Wednesday, 5 November 2008

High Time We Made a Stand and Shook Up the Views of the Common Man

I have said it before and will therefore try not to repeat myself too much: We really enjoyed our time in Singapore.
This came to us as a bit or a surprise. After all, Singapore is an Asian city/state and we’re not culturally oriented that way; the chances of a successful collision were estimated to be low. Then there is the issue of the weather: being the closest place to the equator I have ever been to, Singapore is stinking hot and humid.
It is therefore quite conceivable that we ended up liking Singapore because of us arriving there after two less than inspiring weeks in Israel. The cultural shock wasn’t much of a shock because Israel is an even bigger cultural shock and because Singapore is very Western in its Eastern-ness, and the weather wasn’t an issue because Israel was just as stinking hot. Add to that an ultra friendly reception at our hotel and a very luxurious room and you could see why I would not mind revisiting Singapore in the least. I think I can confidently say the Swissotel Stamford was the best hotel I have ever stayed in.
There is more to that, though. Singapore is a place that knows where it wants to be at in the future and takes action accordingly. For example, the entire city/state is sprayed with wi-fi hotspots, and guess what? They’re all free to use after you register. In Australia, for comparison, free wi-fi is as abundant as the [now extinct] Tasmanian Tiger; the government won’t do it because it deems this to be a matter for the market but the market won’t do it because the market is greedy and is monopolized by Telstra anyway. We, the people, end up suffering. But in Singapore? Be it at the airport or in my hotel room, I was able to surf and Skype using my Eee PC. Despite being some fifty floors high, the mighty Eee PC was able to tap on a wi-fi hot spot located in the shopping mall below our hotel.
Shopping malls are, indeed, a key Singaporean institution. Is it just me or are there more shopping malls in Singapore than residencies? A walk along the city center or along its famous Orchard Road is a walk from one shopping mall to the other, and as I have already reported the shopping malls can have some very narrow minded specialties: there are several that will sell you nothing but gadgets (and food at the food court, for that matter). I don’t know what a culture based on shopping says about the people of Singapore because I haven’t been there long enough to obtain reliable observations; while you will not hear me say good things about a culture based on consumerism, I can attest that it may surprise people to know that we were quite able to occupy ourselves with proper attractions (other than shopping malls) during our visit to Singapore, thank you very much.
Another great thing about Singapore was the warm reception baby Dylan had received everywhere we went, which in turn meant that people were very nice to all three of us. Sure, many were nice to us because they wanted our money, but there was enough genuine smiling to convince me there’s more to it. There was hardly a place or a person we’ve interacted with who did not stop to do something cheerful with Dylan and make us all smile; it even happened at Burger King, twice! I can only conclude that the affection to babies is a cultural thing. Hell, even taxi drivers were nice to us!
That, however, has managed to raise a big question for us: If the Singaporeans are so into shopping and so into babies, how come their baby facilities are so lacking? Not once nor twice did we look for the promised baby changing room just to find that it’s under refurbishment (including at the airport, where we just ended up changing Dylan on the terminal’s floor). Walking around with Dylan’s stroller through some shopping malls felt like a triathlon, with way too frequent stairs and no disabled access whatsoever. The IT shopping mall I had previously mention, Funan, has absolutely no entrance that does not involve many stairs or an escalator. The Ruffles chain of shopping malls, connected to many other shopping malls through an underground network, sports a very similar lack of support for baby strollers.
What was going on here? We were wondering whether people were so Dylan friendly because they’ve never seen a baby out before because babies cannot get out of the house before they’re five.
Free wi-fi but no baby access? Singapore has some weird set of priorities.

Obviously, baby access is not the biggest puzzle posed by Singapore. That title is owned by Singapore not being a democracy while the Singaporeans themselves seem indifferent to their autocracy and, in general, lead what seem to be happy lives.
I don’t have an answer to this puzzle. My theory is that the people are happy because they are well off; it seems to me as if it's a common generalization to state that the Far Eastern culture cares more about individual finances than civil liberties. To me, personally, such an approach raises alarm bells: If civil liberties are being trampled, who can guarantee that your own personal well being won’t be trampled tomorrow morning?
Such questions emphasize the importance of events such as today’s elections for the post of the so called leader of the free world. It seems as if us democratic Westerners are expected to make a stand and oppose the Singaporean approach. It seems as if we’re expected to feel superior and to mock the Singaporeans.
I, however, find it much more interesting to figure out the real reason why Singaporeans are so unfazed by their lack of democracy. Could it be that they had had a look at us and figured out democracy is not all its said to be?
I don’t know if they did that or not, but I would tend to agree with them if they did. In every way you look at it, our current model of democracy simply doesn’t work: People are not truly equal, leaders kiss up to those that are more equal than the rest, long term issues such as global warming are neglected in favor of short term opportunism, and the list goes on and on. Leader of the free world? I truly doubt Obama will be able to make a significant difference upon this world. That is, if he would finally tell us what difference he intends to make in the first place instead of just waving the slogan of change.
Don’t take me the wrong way, though. Between democracy and all the rest, I would very much like to be on the democracy side of things. We can complain about it, but so far we haven’t been able to come up with anything better. Take the philosopher Bertrand Russell as an example: in his book Sceptical Essays, Russell suggests our regular democracy is replaced by the model deployed during World War I Britain when effective results were required and quickly. Back then, authority over specific areas was handed over to dedicated groups of acknowledged experts who reported back to the democratically elected politicians. For example, a group of biologists were put in charge of crops.
Sound promising, doesn’t it? In Russell’s example it was, because his example had the topmost scientists running the shows of their respected fields of expertise. That, however, is probably a rather naive scenario, because the choice of people running each show is not going to be that easy in real life where the pressures of war do not apply. When results are not that important, people who are lesser experts or no experts at all will be given higher priority than the true experts.
Take, for example, Australia’s late John Howard regime, where instead of calling on the help of science to address the problems brought forward by the drought we had ourselves a Prime Minister calling on his constituents to pray for rain. The religious “experts” won the day ahead of the scientist.
The new Rudd government doesn’t offer much reason for optimism either: in its well publicized talk-fest, when a thousand of Australia’s “topmost intellectuals” were gathered in Canberra (at their own expense, which meant they had to be the topmost rich intellectuals) to discuss their ideas for Australia’s future, the main thing that was heard was Australia’s need to dump its British monarch and become a republic. Sure, we should have done it ages ago (and so should the British), but is that going to cure global warming?
The issue, it seems, turns into the question of who will be the one choosing the experts. In Russell’s world, that will be where the power lies, and that is why his suggestion – while definitely worth a careful implementation – will not prove to be the solution to this world’s problems.
Until we do find such a solution, the people of Singapore seem quite content to move on with their lives.

1 comment:

mikkiel said...

Shop til you drop. That's what every singaporean girl will say. To select my choices, I sometimes visit http://www.visitors.sg/singapore-shopping.asp for new shopping destination ideas.