Latest impressions of Singapore: Outstanding again, but...

Latest impressions of Singapore: Outstanding again, but...
I've heard such horror stories about congestion on the MRT, but on my (one sample) ride at rush hour, it wasn't bad at all.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Just in case you haven't been subjected to my thoughts on Singapore before, I passed through in December 1963 - getting wrong impressions, of course, but vivid memories. They wouldn't let me lick my stamps at the General Post Office at Fullerton because of the cholera outbreak, and Change Alley was frightening.

I returned to stay in 1979, went elsewhere in 1997, but have been a part-time worker here every year since.

As anyone who has seen Singapore for more than a few years will tell, the chief thing you note on return is physical change. From my first office on Collyer Quay, I watched Tampines soil being hauled barge by barge to create Marina Bay (it still feels quite weird in MBFC to think you are standing on Tampines hills). I guess the major issues now are the continued expansion of the MRT and the rather confusing merry-go-round of the AYE at Marina.

More personally, there are a lot more people around but, strangely, no more people congestion. I think that may be down to naturally avoiding bottlenecks, though going for lunch at Far East Square can be a hassle. There are certainly a lot more languages around.

Public transport: I've heard such horror stories about congestion on the MRT, but on my (one sample) ride at rush hour, it wasn't bad at all. It's not the numbers; it's the lack of courtesy that gets you. There's this old Singapore Chinese mentality of not losing place or face (kiasu) to blame. If there was one government campaign we would all support, it would be stamping out kiasu-ism.

But then, don't they suffer from it too? Mind you, I never saw a single minister on public transport, but I commuted with a leader of the opposition. Overall, Singapore public transport is easily the best I have seen in any major overcrowded city. Of course, you see better conditions in some other cities, but they don't have the numbers in a small area.

Minor aside here: courtesy is not the first thing you associate with Singapore, despite the campaigns since the 1980s. But respect for elders is brilliant. I've grown grey hair in the last couple of years, and everyone wants to give up their seat for me on the bus. Kind of embarrassing to me, because I still reckon I'm quite active - but so nice. Please note that I am talking Singaporeans of every age here, not foreigners.

Respect is still lacking on the roads, though; it was never there. We used to call Singapore the "slow dance of death", with chaotic lane changing and mega kiasu-ism.

I was walking down Scotts Road to Orchard Road recently when an emergency ambulance hammered past and took the slip into Orchard. At the lights at Paterson, there was an emergency fire engine with siren and lights flashing, trying to turn right.

Traffic was light, but nobody gave way: three taxis, a cement lorry, and a bunch of private cars. People were standing outside the Marriott shrugging their shoulders. Now, that is being kiasu to a dangerous degree. Get rid of it.

The country is still cash-obsessive and the gap between rich and poor is just too blatant. More empathy with your fellow man, please.

And get off those damn phones when you are walking down the street and look around you. But then, I've met nothing but kindness from everyone I've had the chance to speak with. Off your cellphones, you are quite nice guys.

I looked up some recent articles on Singapore as a place to live in and was surprised to see the old things about police state/authoritarianism, control of the press, restriction on freedom, etc; no way (unless they don't print this article, of course).

Yes, Singapore has rules. Yes, it is not as "free" as most Western countries. But it works, and you can do just about anything here, including criticising the government on stage (which we did in the 1980s anyway). And there is far more encouragement for creativity - just a problem, because Singaporeans seem to be not creative by nurture; maybe by nature, but I'll leave the LKY Foundation to deal with that one.

Final word: the last time I did this sort of article, I had a go at Immigration at Woodlands and Changi. No change, lah! Woodlands: take a look at what Malaysia does on the other side of the Causeway, and get more efficient. Changi: please stop being nice to foreigners who have not completed their Immigration cards. Send them to the back, please.

Overall score: outstanding again.

The writer is a business communications consultant in the UK who spends several weeks in Singapore every year. He lived in Singapore for almost 20 years in the 1980s and 1990s as a Price Waterhouse Singapore partner.


This article was first published on May 3, 2016.
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