As my time in Singapore winds down and I fall deeper into reflection with each passing day, I find myself thinking about all of the wonderful experiences this city-state has to offer. The choice and high quality of food everywhere can be overwhelming. These folks love to eat out more than they eat in. The abundance of shopping malls is astounding. Shopping is an activity to be experienced here, it is a national sport.
It’s clean here. Disneyland clean. Except for the isolated droppings of cigarette butts in a few spots (smoking is highly discouraged), I rarely encounter litter. You may be familiar with perhaps the most well known law in Singapore - no gum chewing. Back in the 90s the government was fed up with spending money cleaning gum off of the sidewalks and throughout the brand new municipal rapid transit (MRT) system that they outlawed its sale. Spitting is also illegal and can earn you a fine. Singaporeans love a clean neighborhood.
It is safe here. I’ve never felt safer. People abide by the laws and take civility seriously. Morals and ethics are taught in schools throughout primary and secondary education. Being a good person and helping your neighbor is stressed throughout Singaporean society. It does not feel like a police state, even though there are some laws on the books that might make you think so. One currently being debated here is the banning of “fake news” with legal action being taken against anyone promoting it.
From what I understand, there are more police in plain clothes than in uniform, so I’ve never sensed a heavy police presence anywhere. I live on the edge of downtown and I have heard 3 sirens in 5 months. They were ambulances. I do not feel like I’m being watched and there are not cameras everywhere. Whenever I’m in London, I feel every move I make is being recorded by cameras at each intersection and in many places of business, but here, not so much.
The government plays a keen role in all of this of course. According to Wikipedia, Singapore’s government takes the form of:
. . . a parliamentary representative democratic republic whereby the President of Singapore is the head of state, the Prime Minister of Singapore is the head of government, and of a multi-party system.
Although there are multiple political parties here, there is one dominate party, known as the People’s Action Party who own the vast majority of seats in parliament. I have been listening to locals describe the pros and cons of this system for the past 5 months and have experienced it first hand. It is difficult for me to imagine what the U.S. would be like after 50+ years under one party’s control. Select either party and think about that for a long moment. One extraordinary outcome of long-term single party dominance here is that it allows for future thinking. Decisions are made and they get on with it.
The U.S. has not undertaken a major national project related to infrastructure in decades. Our roads, bridges, and tunnels are falling apart. As each incoming party wrestles with how to pay for repairs, architects and city planners here are actively planning for, and developing a vision of, what Singapore will look like in 2030 and beyond. In the following paragraphs, I’ll try to give you a sense of what this means.
The transportation system here is the best in the world. It has an advantage in that it is a relatively small island, about 30 miles wide and 20 miles north to south, but it is so easy to get around using public transportation that even I, a native Californian, do not miss my car at all and would be happy to give it up if this was an option.
This MRT map below shows the current system (solid lines) and the new lines (dotted) to be completed by 2030. These new lines are being constructed now. They are funded and in development. By 2030, 90% of the 6 million people that live here will be within a 10 minute walk of an MRT.
In the area where I live, I am within 10 minutes of 4 stations and 5 lines. The MRT stations and trains are modern and spotlessly clean. During normal hours they run every 3-5 minutes and are completely automated. I have yet to experience a breakdown, or even a slowdown, in 5 months of daily use. The trains travel above and below ground and stretch from one end of the island to the other. In the video below, I take you along with me on an MRT trip to Chinatown.
Light rail transit (LRTs) are located in the most heavily populated neighborhoods. They run above ground in a loop and provide folks with access to an MRT line and a bus terminal. I had to take one of these as part of my commute to my first school attachment. In the video below, you can watch my commute and get a sense of the density of this neighborhood. It is located to the far north of Singapore and took me about 45-minutes to reach the school. The LRT was the final 5-minutes of my journey. In the last half of the video, you’ll notice when I pan the camera, the interior windows of the train are frosted over. This happens whenever the train gets close to an apartment building. The glass automatically frosts over to protect the privacy of the people that live there.
Bus travel is also clean and hyper-efficient. To most Americans, the thought of traveling on a bus around town is not appealing. In Singapore, the combination of trains and busses cover all points. I hop on and off busses all the time as they run on the same scheduled intervals. Miss one, wait 5-minutes and another will come along. In the west, on the NTU campus, they are testing driverless buses within a closed campus loop.
Cars are available for purchase, but the government wants to limit traffic congestion, so they require a steep fee be paid for the right to purchase a car. This fee can be as high as $50,000. Yes, that is just for the permit to purchase a car. You can then purchase and own a car for 10 years at which time the process begins again. This limits the number of cars on the road, the age of cars on the road, the quality of cars on the road, and keeps the traffic flowing. I take Grab (Uber) here quite a bit for long journeys and have yet to sit in traffic. The roads are modern, well maintained, and a few require tolls be paid (automatically) during peak hours.
I have a travel card that I use to tap in and out of MRT stations and on buses. The card can also be used for payment at many businesses around the country and for taxies. It is easy to top up a card at stations with a credit card or bank account number. Singapore is moving toward a cashless society and, I must say, I find it wonderfully efficient and liberating.
Officials acknowledged a long time ago that this island was not going to be big enough for future generations. The government has been reclaiming land and developing it for years in partnership with local development companies. Old Singaporean neighborhoods have been disappearing and are being replaced by tall skyscrapers. As the skyscrapers age, they are being torn down and replaced by new ones. All of this activity is creating a very modern looking city surrounding very old ethnic neighborhoods that have been saved from destruction by their historical value.
To address the need for more land, Singapore has for years been importing sand and fill dirt to create more space. Much of the developed Marina Bay tourist areas are built atop reclaimed land and there are plans to keep the development going. Shipping historically has made Singapore wealthy. Ships sailing between China, Korea, and Japan in the east would need to pass by Singapore on their way west to India, Arabia, and Africa. It was also a stop for ships active in the spice trade. You’ve heard of the Dutch and British East India Companies? This was their territory. The spice islands of Indonesia are to the south, India to the west, and China to the east.
The port is now located in southern Singapore, a bit west of the downtown business district. It is on very valuable land. So valuable that the entire port is in the process of being moved further west. Think about any major American port being dismantled and reclaimed for condominiums. It is a massive undertaking and the new port facilities are being built using the latest construction techniques and will include futuristic technologies. When complete, it will be mostly automated. Ships will be unloaded and then loaded by robots. Thinking beyond 2030, designers planned for a reduction in shipping business due to ice free passage through the Arctic ocean. Due to global warming, Singapore will no longer be able to count on global shipping as a steady income generator, so the new port has been designed for eventual conversion to condominiums in 2050.
The entire nation has a master development plan that is not just an exercise in future thinking, it’s a reality. All of it is on display for public comment so that everyone can see that the government is determined to support the future needs of all of its citizens. Singapore is about 280 square miles and all of it has been master planned.
In the states, we complain about potholes. In Singapore, they are building the future. It takes vision to design for the future and staggering financial commitment to carry it out. Watch the video below and you’ll get a sense of the scale of this undertaking.