I spent a bunch of time in Singapore this summer. What a wonderful city state. And a remarkable achievement by its founders to build such a thriving metropolis over the 58 years it has been independent.
Here are some assorted impressions. I incorporate a few quotes from Jeevan Vasagar, author of the excellent Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia.
Most of the stereotypes are true. It’s spotless — just impeccably clean. There are lots of laws and people follow the laws. Everything works, from baggage claim at the airport to trash pickup to public transit. The food is incredible. It’s insanely humid all the time. And so on. Stereotype accuracy strikes again.
Startups set up HQ here and then serve the region. They do so to take advantage of the rule of law and investor-friendly atmosphere of Singapore. But one challenge with this approach is that, for regional companies, their labor costs, office space, etc. are absorbed in Singapore (expensive!) even as their revenue comes from much poorer markets like Indonesia. Grab, for example, pays thousands of people in Singapore who help support a business that generates a lot of revenue in neighboring, poorer markets. (Overall, the startup ecosystem is thriving in Singapore, with several very good VCs who are actively investing.)
Food. One of the best food cities in the world, obviously. Peranakan cuisine is tasty (beef rendang FTW!) and I wasn’t as familiar with it before. The malls have great restaurants and locals eat there all the time, though good luck trying to navigate through the gazillion escalators and elevators connecting literally 50-100+ distinct restaurants in some of the larger buildings. Hawker centers, while famous and cool, are not quite as awesome as advertised IMO. They’re not air conditioned and that, combined with all the on-site cooking, means it’s a sweat fest. It’s also hard to eat healthy at hawkers. That said, it’s tasty and cheap (because the government subsidies them). Singaporeans don’t cook much so the eating out culture is best in class.
If you’re talented, you work for the government, and government works stunningly well. If you graduate at the top of your class out of university, you land a job in the Singapore government apparatus. The public sector is exceptionally well staffed with the best and brightest in the country. In fact, a private sector VC who’s Singaporean told me that some of his classmates who now work in government look down upon him as not having “made it” — because he works in the private sector! To resist corruption, government workers in Singapore are among the highest paid in the world; the head of state earns a $2.2 million USD salary, the highest paid of any president.
The immigration/visa office in Singapore is one example of the how all this talent makes government work well. When you walk into the office, you’re greeted by a wall of “customer testimonials” — legit quotes from residents attesting to their positive experience working with the immigration office. They’ve also posted their KPIs and goals for timeliness and an update on how well they’ve met their goals. The contrast with a DMV in America couldn’t be starker.
Moral nudges are ubiquitous. The signage around the city is quite amusing, constantly extolling proper moral behavior. Give up your seat on the metro. Don’t play your music so loud. Pick up your trash. Etc. In Singapore, the nudges are explicit and enforced and threatened with the force of law (caning, death, etc). Another example of the government thinking about morality: it’s okay for foreigners to go into casinos but more expensive and harder for locals to do so. They’ll gladly take tourists’ money but they want their own people free of those vices. Also, alcohol is taxed heavily. Vasagar: “Like an overprotective parent, Singapore’s rulers have constantly fussed over their people, alternately cajoling or threatening in order to tip them in the desired direction.”
A/C infrastructure is legit. The planet is warming. But Singapore has been warm forever and is warm year-round. This means its air conditioning infrastructure is legit. You’re never a few steps away from A/C. Yes, Singapore becoming even hotter will present challenges in the decades ahead. But as compared to parts of the world newly dealing with warmness (see the heat waves in Europe this summer), I’d say Singapore is well positioned to offer a comfortable quality of life. By the way, you can get used to the humidity. It still sucks but you grow accustomed to it and adapt accordingly.
Trees and greenery everywhere. Trees here, trees there, trees everywhere in Singapore. Lots of hotels and office buildings buildings sport cool greenery/bushes/shrubbery built into their architecture. And the law is that if you remove a tree somewhere, you have to place one in its place. (I think.) The greenery of Singapore is underappreciated!
Singaporeans love deals, upsells, and unique discount structures. Almost every gym/fitness club (of which there are many — fitness culture is big in Singapore) offers some sort of “starter package” of discounted pricing. Many restaurants offer set menus and different deal combinations. When stores or restaurants offer pop up deals — often advertised via Instagram — queues form immediately from locals looking for a deal. Relatedly, many beauty shops will try to upsell you on whatever you’re buying in real time. “Pay $10 and get XYZ!” While I wouldn’t say Singapore buzzes with hustler energy in general (relative to a place like Ho Chi Minh), there is a persistent quest for deals.
Lee Kuan Yew is legendary yet invisible in the physical world. There are no statues of the man anywhere. Only one public policy school is named after him. By design, there are no homages to the man on the streets of Singapore.
Democracy slowly coming? I read the local newspaper in English every day. It was more critical of the government than I expected. “Its democracy may be hemmed in, but it does hold meaningful elections. And in recent years, a substantial political opposition has emerged. The PAP has won every election in Singapore since 1959. In 2020, it took eighty-three of the ninety-three seats in parliament. But the Workers’ Party, which criticises the PAP from the left, won ten seats in that year’s election, the biggest gain ever made by an opposition party.”
Does it deserve its high economic freedom rankings? There are low taxes in Singapore. It’s business friendly. And open to trade. So Singapore frequently ranks as one of the most economically free in the world. At the same time, ~80% of people live in government owned housing. And this: “Singaporeans are forced to contribute a fifth of their salaries to pay for retirement, as well as healthcare and housing purchases. The savings, along with contributions from their employer, go into a personal fund, known as the Central Provident Fund (CPF). Unlike other defined contribution pensions worldwide, which are typically invested in the stock market and a range of other assets including bonds and commercial property, the funds are invested in government bonds which have been specially issued for that purpose.”
No-shame Instagram culture. In workout classes, many of the younger folks would whip out their phones at the end of class and take sweaty selfies. Sometimes teachers encouraged it! “Time to take your photo for Instagram!” Plenty of attractions throughout the city would have signage to indicate a particular place was Instagrammable.
Hong Kong’s decline is Singapore’s gain. So many have re-located from Hong Kong to Singapore the past couple years. The prices of apartments have surged as a result. Singapore is the new capital of English-speaking, capitalistic Asia.
Tourist attractions/advice: Botanic gardens, Marina Bay Sands, and Gardens by the Bay are lovely. The zoo is overrated, I’d say, and this is coming from someone who’s probably visited 15 zoos around the world. Wandering through the malls of Orchard is worth a spin. Cultivate awe at how clean everything is and how everything just works. Make each meal special.
Raising kids in Singapore is attractive thanks to live-in help and cultural norms. The ability to secure relatively inexpensive nanny help is a game changer for the parents I met in Singapore. It’s not just the cost compared to America, though that’s a big part of it. It’s also the cultural norms around getting help — in America, “outsourcing” parenting tasks is more greatly stigmatized. In Singapore (and much of Asia and Latin American ad perhaps beyond, to be sure) it’s very much the norm. No one judges you for having a nanny work long hours every day, including weekends. In Singapore specifically, beyond nanny culture, parents love knowing that their kids can run around and it’s totally safe and clean and they can lick the ground in the subway station.
The airport is the best in the world. I’ve had the opportunity to fly through most of the larger airline hubs in the world, for most on multiple occasions: Frankfurt, Doha, Dubai, Tokyo, San Francisco, Chicago, Hong Kong, Toronto, Dallas, Seoul, Atlanta, Amsterdam, Paris, Los Angeles, New York, London, Istanbul, and others. (Haven’t been to Abu Dhabi.) Singapore’s airport is the best. The immigration procedures/lines are exceptional. Baggage claim, wayfinding, food opportunities, the way the gates are organized, water dispensers and bathrooms, etc. are peerless.
- There are rarely knives served at meals — just forks and spoons. Singapore also doesn’t usually serve “normal” thick napkins at restaurants. Bring your own napkins or make do with tissues. (As a funny little analogous example — in Tokyo, they only bring one menu to the table, even if you’re a party of two.)
- Cars are taxed at very high rates so most people don’t have cars and those who do flaunt it as a status symbol.
- Tap water is offered inconsistently at restaurants. Some restaurants offer it. Some claim they can only offer bottled water.
- Locals support capital punishment for drug offenses. The issue that’s made Singapore the source of much global criticism remains popular among their own people.
- Many coffee shops don’t open before 9am. Given the climate, it’s more of a nighttime city.
- My favorite Singaporean expression: “Can!” Example: “Are you able to come back to fix my internet router later?” “Can”
- Durian season is special — the local go nuts over it!
- The Japanese occupation is loathed in history books and museum. Yet they worship Japanese design, “made in Japan”, Japanese quality etc. — it’s all over the local advertising.
- Many expats I spoke to were nervous about their kids absorbing severe risk aversion attitudes in local schools.
- Badminton is the national sport. Amusing.
- Telegram is big in Singapore. Group chats occur on Telegram.
- I loved seeing new local businesses receive bouquets of congratulatory flowers after they opened. Local businesses and construction firms would send “Congratulations!” gifts and they’d pile up outside the newly opened business. Is this a Chinese norm?
Other highlights from Lion City are below.
To understand modern Singapore, it is necessary to go back to the year it all began: 1965. Forget the Singapore of mirrored office towers, the city of elevators and air conditioning. Conjure a low-rise city with walls stained grey by cooking fires, bustling with street traders hawking their wares in a babble of Asian languages – a trading settlement with a cluster of colonial buildings surrounded by merchants’ shophouses and then a sprawl of shanty towns.
The island lacked natural resources, and was reliant on the neighbouring Malay peninsula even for its water. Its ethnic mix, a Chinese majority with Malay and Indian minorities, made it unique and conspicuous in a region with a history of anti-Chinese xenophobia.
The whole system bears the deep imprint of one man’s personality. There are no statues of Lee in the city he built, and only one institution named after him – a school of public policy – but anyone who wants to see his monument has only to look around them. Lee held power as prime minister from 1959, when Singapore was granted internal self-government under British rule, to 1990, when he stepped down. After quitting as premier, he remained in cabinet, first as senior minister then with the title of minister mentor, until 2011.
The Japanese occupied Singapore from February 1942 to September 1945, when the British officially resumed control a month after Japan’s surrender.
While both countries are made up of the same ethnic mix – Malay, Chinese and Tamil – their politics is very different. Malaya was dominated by Malays, the traditional inhabitants of an archipelago stretching across Southeast Asia, and in 1963 the country was predominantly rural. Singapore had a Chinese majority, many of them recently arrived in the region, and was largely urban. Under colonial rule, Malaya’s occupations had been roughly divided on ethnic lines; Indian immigrants and their descendants worked on rubber plantations and in government offices, the Malays worked the land. The Chinese worked in tin mines and factories, while some prospered in commerce.
The state would be vigilant about maintaining racial harmony. Its National Pledge, written in 1966, declares that Singaporeans are ‘one united people, regardless of race, language or religion’. It is recited in school assemblies, with a fist clenched above the heart. Singapore championed the ideal of meritocracy, in contrast with Malaysia’s approach to levelling up through affirmative action.
Singapore’s elite wanted to create a new kind of society which would absorb technical knowledge and skills from the West while remaining culturally Eastern. But many of the leaders were themselves products of English-language schools and elite overseas universities, and were most comfortable speaking in English. They could prophesy about a promised land that combined East and West, but could never be part of it themselves.
There’s a shorthand for this kind of aspiration – the 5Cs: career, car, credit card, condominium and country club. It’s not entirely clear where the expression 5Cs came from, but every Singaporean knows it. Each of the Cs represents a successive level of aspiration.
The creation of new land from the sea has been extraordinary; between 1965 and 2019, Singapore grew from 581.5 square kilometres to 728 square kilometres. Lacking its own supply of sand for this construction work, Singapore has become the world’s biggest sand importer. Marina Bay Sands, the landmark hotel shaped like a wicket, is built on reclaimed land, but so is much else in modern Singapore.
Admonishing the public not to drop litter was backed up with the threat of fines and public shaming. The names of adult litterbugs were published in the press, while errant children were reported to their schools. People caught dropping litter could be made to clean the streets under ‘Corrective Work Orders’, a punishment which remains in force. Offenders can be seen sweeping up while wearing luminous pink and yellow vests as a badge of their shame.
The policy of integrating races in each neighbourhood and public housing block ensures that Singapore does not have racial ghettos, but it also curtails individual choice of where to live.
But climate control has reshaped the city’s architecture, making it a less human place. Instead of arranging rooms around the natural ventilation of a courtyard, air conditioning has encouraged tightly stacked flats and offices. By blasting heated air out of buildings, it intensifies the heat on the streets, driving people to seek shelter indoors.