The Singapore Paradox

I recently got back from travelling in Asia a bit, and I have to tell you, Singapore is BEAUTIFUL. It is one of, if not the cleanest, most well-designed, vibrant cities in the world. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a hater or a blind guy. Toronto is already an amazing, world-class city, but for almost every aspect of Toronto I can think of (in terms of community fixtures, not the culture), Singapore has a cleaner and more efficient version. Heck, they do PROSTITUTION better than we do, with ladies-of-the-night having to undergo regular health checks and carry cards as proof.

(I was going to have a picture here of an oasis representing Singapore brothels and Blue Waffle as Toronto ones, but I just could not bring myself to even google that.)

However, nothing in the world is PERFECT. It’s not like Singapore is just a hands-down better place than every other city in the world; there are reasons it’s so clean despite having a greater population density than Toronto.

The most infamous of these is probably the ban on selling and importing chewing gum and the $1000 fine associated with being caught consuming it. They treat gum like we treat marijuana, and don’t get me started on marijuana. Technically, you can even go to jail for littering or spitting on the ground. So on one hand this is pretty ridiculous. This is giving the government four iPhones every time you want to bite a piece of rubber that tastes nice, or being sent to prison because you had a gross taste in your mouth. But on the other hand, do you know what I see when I walk around in Singapore?

Clean streets.

I see an unspoiled, virgin slab of concrete that looks like I could eat off it. Do you know what downtown in most North American cities look like?

This is the herpes of sidewalks, really.

I don’t want to say that it’s worth sending people to prison to have clean sidewalks, but Singapore has REALLY CLEAN sidewalks. To get an idea of the high standards of Singaporeans, lets look at their attitudes on vandalism.

On May 17, 2010, a train was vandalised in the middle of the night at Changi Train Depot. This might sound like a fairly harmless offence, but it was actually big news in Singapore. Can you imagine anyone in Toronto even batting an eye towards a vandalised train? I almost feel like a clean train or bus would be more surprising. Granted, the vandalism was quite substantial, more than just a simple tag, but overall it was kind of cool.

The man responsible, Oliver Fricker, was legitimately tracked down and sentenced to 5 months in jail and 3 strokes of the cane. This might not sound so bad until you consider how little vandalism means in Toronto, and how it actually serves to brighten up some areas of the city. Would police have put as much effort into apprehending the criminal if this were any other country? A similar act like this in Toronto might actually garner praise from the public instead of outrage. When I first heard about this, I assumed that the punishment would be a small fine, or some community service, but vandalism in Singapore can get you up to 3 years in jail. The thing I just want to emphasize though, is that this was such a big deal because this kind of thing just doesn’t happen in Singapore, vandalism is that rare.

Which is why you’ll know see this in Singapore. A blessing and a curse, I suppose.

The final thing I want to look at is Singapore’s views on drugs and capital punishment. Drugs in Asia are no joke, and Singapore is no exception. For possession of just about any illegal drug, having a certain amount leads to mandatory execution. Most surprising perhaps is that 500 grammes is the threshold for cannabis. When you think about how lenient the law is on marijuana possession in Canada, and how the media portrays it as a whacky, fun-guy thing to do, it’s hard to imagine that Harold and Kumar could be arrested and hung if they lived halfway across the world. There are plenty of stories of foreigners who weren’t used to the culture and ended up on death row. I couldn’t find the exact article (which leads me to believe it might just be an urban legend), but I heard about an 18-year-old girl who faced execution for crossing the border with heroin. I stress 18-year-old because I’m that old. I KNOW people who have tried illegal drugs, and it’s not like they’re dangerous threats. I also somehow doubt that this girl was some king-pin of a drug smuggling mafia, but just a TEENAGER exploring the world and living on the edge a bit. The idea that there are people being killed for this is kind of scary to me. However, I have to admit that, though these laws are seemingly draconian, you won’t find a country with less drug problems and drug related violence than Singapore.

Seriously, look at this picture of Geylang, Singapore’s red light district.

Don't be fooled, some of these Grandpas are the most hardened criminals you'll ever meet

If you can find a red-light district anywhere else that’s safer and more lively, then… well, I don’t know why you’re looking so hard for red-light districts, but I’ll be very impressed none-the-less.

So I hope the term “Singapore Paradox” makes a bit more sense now. It’s the idea that Singapore is at the same time one of the most welcoming places, yet the most strict. In North America, we seem to have a real “trial and error” way of living our lives. You might make a mistake, but you learn from it! And you might keep making mistakes, but you always try to end up a better person. Singapore seems to say “DON’T MAKE A MISTAKE.” If you litter you go to jail, if you do drugs you die. Certainly it has yielded very impressive results, and I am very tempted to say that any problems this strictness has caused have been paid off by the outcomes. But every now and then, maybe one of those mistakes was really just a mistake, not indicative of malicious intent, and you lose a good person. If you went to North America, rounded up every litterbug and drug addict and had them executed, would it really be a better place?