Sunday, July 6, 2008

Day 145. Singapore

I was awoken at 6 am by the call-to-prayer of the Muezzin of the mosque that is on the other side of the street (assisted by a loudspeaker that would awaken the dead). Fortunately I was not the only one, so when I left the hotel I found that the local Chinese restaurant was already in full swing. I asked for breakfast and was treated to an authentic Dim-Sum, with all sorts of delicious dumplings.

Thus fortified I continued southeast along the coast, remembering my Salgari and looking with delight at the waters that once were the hunting grounds of Salgari and the pirates of Mompracem.

Finally I made it to the Woodlands crossing into Singapore. Man, these guys are serious. Soldiers with machine guns were guarding the border, and there were all sorts of signs warning about death penalty for drug smugglers, and $1,000 fines for not paying tax on cigarettes or liquor. The lady at the border was very nice, however, and with a welcoming smile told me that I had to buy an Autopass. OK, so I went to the Land Transportation Authority (LTA) office, and the first thing I learned is that I had to pay in Singapore dollars (S$). Hmm . . . “was there any place to change Malaysian currency” “No, not really, but one of the helpful officers offered to exchange S$ 10 worth. OK, then I went to see another smiling lady, who entered the license plate in the computer, and informed me that my car was blacklisted for previous violations, and that there was a fine of gizillion S-dollars. Several ladies huddled together, interrogated me, and concluded that I was a tourist in a rental car, so very likely I was not the criminal. Calls to the upper office and I was given a one-time permission to enter with the car, but I had to make sure to “top-up” my Autopass with enough money to pay for all the electronic tolls that I would incur in my two days. “How much shall I put in the card”. “I don’t know. You can put up to 500 S$.” Gasp! Then she informed me that I would have to pay for parking, for using the highway, for coming into the city, for breathing . . . “OK, is there an ATM here so I can get money to put money into the card?” “No, you will have to go to the city for that.” It sounded like a catch 22, but they had been so nice that I just said goodbye and headed for the city. I took back roads, avoiding the toll highways, until I found a bank, got money, and then was directed to 7-Eleven to add the money to the card (thank God for 7-Eleven in Asia!). So I put S$ 20 in the card (about US$15), and launched into the fray.

Singapore is a miracle of an island-city. There are huge apartment complexes, numbered like military barracks but really nice, beautiful highways everywhere (but no place to stop and gawk), and the most sophisticated and modern downtown you can imagine. Everything is clean, the drivers are reasonably polite, and there is a sense of money everywhere. A veritable Utopia.

Singapore was established as a British colony sometime in the late 1700’s or early 1800’s, and in no time became a huge commercial hub. During World War 2, however, it was occupied by the Japanese, who pretty much destroyed its infrastructure. After the war the Brits were exhausted, and dumped the little colony by giving independence to all their colonies in the Malay peninsula. For a short time Singapore was a part of Malaysia, but sometime in the late 1950’ it was kicked out of the federation and became an independent country. So, how did this tiny country became the jewel that it is today? Their prosperity is definitely not a legacy of the British Empire (in fact little is left of the colonial era) or the western world. No, it is a 100% effort of the locals, who are a mix of Malays, Indian, and Chinese.

The answer is that for the last 50 years Singapore has “benefited” from a benign autocracy. They only have one political party that tolerates no opposition or criticism. Their first Prime Minister, Mr. Lee, stayed in power for 30 years, and only stepped down after he was appointed Overseeing Minister, so he could make sure that his policies were being followed. His successor held power for about 10 years, and he in turn has been succeeded by Mr. Lee’s son. Sounds similar to the story of Botswana doesn’t it?

Key to the success has been extreme ability of the Prime Ministers as administrators, no corruption, strict enforcement of regulations (but as I can testify regulations are applied with discretion), and reinvestment of public monies in the country. Yes, in some respects it is the ultimate police state (later I was to learn that there are cameras everywhere, and that the Autopass has a chip that is detected by sensors along the highways, so you can be charged for their use), reminiscent of The Village in the TV series The Prisoner. On the other hand, the people are happy and prosperous, crime is very low, and the country has the highest rate of home-ownership in the whole of Asia. Worth keeping in mind the merits of benign dictatorships.

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