Singapore - Master of the Hot/Crazy Matrix
August 29th, 2017 | Back to Blog Listing
Singapore is quite possibly the single nicest city that I have ever seen in my life. It's so well organized. It is unbelievably clean. The transit is amazing. It's busy and vibrant, but not so crowded that you hate walking down the street. Even the weather, while definitely hot and humid, is not nearly as bad as the rest of Southeast Asia; it has the convenience of a constant ocean breeze. Everything seems to be perfectly ordered. People seem to be very happy and friendly. It's phenomenally successful in the world market. It's also a fascinating to consider that the city is essentially the entire country. You can cross the entire city/country in about an hour. Visible to the north is Malaysia and visible to the south is Indonesia. It is truly an amazing city - period.

The famed Singapore Helix bridge

The flags of Singapore

My Uber driver picked me up at the airport and it took us about an hour to get to my hotel due to Friday night traffic. Naturally we sparked up a conversation and I let him lead it. So after writing all of those lovely things, how come the bulk of his thoughts regarding Singapore were him interjecting time and again “Fuck Singapore. Fuck this place. Fuck this fucking country.”? I didn't prompt him for any of that or even get into anything regarding the government (I would never do that being unfamiliar with a country's customs).

Singapore is a land of rules and they are harsh rules. While the Japanese seem to have managed immaculately clean and orderly cities while still exercising a fair bit of personal freedom, Singapore took a very different route. There is no carrot in sight and a whole lot of sticks behind you. In fact many people probably remember the famous case of an American who vandalized a car literally getting the stick.

If you don't know that story, it happened in 1994 when I was a freshman in high school. An American by the name of Michael Fay was found guilty of vandalizing vehicles in Singapore. Allegedly he was actually stealing street signs, but the vandalism charge was a better one to be found guilty of – who knows - but he pleaded guilty to the vandalism charges and was sentenced to “six strokes of the cane.” He was forced to bend over a bar, had his hands and feet restrained with irons, and was publicly beaten six times over his back with a rattan cane. This is one of the methods of punishment administered in both Malaysia and Singapore.

I think the most interesting part of this story making its way to America is that when most westerners hear (or remember) the story, they immediately assume that Singapore is just a backwards country with brutal legal standards (maybe not unlike being told people have their hands cut off for stealing in Saudi Arabia or something similar). Regarding Singapore though, this simply could not be further from the truth. Singapore is all of the things that I wrote above. It's very much a first world country with a wonderful and astute population of educated people. They just also happen to have some very strict standards that they force people to live to.

Among those standards is that it's illegal to chew gum. It's illegal to spit (at least in public). Smoking restrictions are extremely strict. There are those laws that most countries have, but Singapore just happens to take very seriously such as littering, jaywalking, and etc. The city is lined with signs instructing you what you cannot do and in most cases what happens if you're caught doing whatever you're told not to do. The fines you'll pay are generally spelled out rather clearly. Fishing in an unauthorized spot, for example, will net you an instant $3000 SD fine (about $2,200 USD). Smoking in an unauthorized spot (even outside) will net you an instant $500 SD fine (about $365 USD).

Looking up at the ceiling in a Hindu temple

Outside of the Masjid Sultan Mosque

Strongest of all of these rules, however, is with respect to drugs. While marijuana is classified differently in this case, all other drugs including ecstasy, cocaine, methamphetamine, opium, and heroin are punishable by death. That's right, death. If you are caught with even a very small amount of any of these drugs (though I believe there IS actually a minimum weight, it's just very small) you will face execution. The country reminds its citizens of this in many different ways. Not only will you be executed, but you will be hanged.

So my Uber driver is not a fan of his country because as a person who doesn't make a ton of money, he is in the class of people that simply cannot pay their way out of the fines or even escape death. His illustration of the country is the same thing that happens in all countries that issue fines for relatively trivial matters. If you have the money, it really doesn't matter to you since it's a regressive system. If you don't, you're in a lot of trouble – again, because it's a regressive system. For him, smoking in the wrong place, or getting caught randomly spitting could financially devastate him.

That all said, the system does seem to work. The country seems to maintain its order. It truly is clean because nobody is going to litter – the penalties are just too steep for most people and they don't mess around with enforcement. If you get caught, you are going to be found guilty and held accountable of the offense.

So that's the spin to Singapore that I found most interesting. It's a gorgeous, clean, vibrant, fast-paced metropolis with a wonderful mix of people, races, and languages. It's just not a place where you want to break the law; the stick is just too harsh in most every case.

I should also mention that Singapore has some of the best food in all of Southeast Asia. Since the country is such a blend of cultures (albeit predominantly Chinese), there are specific subcultures all over the city that have set up "Hawker Centers", areas that sell street food on the cheap. Chinatown, Little India, etc. all have some of the most amazing food I've ever had and it's all relatively cheap (probably $3 - $6 SGD).

Wan Shan and I eating some BBQ stingray and an assortment of vegetables

Picking out the best durian for my first go at eating one. While most westerners think that they smell terribly and don't care for the taste, I found the smell appealing and the taste delicious