Singapore, the Two-Tier Society

Jul 01, 2011
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It is difficult to love a city that doesn't love you back.

1048 Excess, exclusivity, and expatriateness define the new Singapore. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Straits Times today featured a fairly bland and benign, even banal story. It was entitled "Premium healthcare grows at a healthy pace." The full transcript is available (for now), strangely enough, at IM$avvy, a CPF companion website. I say strangely enough because the lux health screening packages described in the article are far beyond the reach of the average Singaporean, and yet, if there is one government institution all Singaporeans are intimately acquainted with, it is the CPF.

It has happened in business and banking (think private banking). It has happened with restaurants and fine dining. It has happened in the real estate market (Sentosa Cove, and too many condos to name). It has happened with entertainment venues, like our integrated resorts, and events, like Formula I. And it has happened in our healthcare as well. If the words "medical tourist hub" did not resoundingly ring in your head when you read this story, they should have.

Singapore is also home to the One Degree 15 Marina Club, Jetquay and FreePort. I could have chosen other examples, but these three resonate most with me as symbols of the excess, exclusivity and expatriateness that define the new Singapore.

We have truly arrived as a first world city. Our level of immigration, connectedness to the global economy, our availability of goods and services, standards of quality, and costs of living, rival those of any of the global cities that Saskia Sassen describes in her work.

Unfortunately, at least for me, I am belatedly realising that as much as I enjoy the energy associated with living in the "big city", warmth and homeyness are increasingly not what I identify with this city, Singapore, which I currently live in.

Inveighing against the wealth that comes to our shores from afar is a pointless, perhaps even foolish, exercise, given the benefits it brings to our economy.

I am not going to go into the complicated arguments that delve into whether inflation here has been driven up by foreign liquidity, or that medical tourism has indirectly caused an exodus of doctors to the private sector, or the multitudinous pernicious effects that income inequality has on measures of societal health, as detailed in The Spirit Level. That is better left to a day when my dispassionate, more analytical self, feels moved to comment.

But my quieter, more philosophical self senses the ineffable feeling that this city is increasingly being designed variously as a playground, a global bolthole, winter retreat, or Asian gateway, marketed primarily to the wealthy expatriate, and perhaps, incidentally, to the wealthy local (who may be a naturalised foreigner).

The feeling is particularly difficult to dispel when one considers the sorry state of public transportation while struggling to board a subway train at rush hour (with hordes of foreigners who are working class, of which I guess I am one too), or when one marvels at the price of government flats as they spiral ever higher out of reach, until the dream of owning a home becomes mere fantasy.

Each day I turn the pages of our increasingly irrelevant national newspaper, and my eyes glaze over the risibly fanciful names of newly launched condos in property ads, or the expensive marques that tout ever more sophisticated levels of automotive engineering and tasteful design.

And I continue to wonder how relevant all this is to my life, beyond the evanescent pleasures of daydreaming that perhaps one day, I could have all this too.

Wishful thinking.

I am not overly worried about my future; not optimistic, but not worried either. I can differentiate between needs and wants, and my psychological constitution is strong enough to withstand the corrosive effects of income inequality.

Still, the feeling that Singapore is Home continues to recede. Feeling is irrational, and it defies logic and explanation. Yet there it is, and it persists in existing.

It is difficult to love a city that doesn't love you back, and that is both cold and hard. And it is not for nothing that cash is described as cold and hard.


This post was first published in flâneurose.