Singapore has been my home for almost the last nine years.
It is a small place – a tiny island, no more than a dot on the map, clinging precariously to the southern-most tip of the Malay Peninsula. The whole of Singapore is about 40 kilometres wide, and 25 kilometres from top to bottom, a city-state that is home to just over five million people. The country is prosperous, peaceful, first-world and reasonably dull, and as a result very seldom features on the world stage.
Most unusually, however, Singapore has been front and centre in the UK news over the past few weeks.
First, Wills and Kate spent a day in Singapore, the first stop on their tour of South-East Asia to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Apart from normal formalities of State, the highlight of their visit was a trip to Singapore’s famous Botanic Gardens, where the royal couple got to see a new breed of orchid that has officially been named after them – the Vanda William Katherine (white petals, dotted with leopard-print purple spots); they then had a private viewing of a white orchid named the Dendrobium Memoria Princess Diana, after William’s mother. Princess Diana apparently died two weeks before she was scheduled to visit to Singapore for the unveiling of her namesake orchid, and this was the first time a member of her family had been able to see it.
Then, over the weekend was the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix, the premier event on the F1 circuit and, for the last five years, the one weekend of the year in which Singapore occupies the global sporting limelight. It is a magnificent race, held at night, the track winding its way through the streets of central Singapore, and spectacularly lit up with a whiz-bang high-tech lighting system. To supplement the festivities, the Singapore government throws a series of concerts, bringing international superstars to town. This year, the headline acts were Maroon 5, Katy Perry and Jay Chou (if you don’t know who Jay Chou is, you obviously don’t follow Chinese pop music, but he is an Asian mega-star from Taiwan, and draws bigger crowds than most Western stars).
Perhaps, because of this brief moment in the global spotlight, I have been asked many times in the past few days by colleagues in London: “So, what is Singapore like?”
First up, I find that in discussing what Singapore is like, I need to set straight some basic popular misconceptions about the place:
(i) Singapore is boring: Singapore’s planners have made a very concerted effort in recent years to shed the “boring” tag, and to an extent, have been extremely successful in this endeavour. Spear-headed by two colossal casino developments, the last five years has seen the introduction of an array of Michelin-starred restaurants, world-class tourist attractions (eg: Universal Studios), live shows and theatre, night-clubs and bars. It is almost hard to fathom, but Singapore has actually become quite a rocking place in the last few years.
(ii) Chewing gum is illegal in Singapore: Technically, no longer true. In 1992, chewing gum was famously banned in Singapore after too much of the stuff was being disposed of on pavements, or being stuck under public seats on trains and buses. This offended the Singaporean sense of cleanliness and good order, and an errant piece of gum allegedly stopped the door of a train on the Singapore underground from closing properly one day, which was evidently a problem so severe that Singapore’s regulators needed to step in…… However, in 2004, chewing gum control was relaxed considerably, in response to strong pressure from Wrigley’s as part of the negotiations around the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (good to know that these are the kind of world-class issues our leaders deal with in the back-channels of bilateral negotiations). Today, you can chew gum in Singapore, provided you can show it is for “medicinal purposes”. To get your gum, you must go to a pharmacy, where it is kept below the counter, and you need to provide you name and ID number – a pharmacist who sells you gum without this faces a two-year jail penalty and/or a whopping fine. I am not sure if you could call this complete freedom of mastication, but things have improved.
(iii) Pornography and prostitution are illegal in Singapore: Pornography is technically illegal (although widely available). And strangely, in a place as conservative and straight-laced as Singapore, prostitution is not only allowed, it is a regulated business. In particular, Singapore is allegedly the centre for the high-end escort trade in Asia, and sex workers are expected to pay their taxes, like everyone else.
(iv) You get flogged for petty crime, like graffiti, in Singapore: Actually, true, but it doesn’t happen all that often. The most famous case was in 1994, when an American teenager, Michael Fey, was sentenced to “six strokes of the cane across his bare buttocks” for vandalism, setting off an international diplomatic row. Eventually, in response to enormous American pressure, the stroke count was reduced to four. Who says Singaporeans lack compassion? More recently, in 2010, a Swiss tourist, convicted of the same offence, got a short prison sentence and three strokes.
(v) You get executed for drug offences in Singapore: Actually, this one is true, too. And it does happen, quite often. Singapore supposedly has the world’s second highest execution rate per capita. Each year, somewhere in the order of 30 people are executed, the majority for drug related offences.
(vi) You get sued for saying bad things about the Government in Singapore: Amnesty International (and I am just quoting them, not agreeing) described it as: “Singapore has a modern image but is in the Dark Ages when it comes to dealing with critics and others who fall foul of the law”. In 2010, a British author found himself in jail for six weeks and then deported, after being held in contempt of Court when his book criticized the use of the death penalty in Singapore. Draw your own conclusions; I am not saying anything.
(vii) There is no freedom of speech in Singapore: Hmmm, I plead the fifth. The official view is that restrictions on speech and assembly are necessary to preserving economic prosperity and racial and religious harmony in Singapore. Although the times they are a-changing: in 2000, Singapore introduced its very own version of Speaker’s Corner (see my previous post A visit to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party). Singapore’s “free speech zone” is located in a corner of Hong Lim Park, and so long as you are a Singaporean citizen, you first register your intention to speak with the authorities (now possible online), you only speak between 7am and 7pm, you refrain from using amplification devices, you not talk about religion in any way, you not defame anyone, you not speak during a period of national or presidential elections (when Speaker’s Corner tends to get suspended), you not use any language other than one of Singapore’s four official languages, and you not mind being filmed on the CCTV system the police installed to monitor speaker’s corner in 2008, you are, indeed, completely free to speak your mind…..
For me, Singapore is best described as being a lot like a well-programmed computer. If you ask the machine to do what it has been programmed to do, the result is the best, most efficient result you will find anywhere in the world. It is staggeringly good. Everything will happen like clockwork. But ask the machine to do something that it hasn’t been programmed to do, and things change rapidly – improvisation is not a Singaporean strength. Perhaps two short stories will best illustrate what I consider to be the essence of Singapore.
The Telephone Line
When we first moved to Singapore, we moved into a rented house. We were the first ever tenants, and so had to arrange for connection of basic utilities, like the phone line.
Our container of goods arrived at 8.30am one morning. While the men began unpacking, I rang Singtel, the national phone company, to arrange for our phone lines to be installed. I called before 9 in the morning. A helpful lady informed me that the first available appointment with a phone technician was at 11.15am, that day. I couldn’t believe it but was pleasantly surprised – in Australia, we were used to waiting weeks, and appointment times were typically along the lines of “sometime in the afternoon, don’t move from home lest our man shows up while you are out”.
The phone guy showed up at 11.15am exactly – not a minute early, not a minute late. And, within fifteen minutes of arrival, he had connected and tested two phone lines, one for a main line and one for a fax.
Same day service, arrival on time, hyper-efficiency: that is the Singapore machine functioning at its best.
Then, I unknowingly deviated from the script, when I asked the phone guy if we could get a third line, which I wanted to use as an office / work line. The phone guy looked at me blankly, and said: “cannot, lah” – a catch-all Singlish phrase that stands for “no, can’t do it, does not compute”. After living in Singapore a while, you learn that “cannot” is the one word you do not want to hear.
In this case, careful enquiries of the phone guy revealed that each house in our complex had come pre-wired for two phone lines, and thus installing them was no issue. But a third line in a residential home – what was I possibly thinking?
Over the following weeks I tried in vain to figure out some method by which a third phone line could be installed in our home. Repeated calls to Singtel, a few futile visits from the phone guy, and still no result. As I later learned though, this was not surprising: I had asked the Singapore machine to do something for which it had not been programmed, and the result was a near system meltdown.
One afternoon, a few months after moving in, I was standing at the fence chatting to our new neighbour. I was telling him of my frustrations at the fruitless quest for a third phone line. My new neighbour mentioned how ironic that was, given that he was only using one of his allocated two lines, and perhaps I could make use of the spare line.
It sounded like a long shot, but I immediately called the Singtel phone guy to suggest this alternative, and I got an immediate positive reply: “can, lah” (being the opposite of “cannot”….).
Apparently, an excess line could very easily be redirected to my account and home, and all I had needed to do was ask. Why no-one at Singtel could have suggested this to me remains a mystery, but all’s well that ends well: the machine was back to its programming, and within two hours, the third line was activated and working, and has remained so ever since.
My Filipino Harem
In Singapore, low-paid workers, typically from Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, are allowed to enter the country to toil as maids, housekeepers and babysitters (if female) or building and construction workers (if male). It is thus very common in Singapore to have domestic helpers – euphemistically known as Foreign Domestic Workers, or FDWs.
FDWs are often not treated very well. The laws that exist to protect them are lax, if not non-existent. So, for example, according to the official guidelines, some of the more important criteria for obtaining the requisite permit to hire a FDW are that: “where possible, your FDW should be given a separate room of her own. In the event that is not possible, you should ensure that sufficient space for sleep is provided. You are also expected to provide her with basic needs (e.g. food, a bed with mattress, a blanket, towels and toiletries, a fan if the sleeping area has poor ventilation etc)”.
Imagine that: being required to provide your worker with a bed to sleep in, and food to eat……
It was only in March of this year that a law was passed that mandates that an FDW should have at least one rest day every week. Until then, many FDW workers laboured up to fifteen hours a day, seven days a week with almost no-time off, for $400 a month.
And, despite legislating no more that what most Westerners would regard as a basic human right, the introduction of a compulsory rest day for FDWs was quite controversial. Some polls suggested that a large percentage of Singaporeans were not in favour. Take the following comment from a popular Singaporean public issues blog site as a representative sample:
“First, the maids wanted work to feed their families back home. Then, they wanted day off. Next, they want basic human rights. Later, they want permanent residency and the right to strike! …. When maid slapped, mistreated or poison our children, nothing happen. When employers slap maids, they go to jail …. If we are not careful, like Hong Kong, we shall erode our own rights to employ maids. However, being fair people, we should also take those errant employers to court if they done serious wrongs”.
The whole system of FDWs is strictly controlled by the MOM, or more fully Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (that is, believe it or not, the actual and incredibly Orwellian name of the relevant Ministry in Singapore).
FDWs are required by law to live under their employer’s roof, and they are strictly prohibited from getting married in Singapore. If they happen to get pregnant, they are subject to immediate deportation. Or consider this other gem from the MOM guidelines: “The foreign employee shall not be involved in any illegal, immoral or undesirable activities, including breaking up families in Singapore”.
Anyway, for the past eight years we had the good fortune to have had two full-time FDWs from the Philippines, who lived with us. They assisted with looking after our four children, and with the upkeep of what was a large and busy family home. In many respects, Annie and Vangie became part of our household, and certainly the kids loved them as if they were family – even today, they often talk about them.
When Linda and the children moved from Singapore back to Australia at the end of 2011, I moved from our large home to a much smaller apartment. Annie and Vangie moved with me. I had no need for two full-time employees, and so we had discussed how best to plan for their relocation back to the Philippines in an orderly fashion. Many years ago Linda and I had established savings plans for Annie and Vangie, and they had both recently used these savings to buy houses in their home towns, in anticipation of an eventual return.
Shortly after moving into the apartment, my secretary had filled in online a standard-form notice to the Ministry of Manpower, advising them of my change of address. The next night, less than 24 hours after submitting the change of address notice, I received a phone call from a MOM Inspector.
“Good evening Sir, I am calling from the Ministry of Manpower. We notice that you have recently moved from a house to an apartment?”
“If you don’t mind me asking then Sir, how are you able to accommodate your foreign domestic workers? You would be aware that you need to provide them with suitable accommodation, and with your wife and you and four children, I was concerned you might not have adequate space in a smaller apartment for two FDWs as well”.
I was a bit taken aback that my situation was sufficiently important to have received this kind of official scrutiny. I told the Inspector: “No, that’s not a problem. My wife and I have separated, she has recently returned to Australia with the children, and so it is just me and the two helpers in the apartment. So, there is plenty of room”.
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. A very long pause, and then: “Cannot”.
According to the Inspector, a single man, living on his own, is not allowed to have a live-in FDW. The Inspector bravely tried to explain it to me thus: “It is for your own protection, Sir, lest the FDWs make accusations against you of improper behaviour”. But I could tell what he was really thinking: here I was, a single man, living alone, with two foreign workers under my roof. A veritable Filipino harem. I might as well have confessed then and there to running a clandestine brothel, or at the very least holding nightly orgies with the maids.
I started to get nervous when the Inspector began rambling on about my having committed a serious offence and appropriate disciplinary action, so I asked him what I needed to do to make things right. He put me on hold, while he went to discuss the whole matter with his supervisor. He came back on the line ten minutes later and told me: “Sir, we understand your situation, and we accept that this has been an honest error on your part. So, we will not issue you with a citation”.
He continued: “As for the FDWs in question, we will allow a small accommodation in this case, recognising the bona fides of their situation as well. If you can make sure that they are both repatriated to the Philippines by the 28th of February, there will be no further consequence”.
Oh, did I forget to mention: this call with the MOM Inspector took place on February 23rd, in the evening. The Singapore machine, when confronted with an unexpected glitch in the programme, had reluctantly but magnanimously agreed to give Annie and Vangie four days to pack up their lives, say farewell to Singapore where they had both lived and worked and made a life for themselves for almost a decade, and bugger off.
That’s Singapore for you. A modern, clean, efficient place, where when things are in “can, lah” mode, it is all wonderful, people are friendly and helpful, and Singapore is possibly the best place in the world to live. But there is a slightly uglier side of Singapore too, the “cannot, lah” side, where just like with a well programmed computer, the quest for efficiency means that there isn’t much room left for feelings or compassion.