Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Singapore = Wonderland? - learning about the country

I didn't know much about Singapore.  Before this trip, key words I would use to describe Singapore were: government housing, garden city, wealthy island, Lee Kwan Yew, elite system and nepotistic politics.

So I studied before my trip.  I was really impressed by the following facts:
  • Singapore is the world's fourth-leading financial centre, after New York, London and Hong Kong.
  • Singapore is the world's second-biggest casino gambling market, behind Macau, in front of Las Vegas.  
  • The country is the world's third-largest oil refining centre.
  • The port of Singapore is one of the five busiest ports in the world, most notable for being the busiest transshipment port in the world.
  • The country is home to more US dollar millionaire households per capita than any other country.
  • The World Bank notes Singapore as the easiest place in the world to do business. Singapore is also one of the least corrupted countries in the world
  • The country has the world's third highest GDP PPP per capita of US$59,936, making Singapore one of the world's wealthiest countries. 
  • Singapore has 10th biggest foreign currency reserve in the world 
What makes such a tiny country so successful?  I walked into the Singapore State Museum full of curiosity.

Museum outside


Decoration with Chinese elements

 Muesum garden

I spent a whole day in the museum, and learned a lot.

1. Yeo and Khong Guan are Singapore brands.  I always thought they were Taiwanese and Chinese

2.  Back in the 1960s, Singaporeans were encouraged to make deposits with 4% interest that was exempt from income tax.  The domestic savings wee channeled to finance government projects and to assist in Singapore's infrastructure development.  Singapore people have good saving habits and a sense of ownership of their country.

3. Singapore is known to have the world's cleanest and nicest hawker center.  The hawker centers in Singapore are owned by three government bodies, namely the National Environment Agency (NEA) under the parent Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), Housing and Development Board (HDB) and JTC Corporation. All the centres, in turn, are managed by NEA. On 5 March 2010, NEA launched, which is an interactive web portal that offers useful information on hawker centres and food stalls. The portal allows registered users to review or recommend hawker stalls or hawker centres and to provide feedback to NEA on hygiene matters in hawker centres. (from
4. Like China, Singapore has family planning policy too!

5. The majority of the residential housing developments in Singapore are publicly governed and developed and about 85% of Singaporeans live in such houses. These flats are located in housing estates, which are self-contained satellite towns with schools, supermarkets, clinics and hawker centers, as well as sports and recreational facilities. There are a large variety of flat types and layouts, catering to a variety of housing budgets. HDB flats were built primarily to provide affordable housing for the masses and their purchase can be financially-aided by the Central Provident Fund. As Singapore developed economically, changing demands has seen more up-market public housing developments catering to those with higher incomes.

Public housing in Singapore as such is not generally considered as a sign of poverty or lower standards of living as compared to public housing in other countries. Although they are generally cheaper than privately-built homes in Singapore, they are built in a variety of quality and finishes to cater to middle and upper middle income groups. Property prices for the smallest public housing can often be higher than privately owned and developed standalone properties (Townhouse, apartment unit etc.) in other developed countries after currency conversion. Even though the majority of residents live in public housing, very few are below the poverty line. (from

6.  For a long time, The Straits Times was the only daily English-language newspaper in Singapore.

The Straits Times has sometimes been criticized as being the mouthpiece of the ruling party, the People's Action Party and lacks the freedom to criticize the government. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974 requires all newspapers to be publicly listed into both ordinary and management shares, with management shares having 200 times the voting rights of ordinary shares and approval from the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts needed for any management share transfers. Past chairpersons of Singapore Press Holdings have been civil servants. SPH's former executive president Tjong Yik Min served as the head of the Internal Security Department from 1986 to 1993. (from
7. About Lee Kwan Yew

During the three decades in which Lee held office, Singapore grew from being a developing country to one of the most developed nations in Asia, despite its small population, limited land space and lack of natural resources. Many western politicians including Margaret Thatcher and Henry Kissinger admired Lee's transparent and highly efficient  government.  In the meantime, western society often accused Singapore of not having enough democracy.   The response to this is that cultural and social development was subordinated to political needs.  Lee and Lee's two sons all hold very important positions in the Singapore government.  His oldest son is current prime minister, they call this the "family pass along" position.  His younger son used to be CEO of Singapore Telecom, Singapore's biggest state owned company (now Temasek Holdings)

Lee promotes Asian Values, he thinks Asian countries should not apply western values, and believes western democracy may not apply to Asian people. 

8.Like old days in Shanghai, Singaporeans used oil burner to cook too!

My thoughts:

I always thought Singapore practiced fake capitalism before this trip.  I believed government housing was a way for government to interfere with the market.  But after visiting the museum, I am really impressed by this wonderful public policy. 

Let's take a look at America in comparison.  In America, people usually relate government housing with low income population.  They can only rent and can not afford to buy.  Most government housing projects are associated with high crime rates, high drug abuse and not so nice neighborhoods.  And some people who live in government houses don't have the motivation to work hard and change their situation. Imagine if the American government would follow the Singapore government, trying to sell houses instead of rent.  I think this would improve people's sense of ownership.  And in one way, this would help to make the neighbourhood clean and beautiful.  How many people like to mess their own home? In the mean time, people who live in government housing would have a mortgage to pay, thus they probably would need to find a job and work hard.  It sounds like a good cycle.  Well, I am not a politician, I know things won't change that easily, especially in America!  How many bills would we have to pass to make this change!

To be frank, I also think the elite system, family pass along politics, or maybe even national capitalism is not a bad thing, as long as reasonable people use reasonable policies to develop their country.  Asian values are different from those of western countries.  I believe democracy has a close relationship to economic development.  If a person can not even meet his/her own basic survival needs, how can this person objectively exercise his/her democratic rights?  Don't you think Obama is using food stamps to collect votes?

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