[Disclaimer: This review is based on my one and only visit to Singapore for 17 days. Perhaps someone who lives there will write a more comprehensive review]
When I first contemplated my recon mission to Asia, I knew almost nothing about Singapore. What little I’d heard about the place amounted mostly to horror stories about totalitarian legal system epitomized by the Michael Fay incident in 1994. Having read all of Jim Rogers books and having a sense that he shares many of my own views on life, I was dumbfounded to understand why a guy like that would have moved to a place with a reputation like that of Singapore, and I was curious to find out.
On the plane ride to Singapore, I was questioning why I was even going. I’m very much a freedom and liberty kind of guy, and what little I knew of SIngapore seemed to be on the opposite end of the spectrum. Would I be caned for J-Walking? What would it be like to visit a place where Big Brother was in charge of everything? Although it turned out not to be for me in terms of a place to live, I’m very glad I went. I came away with a radically different view of Singapore and a more enlightened view of the world and governments.
Yes, it is true that crime of any kind is not tolerated, and punishment for disobedience is extreme. The rumors you hear about how you can be arrested for chewing gum in Singapore are greatly exaggerated and give a completely incorrect impression. In truth, the sale of chewing gum has been outlawed in Singapore, and this reflects the general view that if something is seen as a problem (like the mess made when people spit chewing gum out on the sidewalk), the government has no compunction about just outlawing it. I don’t much care for that sort of legal system, but I must say that I was pleasantly surprised overall to find it wasn’t nearly as much an imposition as I expected.
Yes, there are TV cameras everywhere, and yes, the government uses them to enforce a very strict policy of civil obedience. But frankly, I found the situation in Singapore in this regard to be exactly identical to what now exists in the United States, with one big difference: In Singapore, nobody insults your intelligence by pretending you have rights that in practice you really don’t have. They are clear and forthright in telling their people how the system works: You obey the law or face extreme consequences.
Before going there, I would have labeled such a totalitarian system as all wrong. After the experience, I have a very different view. In the United States where citizens derive no apparent benefit from the loss of liberties that has occurred in recent years (I don’t buy the argument that we are somehow safer from terrorism and I believe the opposite to be true). But after visiting Singapore, I feel that I now have an appreciation for the opposing viewpoint (strong government control as opposed to free society). Singapore may very possibly be the safest place on earth. Crime is almost unheard of there because the consequences are so dire. The place is beautiful – many public sidewalks are granite or marble, and the subway stations are extremely elegant with stone floors featuring beautiful artistic inlays of metal and stone. Along Orchard Road, there are numerous glass sculptures. Everything is spotlessly clean and beautiful, and they can do things that would be impossible in the USA because vandals would destroy them immediately. When I was there they were replacing the granite sidewalk on Orchard Road, and there were several carts with huge pieces of 3″-thick solid granite in large sheets that were to form the big tiles of the sidewalk. In the USA they would need an armed guard because each of the dozens of big granite sheets would be worth several thousand US$ as a high end kitchen countertop. Dozens of these were left outdoors overnight in the construction zone, with no security whatsoever, and nobody would ever have thought of taking them. The consequences are just too great. So crime is practically non-existant.
Speaking for myself personally, I subscribe to the adage that he who would give up liberty for the sake of security deserves neither. So Singapore wasn’t for me. However, I now feel that I’ve seen the other side of the argument. In my humble view, those in the USA who believe their lives are somehow safer or more secure because of the erosion of civil liberties that has occured since 9/11 are kidding themelves. Nothing is safer or better in the USA as a result of those changes. But if you subscribe to that mentality, Singapore is your place. They really do deliver their citizens a lot of benefits in exchange for living under their super-strict legal system. It’s not my cup of tea, but I do see the argument in favor of this system now, and I also noticed that assuming you’re a law abiding person, there really is no direct downside and a whole lot of upside from this system.
Singapore is easily the cleanest place I’ve ever been. They have a territorial tax doctrine, which means that you pay taxes on Singapore-derived income, but offshore income is tax-free. For foreigners moving there, this means that all your investment income can be tax-free if you invest in overseas markets.
Being only 85 miles from the Equator, Singapore is really hot, all the time. I don’t mind that so much but it could be a deal killer for a lot of people.
If we experience a really serious crisis in coming years, Singapore just might be the best choice in this part of the world, because it’s undoubtedly the safest place to live. For now, I’m not willing to give up my freedoms to the extent necessary to live there, but I would observe that their supposedly “totalitarian” system really isn’t much different from what now exists in the United States. The difference is their citizens get some benefit from that system, whereas Americans don’t.