receiving this government assistance. In other words, while Singaporeans may want the latest and greatest toys, they seem not to resent paying a high price to insure that others here enjoy a decent lifestyle.

From a customer’s perspective, Singapore works because employees here are service-oriented. They look you in the eye and they smile. Each morning at six I make my way to McDonald’s for coffee. If anyone on Orchard Road should have a complaint with the way things are it should be employees of a 24/7-hamburger joint tucked away below street level so the rich don’t have to look at it. Yet, I see the same young man every morning and he goes out of his way to say “hello” and “have a nice day.” Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I believe he means it. At my hotel, service has been superb – friendly, timely, and helpful. When I noted that fact to my host, she seemed surprised. “That kind of service,” she observed, “is not ‘above and beyond here.’ That is what is expected.” I don’t know where the desire to serve others comes from but it has given Singapore an edge up when it comes to global corporations deciding to locate here not to mention the 32 million tourists who come here to spend money each year.

All this said Singapore is not perfect. The difference between the have’s and have-not’s is becoming an issue. In today’s newspaper, the government announced a corporate tax cut and in the same breath a general sales tax increase that seems none to popular with the locals. There is no pretense that speech is free because it is not. Criticize the government with too much fervor and you may end up in jail. Democracy, little “d,” is iffy by western standards. There have been only two presidents in Singapore’s 50-year history, one being the father of the other, and there appears no viable minority party. The vaunted absence of crime here might rightfully be attributed to the swift and severe punishment for infractions, most of which involve being beaten with a cane, not to mention the long list of offenses for which death is the only penalty, to include possession of certain drugs and kidnapping. In fact, Singapore had the highest per-capita execution rate in the world between 1994 and 1999, more than tripling second-place Saudi Arabia. In short, there are a lot of rules and they expect you to follow them.

Like most places in the world, you can find that which you like and that which you don’t. Singapore is no different and, on reflection, I still don’t know very much about this island-nation except that there is much here the rest of the world can learn, and as I pack up to leave I know that I am better off for having witnessed it.


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