Monday, June 7, 2010
On the road to Singapore--investors, immigrant workers, and a curious journalist
(The photo you see here is one of men playing what one local called "Dam", a form of checkers, in Singapore's Chinatown. The photo was taken by Suzanne Centenio Atkins.)
SINGAPORE – Taxi driver Abo Rhaman B Abo Samad sees himself as an “ambassador” for this city-nation, an economic powerhouse in Southeast Asia yet something less than a full-scale democracy.
And he’s not shy about offering his opinions to the Americans in the back seat. “Lots of foreigners come here to work. Everybody has a job if you’re not too choosy. I was a security guard making eight hundred to nine hundred (Singapore) dollars salary. I had to upgrade myself. Now I make four thousand a month (roughly $3,000).”
Abo gives credit for that upward mobility to the half-century rule of the People’s Action Party (PAP) and to Lee Kuan Yew, the founder and longtime ruler of modern-day Singapore who, though officially retired at 86, is still very active as its “Minister Mentor”. “He’s a smart man, a swell leader, a great leader. We have nothing, no natural resources. This man took us out of nothing.”
Over the two weeks I recently spent in this fascinating city of five million, I found that not everyone agrees, but with its pulsating, people-filled streets, towering skyscrapers, and busy ethnic enclaves of Buddhist and Hindu temples, Moslem mosques, vendor and shophouse-lined alleyways, Singapore is still undeniably one of the Pacific Rim’s economic “tigers”. It’s Asia’s cleanest and least corrupt city, even though its colonial past still lingers in places like the Raffles Hotel, where writer William Somerset Maugham plotted his exotic stories about lonely expatriates and spell-casting natives.
Singapore seems an isle of tranquility in a trouble-filled region. While I was there, the streets of Bangkok turned red with blood as Red Shirt protesters raged against the government. North and South Korea rattled sabers over the sinking of a South Korean warship. Worker suicides and bizarre attacks on children and women revealed the dark underside to China’s economic boom.
Singapore is not immune, however. During my visit, Indonesian police raided a terrorist hideout in Jakarta and found plans indicating that one of the subway stops I used everyday was a bombing target.
The immigrant worker issue that seems universal today—from China to Mississippi—is also a major topic of conversation here in this nation founded by immigrants. A half-million workers from Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere do the backbreaking work of this city. Many are huddled into crowded, rat-infested dormitories with little relief from the sweltering tropical heat, reliving the conditions that faced the 19th century immigrants depicted in Chinatown’s Chinese Heritage Centre.
“The government keeps raising taxes, putting pressure on people, particularly small businessmen,” a convenience store owner in western Singapore told me. “You have to work very hard to make it. You have to get up early and go to bed late. People are scared to speak up. Even the rich are scared to say anything or they will lose what they have.”
Singapore slaps hefty taxes on convenience store “sin” items like alcohol and horrific depictions of cancer-ridden smokers on cigarette packs, but the tax structure works quite well for the wealthy, who pay in income taxes just half what their U.S. counterparts pay. The city offers public health care but few other benefits to residents. Wages are low even though profits are high.
This is the city where American Michael Fay was famously caned for theft and vandalism in 1994. The Singapore Police are notoriously tough. No jaywalking, and no eating and drinking in the subways. Graffiti artists face up to three years in prison--plus the cane--if they get caught.
The pages of the Straights Times—the city’s leading newspaper--are thick with stories and advertisements. The business news is top-notch, so is foreign coverage. The feature stories can be excellent, such as the one about karaoke lounge hostess Li Hong Yan. The Chinese immigrant’s naked body was found floating in the bungalow swimming pool of a wealthy businessman.
Yet criticism of the government is practically nonexistent. The press practices what the Chinese call kiatsu, self-censorship. When one of modern Singapore’s founders, Goh Keng Swee, died during my stay, a daily flood of hagiography followed. Ang Peng Hwa, who heads the journalism program at Nanyang Technological University, says Singaporean journalists rarely do investigative reporting. “Singapore is so small. Everyone knows everybody, and you’d see that person you investigated on the street the next day.”
Well, taxi driver Abo asks, who needs critics of Singapore anyway? “They are stupid. They haven’t been to Myanmar (Burma), or to Thailand where they are fighting.”