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A brisk jalan-jalan through Singapore’s past, present and possible future

I am jealous. I am jealous that a foreigner who lived here for three years knows more about my country’s history than I do, have gone to places here that I didn’t know exist (Bukit Chandu War Memorial and the HDB museum anyone?) and traversed the country from west to east on foot – in one day.  I am even more jealous that he’s put together a charming book that used landmarks here as a jump off point to talk about Singapore’s past and present and a possibly worrying future. Great concept!

I am talking about the book Singapore Singapura – From Miracle to Complacency, by former BBC journalist Nicholas Walton. I am so jealous that I was delighted when he got a couple of things wrong, like mis-spelling Kallang and Buona Vista. Also, I have no idea what “long mee” is (noodles with a lot of fatty stuff, like pig’s tail).

From the title, I had expected a Western-style diatribe against the Singapore style of paternalism and authoritarianism wielded over a sheep-like population living in sanitised and anti-septic surroundings. But Mr Walton eschewed condescension, and has put forth a rich portrait of the “ultimate” city-state which, like the old Genoa which was the subject of his earlier book, might be in danger of a slow decline.

I admired how Mr Walton walked the line between praise and provocation.  He was effusive about how the early leaders made the best of opportunities presented and delivered economic performance reports that underpinned their electoral legitimacy. (LKY appears a lot.) He understood that a hard-working population alert to the precarious position of the country would be willing to trade off personal freedoms for a better material life. He noted that the country had exceptionally talented civil servants .

After the “miracle” comes the inevitable “but”. His key point is that circumstances have changed, but our people, civil servants, leaders and policies don’t seem to be changing fast enough if the country wants to remain exceptional. Hence, complacency.

Mr Walton’s insights into Singapore’s complacency are nothing I haven’t heard before – especially from old(er) people. Such as how we’ve forgotten or ignored the vulnerability  narrative of a small island (a dinghy) trying to navigate a tumultuous sea. The reasons for the country’s success – its small size makes policy implementation easier but also means bad policies can sink it quickly; its geographical position is a reason for its success as a trading port and airport but that could be undermined by shorter cuts made through land (think of a possible route through Kra Isthmus) and regional airports and airlines gearing up as competitors; its conformist population bred on its education system might not produce innovators and the radical ideas to bring the country to the next stage. “Easy wins”, he writes, “are in the past”.

It is a not a cheem book and some observations seem pretty sweeping.

For example, he seemed to have dismissed the abilities and fortitude of our young people here based mainly on his reading of Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Tan. ”The “most intriguing insight from the book”, he said was how the outlook of the protagonist, SPG Jazeline differed from her mother.

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“”She craved the tantalising lifestyle advertised by social media, glossy magazines, and the glitzy boutiques of Orchard Road. Such a dissonance between generations is not exactly unique to Singapore, but it should be of particular cause for concern there. The Jazeline generation had replaced hard work and a sense of vulnerability for extreme complacency and the search for an easy way out. The miracle had built a good life for the people of Singapore, but rather than appreciate that, they wanted trinkets.”

I doubt his evidence but I appreciate his well-intentioned warnings. I still think though that the word Complacency in the book title shouldn’t be in capital letters.  It strikes me that somewhere, an editor intervened to suggest that the book should have a “bottomline”. The C might as well stand for conventional wisdom – like how the education system, while excellent at producing numerate and literate students, was stressful; and how the meritocratic system was being criticised for advantaging the well-off.

Okay, I am not doing the book justice.

It is a delight to read if you don’t want to take it too seriously as an analysis of Singapore or use it as a crystal ball. It is very cleverly written, even funny, testimony to Mr Walton’s skills of observation, interviewing techniques and style of writing.  The common thread is a foreigner sweating his way through Singapore via GPS.  He  comments on what he sees and draws upon research and interviews to make conclusions about certain themes. I enjoyed his walk through industrial Jurong, the original engine of Singapore, West Coast, Kampung Bahru, Chinatown right through to Marine Parade. I enjoyed it much more than he did, given his frequent laments about the Singapore humidity and blistered feet.

It made me think that we, too, might do better to open our eyes to our surroundings than keep them glued on a miniature screen – quite a bugbear of his.

I enjoyed the various bits of history that we do not learn much about in school – Chinese funerals which turned into riots, brothels and the luminaries who got roads named after them. – as well as his acidic comments and descriptions of some landmarks. For example, Fusionpolis, Galaxies, Innovis, Launchpad@One North were “names that could come from the mind of a six year old boy on a sugar high in a Transformers factory”.

I cringed, however, when he pointed out a sign in the National University of Singapore campus which told students how to cross the road.  “These were not primary school children who needed prompts from overly sensible cartoon characters, but students at Asia’s best (or second-best if you ask NTU students) university. “When in doubt,” it seemed to say, “instruct, rather risk a non-optimal choice.” This mollycoddling was no route to fostering soft skills”.

I felt sad when he wrote about Singapore’s “troubled relationship with nature”, bulldozing green areas to make space for human living. “I have few few complaints about this. After all, Singapore cannot accept sentimentality without a purpose.”

The book is interspersed with interviews with Establishment types, civil servants, civil society activists and ordinary people. No politicians, unless you consider historian P J Thum one. They enter the book at the relevant “places” to talk about their area of expertise.  There was Dignity Kitchen’s Koh Seng Choon, Tomb Whisperer Raymond Goh and ex-Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin. Professor Kishore Mahbubani, whom the author describes as “sage-like”, pops up very often, especially  in the last chapter, Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal.

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Here’s where the book took its most serious tone – whether the G is brilliant or bold enough to come up with changes that could be upsetting and risky.

“This, with a certain amount of expert prompting from Professor Mahbubani, placed the charge of complacency on the shoulders of the government, rather than just the people. The citizens could be forgiven their complacency, just as they could be forgiven for feeling aggrieved about immigration, for their relentless zero-sum approach to coaching children through exams, or favouring a predictable career as an accountant rather than gambling everything on a start-up. The government, however, has a different job. It had the responsibility to make difficult decisions before they were necessary rather than simply manage pressures.”

Mr Walton asked if the G was micro-managing too many areas, like putting restrictions on the annual Pink Dot carnival. He wondered if the tough restrictions on expat employment were at odds with Singapore’s need for talent, and the reason for Singapore’s continued reliance on cheap foreign labour despite knowing its effect on productivity.

“I would never have argued that Singapore’s government did not know the challenges it faced, or that it did not have superb thinkers and administrators. But, perhaps, it was no longer truly brave, and there were a host of VUCA challenges on the horizon that required brave answers rather than technocratically competent ones. They were on a small dingy in a savage ocean, and to flourish rather than simply survive would take the spirit of 1965. The good professor was not convinced that this would happen.”

It was a sobering enough conclusion, given that we are on the cusp of a leadership change. If anyone wants a quick sweep of Singapore’s past, present and possible future, this is a great read. It should be far less intimidating than Seven Hundred Years: A  History of Singapore, now on sale in bookshops everywhere, and probably more entertaining. I am bracing myself to read that.





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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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