Sunday, 8 March 2015

Singapore - 50 Years of Change

Aromatic Old Singapore - City Of My Birth
I was born in Singapore's Changi Hospital in 1958. My father was an RAF aircraft engineer who was posted there soon after marrying my mother in the UK. We returned home to England a year later but were soon back (firstly in Malaysia) 5 years later, around 1963. Back in those days it was a dusty, hot Asian country placed right on the equator. With little air-con and high humidity, foreigners struggled to move about let alone work. Open drains ran along the side of the roads. As a small boy I regularly marvelled at the dead dogs and other pungent detritus that floated by as I walked with my mother to the local market. The dried fish aroma of that market in Serangoon Gardens (where we lived) kept me waiting outside, poking fearsome looking crabs in cages with pieces of straw. In the evenings after an afternoon at the swimming pool (we only went to school in the mornings due to the heat), I would wander off and play with local children in ramshackle kampongs. They taught me snippets of Chinese and how to play noughts & crosses. At Christmas, Santa Claus arrived in an Army helicopter. Snow was a mystery to me and I had little idea what it was to feel cold. It was a life of playing and eating at the swimming pool, Sundays playing sport at 'The Boys' Club', fishing at a local carp pond, or going to Cub Scouts. I remember the good aromas too - the smell of shops, of wet ground after monsoon rain, of starfruit, rambutans and durian, of the Indian man's mini-shop on wheels at the end of our road (which he slept under) and of varnished paper umbrellas. In most ways it was an idyllic life. So idyllic in fact that I have for many years after coming back to the UK (in 1969) been afraid to return there for fear that those memories would be shattered. I have heard many times since how much it has changed.

Singapore Waterfront back then had a rather pungent aroma

 My Parents and I - Ex-pats in Singapore 1958

A youthful Lee Kuan Yew of the same era

23 Blandford Drive, Serangoon Gardens Circa 1964

Modern Singapore
Apart from a brief visit while working on a cruise ship in 1982, this year is my first proper reencounter with the country (now barely larger than the enlarged city itself). I was prepared for it to be unrecognisable. As I said, I had been warned. There was no Changi airport when I lived here, only the small airport of Paya Lebar. As airports go, Changi airport is a marvellous place to arrive. Clean, efficient and relaxed it is very much a preparation for the city itself. The MRT train into the centre is cool and gets you into the city with so much less stress than almost any other airport link I know. And what a city! The waterfront of Singapore, especially at night, has few equals in my opinion and I've visited most. Long gone is the smell of raw sewage and floating garbage that used to cause my younger brother and I to cover our noses as we drove past the old harbour back in the 1960's. It is now a truly fragrant place. Everything is clean and modern in fact. One could be in San Francisco or Sydney. Everything the modern consumer or visitor could desire is efficiently on hand. The architecture is spectacular. People smile and are happy to be helpful to strangers. All manner of food and pleasant entertainment are available, not only Singaporean. Modern Singapore is a truly international place - and this is without doubt the secret of its success. I am of course sad for the loss of old Singapore, as I suspect anyone is about the places where they were happy as a child. But when I look at Singapore now I can't help being impressed by what has been achieved. I even feel proud to have been born here.

 23 Blandford Drive, Serangoon Gardens in 2015
One of only a few 1960's houses remaining

 Marina Bay Sands Hotel - Incredible!

 Waterfront views from No1 Raffles (Altitude) building at night.
Nightly light-show from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

The Gardens by the Bay are simply breathtaking - day or night

Singapore - International City
It would be an exaggeration to say that Singapore has not retained any of its Asian culture, but compromises have had to be made. It is undoubtedly a culture more easily acceptable to foreigners - mainly westerners and to global businesses. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's iconic former president of a generation, is now in poor health. Despite handing over the reins to others long ago, he has remained Singapore's guiding light. What he has achieved is nothing short of remarkable. It is a massive economic achievement and perhaps a social one too.

After independence from Malaysia 50 years ago this year (celebrations throughout summer 2015) he laid out a vision of a country where foreign companies could trade with confidence in contrast to the notorious inefficiency, bureaucracy and corruption of other Asian rivals. Singapore's citizens embraced this vision and threw their hard-working enthusiasm behind it. It is the almost unanimous support of this vision by its citizens over the years that has produced what is widely now seen as an economic and social miracle. N.B. Lee Kuan Yew previously brought about independence from Britain in 1963.

A weekend walk at Macritchie Reservoir & Nature Reserve
Proactive Social Welfare in action - and no litter anywhere

World Series cricket on TV
The 'Little India' quarter retains an atmosphere of Singapore past

Paragon of Social Responsibility
Tolerance and a decent standard of living for all is a somewhat surprising principal to find at the heart of a strongly capitalist society. Cultural differences are recognised and accommodated. Racism though seems noticeably absent.
In many ways Singapore's pragmatic system seems to me to blur the boundaries between communism and capitalism. Pragmatism though, is what it is all about. Back in the newly independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew was faced with a small island with only minor scope for expansion. As it quickly became a popular place to live, his government realised that decent housing for all was a key element of a civilised modern society. It was a major challenge which many at the time thought unrealistic. Modern tower blocks were built to provide municipal social housing for workers. These blocks have done their best to retain a social heart, with integral shops, food courts, sports facilities, hairdressers, nurseries and playgrounds etc often provided at ground level. Despite air-con and modern facilities, older residents of these tower-blocks bemoan the loss of the communal life they enjoyed in the old kampongs (collections of typically wooden village houses on stilts etc), but most now recognise the un-sustainability of that kind of low-density housing. There is no gain without some pain. Singapore's value system often strains at the seams. Many these days quietly feel that the government goes too far in its efforts to ensure racial and gender equality for example. Personally I have often felt moved during my recent time here, by how selfless Singaporeans can be. The desire to help others seems to me a rare example of what communism tried and largely failed to achieve with citizens understanding that to help others is to enhance the whole society and therefore indirectly to benefit themselves. I admire it, yet I don't always feel comfortable with it. There is a 1984 Orwellian paranoia in me, as I suspect there is in many other westerners. And yet I can see that if the human race is to survive in an evermore populated world, then Singapore may be the best model we could follow.
Lee Kuan Yew, I salute you!

Sadly a few days after I published this post, Lee Kuan Yew died. He was 92. People have said we are unlikely to see such vision and dedication in a national leader ever again. I am inclined to agree.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.