Every day of the five I was there, the Singaporean heat would break in the early afternoon and heavy clouds would spend themselves in 30-minute torrents. The clouds, lifted of their burden, gave way to sun only after double-digit drops in temperature. I smelled the connection between the daily release and the greening project undertaken by the successful Singaporean postcolonial project. It seemed as if the millions of leaves that line the city’s plant-draped buildings were engineered to breathe the heat away.
There was no apparent underbelly here, like one would expect in a metropolis of more than five million people. With two comrades on longboards in tow, I rollerbladed the length and breadth of the Republic of Singapore, criss-crossing any number of times and directions from the expat districts, for several days. Land reclamation projects jutted from the clouds that shrouded the body of the island. Towers were prominent, but they didn’t loom like a Western skyscraper. The buildings seemed more subtly embedded in the largely artificial cityscape, draped in gowns of lush vertical green, a man-made rainforest, more felt than imposed. It is a gorgeous city, which, presiding over the world’s largest economic thoroughfare, boasts a rich history.
The city-state succeeded a European occupation that started in the early 16th century with the Portuguese and ended in 1963 with the foundering British colony (which was interrupted by a short Japanese cut-in during World War II). The local successors did well, economically speaking. The Singaporean economy “depends heavily on exports, particularly of consumer electronics, information technology products, medical and optical devices, pharmaceuticals, and on its vibrant transportation, business, and financial services sectors,” the CIA’s World Factbook says. Economic metrics are stronger in Singapore than in other developed nations, as the state props up the market economy. It enjoys the seventh highest GDP per capita in the world, the Factbook says.
My wheeled friends and I noticed some gentrification to be sure, the tonier areas populated by lighter-skinned holdovers from European rule and the seedier ones by brown-skinned Singaporeans (ethnic Chinese, Malay and Indian) who smoked cigarettes and sometimes missed teeth. The city’s industrial aspects were not apparent as we rolled through the poorer areas. My colleagues and I ducked into shops where they served cuttlefish porridge and Tiger Beer, the local version of Budweiser, or braised duck with pickled eggs and Hoegaarden, a 500-year-old Belgian wit popular the world over, but cheap in every country except the United States. Singaporean culture was decidedly lower class in these areas, but here, where a modicum of trash was sometimes detectable on the otherwise immaculate streets, the locals we encountered always smiled, and if they had fewer teeth, they still always had money. No one begged for change.
The city-state is about as advanced as a society can become. This level of social evolution is particularly palpable in the city-state’s birth statistics. It has the world’s fourth lowest infant mortality rate, at 2.4 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with the United States, which comes in at 56th place with 5.8 deaths per 100,000 live births. The Factbook lists Singapore as the state with the world’s slowest birthrate at .82 children per woman. (This is up from .79 some months ago.) Given that to keep a population constant, each woman should have around 2.3 children, there are grave social security implications in this number. Still, it is a sign of advancement. World demographics generally show countries with higher levels of economic and social development have lower birthrates. The Factbook lists Africa’s Niger with the highest fertility rate, at more than six children per woman.
There’s nuance to this social evolution, of course. Singapore has some utterly draconian rules, some enforced by public caning and jail time. Singaporean byways are protected from errant lugies by threat of imprisonment for any spitter. The same punishment is wielded for chewing gum. Visiting military commands drill this into service members during port-call briefs. Other edicts are more serious than the spitting and chewing dictates. Don’t get caught having gay sex, or go to jail. Drug and arms trafficking are punishable by death. If a sailor winds up in jail, she must stay there, as the United States lacks a status of forces agreement with Singapore. Saying it’s a fraught experience might be too much, but one should tip-toe.
There are what could be considered eyesores. The shores are lined with barges stacked with massive hills of dredged or imported sand. Incessant building projects are bordered by fences with signs threatening prosecution for trespassing. The vestiges of land reclamation projects from throughout the country’s relatively short history dot the island like pockmarks. The conspiracy theorist in me assumed the Singaporean government had the poor bussed out of the city proper to some obscure reclaimed wasteland. In a slick economy fueled almost solely by the trendiest technology and upscale market speculation, nearly a quarter of the land is artificial, and Singaporean engineers are busily studying ways to take more land back from the sea. A recent New York Times Magazine piece written by journalist Samanth Subramanian noted: “Land is Singapore’s most cherished resource and it’s deepest ambition.”
A beacon of the “leveling power” of Western-style capitalism, Singapore is one of four Asian Tigers, with consistent gross domestic product growth of 7 percent from the 1960s, after Britain lost its control of the country, until 1990. (The other three Asian Tigers are Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.) That economic growth sits around 2 percent today, a relative slump that no doubt sparks envy in the hearts of Western capitalists, regardless of the relativity.
Those who can afford to own a car, considering the 100 percent tax on vehicles, are few – only 15 percent of Singaporeans drive. But those who do drive, drive shiny, expensive sedans. There’s a strong public sphere, an incredible public rail line and a sense of wellbeing. The markets and malls are always full of patrons. There’s a strict ban on any type of weapon. There’s a “sky park” atop the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, a massive edifice that caps the tops of three downtown skyscrapers with a pricy admission fee and $50 burgers and an Olympic-size swimming pool. This goliath was built, like many Singaporean landmarks, on reclaimed soil.
But something is amiss. Subramanian wrote, “The country is so devotedly pro-business that it can feel like a corporation; it’s constitution includes several pages on how the government’s investments should be managed.” After a few days there, this sterility becomes apparent in the transactions a visitor has in the swanky bars in the expat districts that employ elevator-style bands covering American folk rock and serve cuisine designed to mask, for residents and tourists alike, the social and economic impediments of Singapore’s global region.
It’s a broad truth that lavish lifestyles are built on the backs of the global poor. Perched on the Strait of Malacca, the island embodies the intersection of commerce and environment, and there’s an economic and environmental cost to Singapore’s serenity. A great place to start looking for this cost lies in the Strait and in neighboring Malaysia, of which Singapore used to be part. The countries parted ways in economic philosophy decades ago, and Singapore has gotten the better end of the deal. Malaysia struggles, while Singapore does not.
The Strait, which separates Singapore from Malaysia, is impossibly full of massive ships. It’s the busiest trade route in the world. Naturally, there’s more piracy – another crime of desperation that can yield the Singaporean death penalty – in the Strait than anywhere else in the world, including the infamously pirate-infested trade routes that pass Somalia. Closer to home, there’s a swelling human trafficking trade, often patronized by the American military. We’re told at length before every port call to eschew soliciting prostitutes, a practice that comes with dire consequences if you’re caught. Still, one of my longboarding compatriots dipped into a massage parlor for an hour while the other and I drank beer and felt uncomfortable about the situation until our prodigal friend returned with a smile.
But the meat of Singapore’s opaque, illicit substrata are more fundamentally economic and environmental. This elaborate, shining city-state consumes at breathtaking pace. The Factbook says Singapore imports the 15th largest amount of crude oil in the world, at more than 830,000 barrels every day (compared with more than eight million for the United States, which is the world’s largest importer). This is notable, considering Singapore has only the world’s 114th largest population. Some materials that help put Singapore at the forefront of world exports come from toxic mining operations and manufacturing processes that harm global citizens in distant lands who haven’t the means to defend themselves against neoliberalism. Public officials here are obsessed with encroaching on an ocean that threatens to inundate its low-lying terrain. Subramanian wrote a third of the land is lower than 16 feet above sea level. The Singaporean government has affixed a concerted effort – which other low-lying cities are sure to emulate – to keep the city afloat as global warming raises the sea level. It is building creative locks and dams, reclaiming land from the sea, a nearly two-century project, initiated by the British and continued by the Republic of Singapore, that grows more urgent year by warming year. Subramanian, whose story focused on the island’s efforts to stay afloat in rising seas, noted that the biggest worry of Singaporean officials is maintaining the size of the island.
Singapore seemed, like the United States, quite intent on bettering the lives of its own. I think Singapore does a better job of it. But that’s not really the point. The point is locating the threshold where bettering the living standard for people who already have an excellent living standard is no longer excusable. Where is the moral tipping point at which a country can no longer support the industries that create utopia at home and cause havoc abroad? Within the capitalist market economy on which the world turns, it’s at the top of the infant survival rate. And it’s only a matter of physics and time before Singapore’s growth becomes untenable. Wrote Subramanian:
But the desire to reclaim never-ending shelves of land, farther and farther into the sea, will inevitably be outfoxed by physics. On a whiteboard, [Assistant Chief Executive of the Jurong Town Corporation David] Tan drew me a diagram of the process: first, building a wall in the water, reaching all the way down into the seabed; next, draining the water behind the wall and replacing it with infill. As the ocean grows less shallow, it becomes harder and harder to build the wall, to stabilize the infill, to protect it all from collapse. “We’re already reclaiming in water that is 20 meters deep,” Tan said. “Maybe it would be viable to reclaim in 30 meters, if land prices go up. But 40 and 50 meters would be very difficult. It’s physically difficult and economically unviable.”