Thursday, 16 January 2014

A foreigner's visit to a 'miracle' place called Singapore

By Wang Tian, The Straits Times, 15 Jan 2014

I HAVE always wanted to visit Singapore, a predominantly Chinese city-state whose existence is unique in the world.

My daughter and I began our trip to Singapore on Christmas Eve after a long-time Singaporean friend again invited me to visit.

We walked into the heat after leaving Changi Airport. My friend, in a short-sleeved top, was waiting for us.

She is now in charge of a local Chinese newspaper. We became good friends during her Beijing posting. My friend, who is fluent in putonghua (Mandarin), gave us an introduction to the night scenery as she drove.

Over the next few days, my daughter and I visited the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, SEA Aquarium and Jurong Bird Park. My daughter enjoyed herself thoroughly, and I too found it very interesting.

These are world-class zoos and aquarium. I never would have thought that a small country like Singapore could have such big zoos.

Include Universal Studios, and you indeed have an entertainment paradise for children.

Before going to Singapore, I always thought that this international financial centre would be full of skyscrapers.

I found on arrival there are different degrees of density. There are bustling streets, but they are spread out and it does not feel suffocating, thanks to the greenery.

My friend took us specially to Punggol. The public housing blocks there each have more than 10 storeys, and a few blocks form a "cluster area".

There is a lot of green space right next to each cluster, with a garden on the rooftop of carparks. Despite the high population density, such a living environment is pretty good.

Singapore's Government is well-known for its public housing policy. With about 85 per cent of the people living in public housing, home ownership is not a dream in Singapore.

In the early 1960s, the Housing and Development Board was set up to build public flats in order to improve living conditions for the people. It went from building flats for rent to flats for sale at low prices.

In the opinion of Singapore's founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, an ju le ye - living in peace and enjoying one's work - is the foundation of social stability. Thus, Singapore's nation-building philosophy ideology included building affordable housing for the people.

The public housing policy also stipulated a balanced ratio of the ethnic races to encourage interaction among different races.

In the few days I was in Singapore, I felt that Chinese, Malays and Indians are living harmoniously.

But just the week before we arrived, "Singapore's worst riot since 1969" broke out in Little India. A traffic accident led to hundreds of South Asian foreign workers attacking policemen and setting fire to police cars.

I took a walk around Little India. There were no signs of the chaos that took place that night, only a signboard at the place where it happened.

After more than 40 years of peace, Singapore society was badly shaken, but was still able to return to normalcy. But the riot also exposed some deeper problems. Some experts said the foreign workers were angry because they were paid too little and felt discriminated against.

Singapore has a population of more than five million, with the Chinese forming 74 per cent of the population, so it is no wonder that mainland Chinese people feel comfortable in Singapore.

Almost all the taxi drivers I met are Chinese, and they could speak putonghua and love to chat, just like our Beijing cabbies.

A middle-aged woman taxi driver told me she has to drive 14 to 16 hours a day because cabbies are required to clock at least 250km a day. They will be fined if the target is not met.

As her health is not good, she complained a lot and felt the Government was too harsh.

A young male taxi driver told me that the reason for the new regulation was that many commuters and tourists complained it was very difficult to get a taxi during peak hours.

In Singapore, the cost of buying a car is very high, and the tourism industry is an important economic pillar, so there is little wonder the Government has to implement such a harsh rule.

Singapore is well-known for having strict governance, and is a country recognised for having honest officials and high administrative efficiency.

The Singapore Government offers civil servants high pay to attract elite talent to serve the country, and this "elitist politics" is deeply rooted in the people's minds: Officials, Members of Parliament and the people keep in close contact with one another.

When my friend drove us to the hotel, my daughter asked her suddenly: "Auntie, do you have tea and chat with the Prime Minister?"

I once told my daughter that this auntie is rather well-known in Singapore.

My friend smiled and told us that the PM does indeed invite some young journalists to have a chat with him sometimes so as to understand what young people think.

My friend is always humble when we talk about Singapore, saying: "Singapore is a small place." In a small place, policy adjustments are easier, but it is definitely not easy for a small island with a lack of resources and no hinterland to develop into a vibrant economic town and a nation with extraordinary influence.

After it was driven out of the Federation of Malaysia, Singapore sought to "fight back from the dead", turning a "Chinese island in a Malay neighbourhood" into a first-class nation.

Many who visit Singapore will wonder: Is this an Eastern or Western society?

English is spoken everywhere, but you can also spot the Chinese language. There is both Western civilisation and Eastern culture.

This is a place where East meets West: British colonial history and Asian cultural traditions have fused to form Singapore's unique spiritual quality and civilisation.

Perhaps what the people need to recognise is that Singapore may be small, but Singaporeans are proud of their tradition and innovation, proud of their unique existence and are not willing to live at the mercy of others.

The future challenge will be if they can continue the "Singapore miracle" and continue to spread their unique influence.

The writer is editor of the Department of International News at People's Daily, a state-run newspaper in China. This article appeared in People's Daily on Jan 5. Translated by Kua Yu-Lin.

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