Sunday, February 10, 2008

Oh, that quirky Singapore

by expatbrian

It's Sunday, my significant other is out playing Mahjong and I'm sitting downstairs in a nice 80 degree breeze with my laptop and wifi. Life is good.

I've heard a lot of misconceptions about Singapore since I've been here, many of them in comments on my blog. I thought I might clear up a few.

Probably the most common complaints I hear have to do with the caning of a 16 year old tourist for vandalizing with spray paint. Yup, that happened. I could never figure out what possessed this young man to do such a thing in a foreign city in the first place, especially one with the rep Singapore has. But he did, and like anyone else who did the same, he suffered the consequences.

The government here frowns upon folks who intentionally deface this beautiful city. The result of this policy is, unlike American cities where graffiti is everywhere, there is none here. Seems there is a certain deterring effect when one faces the possibility of being beaten with a bamboo cane.

It's also well known that it is illegal to buy or sell gum here. It's an offense punishable with a fine. I suppose that's an inconvenience for some. I don't miss it much. I also don't miss stepping in someones discarded gum and trying to clean it off my shoes. and I don't miss the black splotches all over the sidewalks. Works for me.

Spitting is also a finable offense here. Same result. You don't have to worry about stepping in someone elses snot everytime you go for a walk. I can live with it.

Drugs are a big no-no here. This fact is very well publicized all over the world as is the diligence and thoroughness of the customs folks at the borders and airports. Yet some still decide they simply have to try to enter the country with illegal drugs. If they get caught with enough to sell, they get hung. It doesn't matter who they are or where they're from. They get a necktie party and they get it quickly. Personally, I think if they are that stupid, they deserve to be hung. Makes more room for the rest of us.

I've talked a lot about guns here and on my blog. Guns are allowed here for target shooting and many make use of those facilities. But when they are done, they leave their gun locked up at the range. Even the police turn in their weapons at the end of their shifts.

I know, I know, that's terribly repressive. On the other hand, because no one else has a gun either, you don't need one to "protect" yourself. The result of course is very few killings here and none with guns. But if someone cheats, if someone manages to have a gun and uses it in a crime, its another necktie party. The result of this repressive policy is safe streets for all the little uniformed school girls to walk home on at night.

I had a comment yesterday from a guy complaining that Singapore doesn't have a free press. It's true that the government owns the newspapers. But there are still articles and editorials every day complaining about one government policy or another. It doesn't really matter anyway because you can read any newspaper you want online and the internet, unlike places like China, is not censored at all....for anybody.

Car ownership is very expensive here. The tiniest compact from Korea runs about 50,000 sing dollars (about 35,000 US.) With 4.5 million people living on this tiny island it would be 24 hr gridlock if everyone drove.

I've been here 4 1/2 years so far and have never driven a car here. I don't have to. The rapid transit and bus systems, considered by many to be the best in the world, are cheap and go everywhere. If you're in a big hurry you can flag one of the 20,000 taxis which cost about 3 or 4 bucks to get you where you need to go.

There are no jury trials here. That works for me, too. Now, I'm sure that it was a good idea back in the old days when the founding fathers envisioned fair trials by a jury "of your peers". That was back when justice was valued and attorneys were respected and acted accordingly.

These days, justice is purchased by those who can afford the most expensive attorneys and guilt or innocence is no longer the most important issue. Those who succeed are those who can most effectively manipulate the court proceedings and influence 12 lay people who know absolutely nothing about the law except what they see on TV. OJ is the perfect example. "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit". What kind of horse shit is that?

No, I think I prefer judgement by someone who is an expert in the law and who understands all of the legal techniques that lawyers will try to use to win their cases.

In a future post I will compare the election process and why votes are not bought by industrial lobbyists. But for now, it's Miller time.

Look for me over at World Gone Mad

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Blogger nolocontendere said...

Well, expatbrian, this is a great post of yours because I really like to hear about how americans feel about living in foreign cultures. You were right in mentioning that Singapore is misunderstood, there are a lot of misconceptions.
I can readily see how Singapore can take a look at the shortcomings of different cultures and impose restrictions to make sure the place doesn't go that route. Some people would consider those impositions untenable, some not. As you imply one shouldn't fault Singapore for enforcing it's laws when trangressors flaunt them.
One question I have for you about that place - do you trust Singapore to maintain it's enforced civility if the status quo is disrupted? The reason I ask is that even though america is a ruined society being flushed down the toilet, I still in case of dire circumstances have the liberty to weather any storm and survive just fine.
Earthquakes, war, economic meltdown, asteroid, you name it, we're in uncharted waters and I'm wondering how the place would be if the severe behavioral strictures vanished and people became desperate.
In short, I guess I'm asking how much that society, if the chips are down, can meet your needs?

1:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm still not exactly sure what you are asking but I'll give it a shot. First, this is an extremely wealthy government that spends liberally on social programs and still operates on a budget surplus of around $120 billion.
They subsidize the healthcare, education, and even mortgages for all Singaporeans.

As an example of this, I'm living in a beautiful 4 bdrm flat that sells for about 500k right now. Our share of the payment is $300, the government picks up the rest.

Thankfully, there are no natural disasters here, no hurricanes, tsunamis or earthquakes. Singapore is surrounded by other islands that absorb those.

But if you are asking if the society can maintain its structure, and if the government can maintain its authority in the face of some disruptive force, I would respond this way.

The government certainly has the means to maintain order. In addition to the financial health, they have a large military, police and civil defense force that is always at full strength and is well equipped. (service here is mandatory for 2 years at age 18)

More importantly though you have to understand that Asian people in general and Singaporeans in particular have a totally different mindset when it comes to these things and you cannot apply western ideas in an Asian culture.

Singaporeans believe strongly in personal honor and integrity. It would bring dishonor on them to behave poorly and in an unruly manner in the face of hardship. They also have a profound respect for their government, love their country and are genuinely patriotic. Everyone wears red here on National Day, not because they have to but because they are proud to.

You might remember that this country was invaded and occupied by the Japanese and many of its inhabitants were brutally tortured and killed.

In 1965, with a few roads and a lot of jungle, they declared independence. This is now one of the richest countries, per capita, in the world. This change in only 40 years is unprecedented in the world.
Without the hard work and support of the people, the government could not have achieved such an astounding transformation.

6:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what currency do they use?

10:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lester, the Singapore dollar is the currency. When I got here 4 1/2years ago the exchange rate was $1.76 = $1 US dollar. Now it is about $1.43 = $1 US.

7:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

which do you get paid in? I have a friend in thailand who gets paid in dollars and he's had what amounted to a 33% pay cut with the plummeting exchange rate.

9:47:00 AM  
Blogger Capt. Fogg said...

I do think it's very worth pointing out that prosperity and government services are compatible and are not the road to Communism as a certain political party is quick to assert, but I think it's very hard to compare a compact city state with a vast continent of open spaces and an abundance of ill-educated and angry people. Disarming prisoners does not make a jail a safe place - it just allows the advantage to the strongest and most violent.

I guess we have different views on safety and the price we are forced to pay for it. Despite the lurid press coverage, being shot is so extremely unlikely that I never worry about it. Being taken advantage of by someone bigger and younger for reasons of greed, or ethnic hatred is far more of a concern even though it's only been attempted a few times in my longish life and none of those times offered the option of summoning the police.

I certainly don't agree with hanging people for what basically is a violation of an arbitrary regulation of private behavior. In fact the practice of making violence a government monopoly devalues life and liberty to my way of thinking. "Do what you're told and we won't kill you" kind of sets the wrong tone. It's been the Leitmotif of too many Tzars, despots, dictators, Party chairmen and F├╝hrers.

I have to think about China which of course also shoots people for all kinds of reasons that people could avoid if they just did what they were told and stuck with the politically correct intoxicants and opinions and also forbids private ownership of weapons - and yet it runs over with violence and oppression and crime. I also felt quite safe in China but what power do people have over their government when the government has all the power? How different would that country be if every Chinese peasant had a shotgun? Would the Tiananmen incident have happened? Would the frequent and mostly justified peasant uprisings be so easily and brutally repressed?

State ownership of the media may seem innocuous in a place where the State is reasonable and beneficent, but Singapore hasn't been around long enough to prove the stability of benign despotism ( corporate or governmental) and history suggests suspicion. Let's see what it's like 200 years from now.

10:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lester, If and when I make any money, it is in Singapore dollars. I have no connection financially to the US. Here, I own a struggling young company. Fogg, your comments are well thought out and profound as usual. I fully understand that once cannot reasonably compare a small city state like this to a vast mega country like the US. I also realize that the same laws cannot apply, nor can the same policies in many areas.

However, Singapore makes it no secret that it has strict, perhaps draconian laws when it comes to fire arms and drugs. Anyone who does even the most basic research before travelling here could not miss it.

If they still are so stupid as to try to get through the extremely efficient customs department, I don't feel bad about the consequences they have to pay.

As far as the government having the only right to kill, what is the difference in the US?
Sure, you may have that right in a situation of self defense, but how often is that the case? So, aside from criminals killing each other and us, the government in the us controls killing.
Interesting question about what would happen if the masses in China all had guns. It seems with 290 million of them, most folks in the US have guns and what has it gotten them? A responsive government? Power over how their government behaves? I don't think so.
Sheep with a gun are still just sheep.

6:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, I think anti state measures in the US are logical because we constantly have millions of people going in and out, mainly the former. So, to say "okay, we should have no welfare state" is not so much darwinian as sort of throwing up your hands at trying to create a community out of a population that is constantly shifting.

of course, our penchant for war makes no sense in this context.

4:54:00 PM  

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