Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Curious Existence of Singapore: Insecurity amid Prosperity

A quick 30-minute stroll through any residential neighborhood in Singapore can make one understand why so many foreigners love the tiny island city-state.  Food is everywhere and cheap (just like here in Malaysia), the public transit system modern and all-around impeccable, the streets well-manicured and completely free of litter, and there is just no sign of poverty whatsoever (no beggars, no run-down shantytowns, not even a single truly dilapidated building).  As modern as Malaysia sometimes seems to be, the level of physical modernity is absolutely shocking in comparison.

Yet, despite living in by far the wealthiest place with the highest standard of living in the entire region (excluding oil-rich Brunei), the Singaporeans does not at all seem content with their situation, constantly questioning just how lasting the current prosperity is and exactly where the country is heading to in the future.  As a small country dependent on volatile flows of finance and commerce, and surrounded by economically volatile regional giants such as China, India, and Indonesia, the mentality of insecurity is not difficult to comprehend for a foreigner.

The economic dependence is most evident in the ironically named Chinatown southwest of the hyper-modern CBD area.  Obvious wealthy and physically beautiful mainland Chinese girls and tycoons congregate to get a feel for the homeland, making the area perhaps the only real CHINAtown in the world (especially considering it exists in a dominantly Chinese city).  Thanks to their presence, the city-state is wealthier but also more expensive, occasionally upping the anti-China sentiments among locals when the wealthy PRC nationals comes into the spotlight.

And a culture of fierce political independence only serve as a strong juxtaposition to the economic dependency that she cannot extricate herself.  People are fond of comparing Singapore to Hong Kong, an equally wealthy (albeit a bit more run-down) city-state with similar demographics and economic composition facing similar angst of facing the incoming hordes of wealthy mainland Chinese.  Yet the nominal political ties with the mainland gives HK an economically advantage that pro-American Singapore can never have.

Hong Kong, with its special status, will remain China's window to the world, and any economic trouble HK suffers from volatility would be compensated by economic concessions and monetary grants from Beijing to make sure it stays afloat.  Singapore does not have that luxury.  It must remain innovative in economic structuring, constantly changing her focus so that it maintains its seemingly constant wealth in the face of global downturn.  As HK fear loss of competitiveness from PRC interventionism, Singaporeans fear sudden slumps that only deepen due to lack of big power support.

And if Singapore cannot keep up the game of constant innovation, it can quickly lose that special status of a global trading hub at the center of Asia-Pacific region.  After all, its strategic geopolitical position, while pivotal, is not exactly unique.  Other places, most particularly HK, if successful in replicating the Singaporean experience of past decades, can easily make Singapore, without any true political attachments, superfluous in its demand as the "hub."  Other cities with similar structures within larger polities can make her functionally unnecessary.

Indeed, a second look at the impeccable street scene in Singapore reflects that maybe, her status as a global hub is a matter of good fortune rather than destiny.  Despite touting how people of every nationality reside on the little island, and how people speak English everywhere (which is true for most part) the city is so dominated by the Chinese population that even her minority Malay and Indian residents feel like foreigners in their own city.  The sort of multicultural parallel societies common in urban Malaysia is definitely not replicated in Singapore.

So, the island known for its superb infrastructure, its wealth based on trade, and its appearance that is almost outlandish for the Southeast Asian region is not at peace with herself.  Her future remains murky, undetermined, and full of self-doubt.  All her current assets remain subject to rapid and potentially detrimental change that can bring down the whole place back to its humble fishing port past.  But for now, the city is still at the cutting edge, its night-time glitters drawing residents from across the world.  The paradox is something the city has to live with for quite a while...

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