You see, I’m a Singaporean living in New Zealand. I left in 2002, right after my NS and spent four years studying. Immediately (literally within two days), I felt at home here in this little town of 70,000 people. After doing my under and post graduate studies, I stayed and made New Zealand my new home. I’ve got a job, a house, a nice little Honda, and most importantly, a nice Kiwi girl.
However, I’ve never forgotten about my little island. I was so proud of it that within the first six months of dating my future wife, I took her back to Singapore and showed her every inch of it. Of course, we did the usual touristy stuff, but we also went to a lot of local, authentic places. This was back in 2005; less than a decade ago. But now looking back, it felt like a completely different world.
We’re lucky enough to be able to travel back to Singapore about once every year since then and we’ve seen Singapore change for the worse. (Maybe these month-long visits are a curse, since we don’t see these changes happen gradually; they just hit us hard and fast!) Sure, it wasn’t perfect back then, but we both still loved it. In fact, sometimes I think she loves it more than I do! However, the last time we went back (December of 2013), there was just something that made us, quite independently of each other, come to one conclusion – this place isn’t really for us anymore, and we’ll probably spend a lot less time here in the future.
So, what’s changed?
Well, for starters, the people. Apart from the friends and family that we see, we hardly come across any Singaporeans anymore. We get served by a myriad of nationalities in almost every shop, from the local hawker centre to the high-end clothing boutiques and even local attractions. This may not be a real issue to most locals, but when tourists come and they get poor service from a large majority of these Asians serving them, most won’t even realise that they’re not Singaporeans.
When my in-laws came in 2010, we took them shopping and they kept thinking that the foreigners are Singaporean, because let’s face it, how would an ang-moh, South American or Arab know the difference? They’ll go back home to Dubai, New Zealand, America, Sweden, Argentina, Italy et cetera, and tell their friends that Singaporeans can’t speak English* and can’t provide good service. Sad, isn’t it! Imagine my disgust then, when I read that today, almost 40% of the people living on this little red dot are foreigners.
Along with that, is the sheer number of people on the island. Kiwis often say that a place is too small to swing a cat. Well, Singapore has become an island that’s too small to even attempt any sort of swinging! With all these extra foreigners who come into the country; and with infrastructure, facilities and resources stretched to the limit, the physical experience of being on the island is just overwhelmingly uncomfortable.
While this over-crowdedness isn’t unique to Singapore, with many other large and over-populated cities like London, Auckland, or New York, you can at least leave to find some solitude in a park, or a suburb, or a different town. Not so in Singapore. When we went back last, even Sungei Buloh, was invaded by some rather annoying and loud PRCs.
And let’s not forget about the failing infrastructure. We were lucky that during our one month in Singapore, we didn’t encounter any failures on the train. However, that didn’t mean that the experience was nice. We kept seeing posters about how the companies are bringing in 77 new trains to serve us better, but what’s the point when there’s still only one train line? Those shiny, new trains will still have to wait behind old, yucky ones since the capacity of the lines is limited. On top of that, the extra people make the malls, buses and pathways a lot more congested; yet another symptom of the over-crowding.
Despite the government’s constant efforts to reclaim land, build higher into the air and deeper into the ground, the fundamental truth is that Singapore is a small, small place, and that there are limits to just how many people it can accommodate. The government should be looking at maintaining a population number and its challenges, instead of planning for a much larger one.
If, as the government claims, the country needs more people to sustain economic growth, then perhaps it needs to look at alternative ways of generating wealth; one that doesn’t include the blind, wholesale importation of foreigners; foreigners who do not seem to want to integrate, learn the language, lay down roots, much less have any emotional ties to the country.
The psyche of the people has also changed, sadly. In 2011 I encountered so many kind, courteous Singaporeans who gladly gave up their seats in trains. This time round, in 2013, the opposite was true. I observed many Singaporeans and foreigners ignoring really old looking people; my friend who was 8-months pregnant stood the entire way to work. A quick look on social media and I find videos of fights and arguments over who sits and who stands. Disgusting!
My theory is that the courtesy campaigns have worked. Singaporeans (after decades of posters, TV ads, TCS dramas that propagate the courtesy message, education in classrooms and good old-fashioned fines) have been whipped into a rather courteous and civic-minded bunch. However, the influx of foreigners has undone all the government’s good work. When a local keeps giving up his seat and constantly sees foreigners comfortably seated and ignoring other people, then the thought of “why me” must surely ring in his head. I know I’ve asked myself that question in December 2013, when I was back in Singapore last. Why should I give up my seat when the foreigner isn’t?
It only took me three weeks of being back to question the status quo. The lack of education and thus, the lack of civic-mindedness and courtesy, of foreigners aren’t just limited to seats on trains. But that’s a discussion for another time. The fact is that despite years of education, some Singaporeans are still speaking dialect (I know I do), spitting and littering. How is it possible for a foreigner who comes from a third-world country to handle not doing these things? We can’t! And as a result, live (or should I say, exist) in a poorer environment.
But all isn’t gloom and doom! The people, the true Singaporeans; the few that are left; are doing something I never thought they’d do… they’re fighting back! Seeing so many comments and posts on websites and blogs really warmed my heart. Seeing people brave enough to organise and attend protests (albeit in Speakers Corner) makes me think that there is hope for the little red dot after all.
Perhaps one day, the missus and I will have the same feeling as we did in 2005, when we first came back together, and feel comfortable and welcomed; feel like perhaps there is some sort of future waiting for us in Singapore; feel proud of this amazing little country that I grew up in.
*One of my biggest grievances is that Singapore has slowly turned into a Chinese-speaking country. I speak Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien, like many Singaporeans, but my Kiwi wife and Indian dad don’t. Yet, almost everywhere we go, PRCs are hired as front line staff. Not only do they not speak English, they often just ramble on in Mandarin, despite the blank faces of non-comprehension on my wife and dad’s faces. There are two Mandarin TV channels and even English programming is peppered with bits of Mandarin. As a result, the PRCs love it here because they don’t really need to adapt.
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