|Two weeks ago I visited Singapore for the third time. My first visit was about 15 years ago.
At that time, I was so wowed that I said to myself, and my friends, “Go to Singapore to see what America will look like in 20 years.” Of course there are many, many differences between the two nations, and the USA will never much resemble the small (274 square mile) island city-state of almost 5 million people. But the efficiency, smartness, and smoothness of Singapore and how everything operates seemed so futuristic to me at the time.
While we wrestle with 100-year old technologies like trams (“light rail”), they move ahead with aggressive Electronic Road Pricing which is less expensive, more flexible, and incredibly effective for spread-out areas like most American cities. Our newest airports require you to travel up, down, and around to get from “airside” to “landside” whereas their airport, and those of most other booming Asian cities, make the whole process more straight-forward. Their mass transit system dumps you right in the terminal building, which has every convenience known to man (or woman). Their libraries are in shopping malls and other high traffic places, open evenings for all to use. Even their recycling bins are shaped like giant cans and bottles so everyone can know what goes where.
On this recent return, I again had my breath taken away, but my response was a perhaps more subdued, “They are just going further and further ahead of us into the future; we’re losing ground.”
Singapore seems to have set a goal to become the most advanced and livable city in the world. I think they just may make it. If they haven’t already.
I know some of you are saying, “But isn’t this a place where the founder Lee Kuan Yew and his buddies ruled with an iron hand, outlawing chewing gum and caning lawbreakers, limiting freedom of expression and even trying to control Internet access? I don’t even want to go there!”
There is no question that Lee had a very clear idea of what his nation was and could become. But in 50 years he and his successors took it from what was basically a third-world place to being one of the most advanced societies on earth. According to the latest World Bank data (see my posts about data books), average per capita national income is now above the United States when you adjust for the cost of living (“purchasing power parity”).
Singapore has extremely low crime rates and is about as spotless as you can imagine a city being. Compare this progress with that of Singapore’s Southeast Asian neighbors – some of which, like Malaysia and Thailand, have advanced a great deal but not like Singapore, while others like Burma/Myanmar and Laos are still decades behind.
There are many indications that the hardline policies of the past are softening under Lee’s son, the current Prime Minister. There is now fuller Internet access, more freedom of speech and performance (like plays), and other trends that would make it easier for the average European or American to live there. Not that this will all change overnight, but I think democracy, capitalism, and freedom often rise hand in hand, and Singapore will be no exception.
To really keep things bottled up in a nation, the first thing you have to do – like old Soviet Russia and present day Cuba and North Korea – is to prohibit your citizens from travelling abroad. From being able to compare their lives with the lives of those in other countries. At the other extreme, Singapore has the world’s best airline (according to most surveys and my own experience) and one of the world’s best airports. Each year, 60% of the citizens of Singapore travel to other nations. Very few adult people are living in Singapore involuntarily.
The most striking thing to me about Singapore – 15 years ago and 2 weeks ago – was the smooth integration of multiple cultures. Which does not come easily, especially in that part of the world. You can go into a mosque on one block, a Hindu temple the next, and a Buddhist temple on the next. And with its British colonial heritage, you can also find a good old Anglican Church if you want. The people intermingle and intermarry to a degree unknown in the United States.
Don’t think I am saying Singapore is a perfect country – what country is? And don’t think that I would rather live there than here in Texas – I am an American through and through and an adopted Texan (although still always a Hoosier from Indiana at heart).
But there is so much to be learned from Singapore, and every reason to hope for the continued success of a peaceful, integrated democracy on the other side of the world, at the heart of a region that has been torn by war and strife, including one of the largest mass murders in human history (Pol Pot’s Cambodia). I believe that Lee, along with Deng, was one of the greatest national leaders of the last half of the 20th century.
It’s also easy to dismiss Singapore as being too tiny to matter. But it has a population greater than Ireland, and its economy is the world’s 44th largest, ahead of Chile, the Philippines, Hungary, Pakistan, and Egypt. Singapore is well beyond sneezing at.
If you want to see the future of great, clean, smooth-operating cities, if you want to experience the almost total integration of multiple cultures, if you want to see millions of happy and relatively affluent people living in peace, then hop on a plane and put Singapore in your next travel plans. If you are young (or old) and ready for some adventure, go live there for a few months or a few years. You won’t be disappointed, and I think you will see the world and its potential for positive change through entirely new eyes.