Disquiet in the Singapore air

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It’s midnight. Leaning against a railing on the highest rooftop bar in Singapore, I look down at the city in awe. Everything below looks bright, prosperous and organised – very Singaporean. A place for everything and everything in its place. Downtown Singapore isn’t static: it’s a veritable kaleidoscope. Every time I return here, there’s a new architectural marvel to see. As a result, the skyline is beautiful and rich.

I returned to Singapore for a visit a month ago and fell in love with the city all over again. But I’ve made a worrying observation: there is disquiet in the air everywhere I went.

Fraying infrastructure

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Riding the MRT during rush hour no longer feels like a First World experience; hospitals are reporting shortages in beds; traffic jams have become the norm on Singapore’s famed expressways; toilets in food courts and even recreational areas have begun stinking to high heaven. And I no longer raise an eyebrow when a water faucet in Changi airport doesn’t work.

Much has been said about Singapore’s fraying infrastructure. And although it is a cause for concern, and it did feel unusual to see so many locals muttering under their breaths as they used public transportation, I had to delve deeper.

Clues in cabs

The numerous cab rides I take offer me valuable inputs. In the past, Singapore cab drivers distinguished themselves by sticking to happy topics. They would brag about the city-nation’s safety record, its economy and the booming entertainment scene which brought them so much business. I particularly recall this aged cab driver who felt the heebie-jeebies every time he had to cross the Causeway. “Carjacks and pickpockets everywhere, lah,” he told me with a dismissive wave. That was then. And now?

They talked about their own lives. Without exception, they had worked in some other job before taking the wheel. All of them complained that traffic jams caused them a considerable loss in revenue; most of them said that they paired with another cab driver to work 12-hour shifts – this enabled them to halve their cab rent. Real estate prices weighed heavily on their minds (except for a man who had finished paying for an apartment worth more than a million dollars). And at the end of it all, they proclaimed in one voice that life had become a challenge. Surprisingly, the bachelors complained nearly as much as the married folk.

Am I encouraging them to talk gloomy? To discount this possibility, I often attempted to veer away into cheerier topics. Within a few sentences, we would be back to the travails of the air conditioned nation. At the end of 25-odd cab rides, I saw a pattern.

A nation dichotomised

I observed a contrasting trend: unbridled consumption. Food courts, malls, eateries, entertainment outlets and watering holes were teeming with people. Just like before. I struck up conversations with strangers. Opportunities presented themselves mainly in food courts and on public transportation. Most of them were open to talking about their troubles.
My rudimentary finding is that Singapore is split right down the middle.

What divides Singaporeans isn’t race, language or religion but a question of security. Whether or not the future looks secure. For the working populace, this translates to job security. Today, a resident of Singapore either feels safe in his job and behaves accordingly or carries his anxieties and frustrations on his sleeve. And before you ask, let me clarify: quantum of income did not seem to matter. As you read this, an insecure top-level marketing professional is sweating blood while a beer stall owner in a food court is whistling in his sleep.
And lest there is any confusion: class isn’t the dichotomising factor. It’s the feeling of security.

The world’s last social experiment

From the refined height of the rooftop bar, I resume gazing at a deceptively simple Singapore. I recall a medley of the dozens of conversations I’ve had with Singaporeans from all walks of life. I juxtapose these with stolen glances at newspaper headlines. The government is drawing out policies, implementing them, reaping feedback and going back to the drawing board. Unlike the past, it is goofing up more and being criticised much, much more. But Singapore’s political framework has barely changed. It remains more or less what Lee Kuan Yew made it to be: the world’s last social experiment.
The world’s last social experiment. What else can we call Singapore?

The nation was born along with many others… at the dawn of the post-imperialistic era. What made it unique was that it soon became a restricted democracy with a firm and honest emphasis on economic progress. It was, and is, small enough to be micromanaged. Many of its principles match those of start-up businesses. Based on this model, Singapore achieved spectacular growth in a short period of time.

Of course, this model has left a wake of disappointments amongst self-actualised and/or idealistic Singaporeans. That’s eminently understandable. But as an Indian who has experienced the opposite of micromanagement (chaos by design), and more importantly, as somebody who abhors the idea of a monolithic world, I’d be sorry to see the dissolution of the Singaporean model.

I’m not suggesting that dissolution is imminent, even though the political framework looks a tad feeble today. Take, for instance, the hot potato topic of immigration. Everybody, including the dissenting public, knows that Singapore needs a sizable population growth to sustain economic growth. This can happen only under a robust immigration policy. However, immigrants might poach jobs coveted by Singapore citizens. This might render the latter disillusioned even if growth happens. Of course, without the immigrants, growth itself is an unlikely proposition.
The geographical smallness of Singapore compounds the problem. There is hardly a lag between implementation of a policy and its effects. That leaves the government with the frustrating realisation: damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

The future

I have no idea what the future holds for Singaporeans. I empathise with those who think that the immediate future will be primarily determined by the pro-PAP and anti-PAP ideologies. But I empathise more with those who want Singapore to remain prosperous, trendy and unique – no matter what happens. This might still be the most probable future of Singapore. After all, this is one gutsy nation. It has succeeded against incredible odds.

As a journalist, I’m supposed to be impartial and willing to accept contrarian views. So let me leave you with this quote by renowned writer William Somerset Maugham. It’s a quote that pretty much challenges a lot of the stuff I said: If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.

Have a nice day, lah.

Eshwar Sundaresan, a journalist based in India, makes regular trips to Singapore