Take a Swingapore

Singapore is described many things: sterile, strict, affluent and successful. Characteristically, it’s defined by mountains of department stores, commercialism and an irrepressible shopping culture.

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But if you scratch the gleaming surface of one beautifully monstrous mall, there’s something significant to be said about how proudly erected they are. Every single one is like a badge of honour for every bit of economic and financial success the country has achieved since its independence in 1965. Which other country is able to reinvent itself from third-world to first-world in just one generation?

‘Swingapore’ is a great place, a friend who once lived on the island said, but for tourists, there isn’t really much to do other than shop. Other friends and family concurred, that when visiting, three days to do everything on your itinerary will exceedingly suffice.

From its origins, Singapore was a trading port as early as the 13th century. Sir Thomas Ruffles, who established Singapore as a trading hub said, “Our object is not territory but trade; a great commercial emporium and a fulcrum whence we may extend our influence politically as circumstances may hereafter require.” While Joseph Conrad described it as, “the thoroughfare of the East”.

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If the past really is inescapable, then this couldn’t be truer of Singapore. Its founders’ vision manifests in the country as a renowned ‘stopover’ destination, not to mention their dreams of a ‘commercial emporium’ really did come true. Singapore is one of the richest high-income economies in Asia, and across the world.

The first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, ruled the tiny country stringently and paternalistically from 1959 to 1990, accredited himself for making Singapore, “a first-world oasis in a third-world region” in an interview with the New York Times. He cried publicly when Singapore was kicked out of the Malaysian Federation in 1965.

But instead of feeling sorry for himself, he worked the nation hard – focused on wealth creation and declared the government knew what was best for the people – an in many way he did (although a few dissidents are coming out of the woodwork) – just compare its neighbouring ‘poor’ countries and their standard of living.

When I walked the sultry, humid and immaculate streets of Singapore, yes, there is a strong spirit of consumerism and a whiff of opulence in the air (every car on the roads I noticed were either BMWs, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, and every other premium brand in between).

But it wasn’t until I learned of Singapore’s history that behind all the expensive façade was just a quiet spirit of excellence. The reject who made good.

And sometimes, rejection can be the best thing that can ever happen to you.

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