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Singapore, the Little Strange Place

By Jamal Kanj
November  2010

This is my second trip to Singapore in a year. I had great expectations of the place in anticipation for the first trip last February, but to my disappointment, did not see it much different from San Diego or Dubai.

First, I must admit committing a malfeasance flying into Singapore by bringing smuggled goods into this small island; I had chewing gum in my suite case. Many years ago, I heard about this weird law, but never took it seriously until I read the list of prohibited items in the custom declaration before landing. Nevertheless, decided to take chance and for more than a week, I have been enjoying this contraband product between the walls of my hotel room.

Coming from the airport during my first trip, the manicured umbrella like trees lined the clean road from the airport to the city. Unlike in many other countries where these types of tasks (clean roads/trees) are usually done when an important head of state is visiting.  Knowing I was not an important visitor to Singapore, I suspected the trees were just trimmed recently. For my second visit, about 9 months later, the trees looked exactly the same.

A little strange place, a friend commented on one of my facebooks update the other day. Indeed, it is little and strange, but above all, it seems to be successful economically with about two percent unemployment.

Singapore was a large swamp with a major English seaport not very years ago. Ethnic and Religious Groups in Singapore are divided between three major grouping: ethnic Chinese who settled in the Island as traders represent the vast majority with more than 76 per cent, Native Malay represent about 15 per cent, Indians, mostly servicemen leftover from the British army, represent more than 6 per cent and the rest are from other ethnic groups.  From the little I have seen, the new settlers treat the Natives in the same supercilious way other colonizer have treated natives in other places, which is as a burden on their national progress and economy.

Singapore does not have any natural resources. Their seaport seems to be a major source of its economic strength becoming a major hob connecting the Far East with the Middle East, Europe and the rest of the world. The people is another resource, the government provides Singaporean companies with direct incentives to seek work and contracts outside the Island. During our first visit, the Singapore Foreign Investment Board (FIB) representative met with us to demonstrate the level of official support to the company we were considering to hire for an engineering water project. Singaporean companies are paid 50 percent of all cost associated with establishing an overseas operations including 50 percent of the employees’ salaries. Today, I read in the local paper that Singapore plans to launch from India its first homemade satellite next month. The Singaporean government invests highly in technological research and development projects.

On the political level, Singapore has an “elected” dictatorship. I asked a colleague if there was an opposition in the parliament, yes, they have two in the opposition out of 81 parliamentarians. I asked if there was an ideological opposition, left or right. He said no, just an opposition to the majority. Another colleague confined to me, they were the same if not elected, semi appointed members to add color to the elected parliament.

Another thing I noticed, that writers in the local newspapers refer to the founding father (alive) of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew as “mentor.” By the way his son is the current leader of Singapore. It sounded more like another Chinese who was referred to as leader or teacher in China, Mao. But unlike China, government ministers in Singapore make one of the highest salaries in the world, over multimillion Sing dollars per year. The government claims that high salaries reduce corruption. While in fact it is proven empirically that corruption is almost always a product of high income environment, rather than low income class. Corruption is personal trait rather than income based. It is certainly the richer they are the more corrupt people tends to be, for they have a lot more to gain and or to squander.  Corruption is more associated with greed rather than need where greed is much more apparent at the higher income strata. I wonder if this “little strange place” is an exception!