No Place like Singapore: Durian, Singapore Girls & Afternoon Tea (Part I)

[This blog post is Part I of two parts.]

I recently had an opportunity to spend two weeks in Singapore.  I was doing a presentation to the leadership team of Far East Organization, teaching a course on “The Soul of Innovation” at Biblical Graduate School of Theology and speaking at some churches.  Although I’ve been in Singapore in the past, with my first visit dating back to 1986, I learned new 20 things—from faith to food—about the unique city-state.  The city-state has no natural resources, surviving and thriving on its wits, ingenuity, intelligence and innovation.  There’s no place like Singapore.  Here are the first 10 of the “top 20” interesting things about Singapore. 

  1. The ethos of Singapore is one of rationality and practicality.  Take their approach to politics.  People are handpicked to join the government based on their track record and they are paid appropriately—by global standards, handsomely—to join the government.  All salaries are published. For example, the Prime Minister earns SNG$2.2 million--four times the salary of the US President.   In Western countries, most politicians are primarily those who are willing to subject themselves to the cringe-inducing process of pandering to the masses. Singapore stands in contrast.  For example, it is presently looking for a new leader.  Candidates from the public service are required under the Constitution to have held key appointments like judges, ministers and permanent secretaries.  Those from the private sector must have comparable experience running large and complex companies with at least $100 million in paid-up capital.  What a novel concept.  Experience for the job is required.
  2. There is an orderliness about Singapore.  There is not much litter.  No food or drink is allowed in the MTR. Durian is specifically banned.  One doesn’t see beggars, the homeless or the mentally ill on the streets.  The government tackles the issues head-on and deals with them. 
  3. Multicultural Society. About 74.1% of residents are of Chinese descent, 13.4% of Malay descent, 9.2% of Indian descent, and 3.3% of other (including Eurasian descent). Due to the significant Malay minority, who are primarily Muslim, it is very common to see women wearing hajibs.  Some women are fully covered.  The significant Indian minority is also quite visible from "Little India" section of Singapore to its various temples.   
  4. Guest workers.  Singapore has 1.4 million foreign workers—that’s 25% of their population!  Foreign workers are imported from India and other places to do road work, maintenance and other unskilled labour.  There just aren’t enough Singaporeans to go around.  Hence, the next point.
  5. Singapore's total fertility rate was 1.24 in 2015, far below the ideal replacement level of 2.1 needed to keep the population from shrinking.  People get married late and have few, if any children—they are, after all, are expensive and time-consuming and disruptive to career plans!  Of course, if their parents thought that way, too, they wouldn’t exist—but that is a tangential detail. So, there is a procreation standoff. 
  6. Singapore Airlines is routinely voted one of the world’s best airlines.  It’s branding is centered around the “Singapore Girl” (decried as sexist by detractors)—they have outflanked Cathay Pacific.  One of the only ways for airlines to separate themselves from the competition is the level of service—after all, they are all flying the same planes.  Singapore Airlines clearly distinguishes itself by having flight attendants with an excellent service mentality—particularly in contrast to North American carriers.  The service is leagues above most other airlines.
  7. Singapore has a well-developed military.  “National Service” in Singapore is a statutory requirement for all male Singaporean citizens and second-generation permanent residents.  They undergo a period of two years’ compulsory service in the uniformed services. Singapore is one of the few industrialized countries with compulsory military service.  This is quite unique that Singapore is a highly developed, career-oriented society.  There are no options to avoid it for permanent residents and citizens. 
  8. English Language.  Singapore has four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, and Tamil. English is the common language, and is the language of business, government, and the medium of instruction in schools.  English is prevalent in public transport and pubic area, with other languages interspersed.  A good barometer of the breadth of language skills is taxi drivers and front counter fast food staff.  In Singapore, both groups are generally fluent. This is in contrast with, say, Hong Kong, with the handover now 20 years gone and English language skills dissipating.  I was at a McDonalds at the Hong Kong International Airport a few days ago.  The counter lady literally could not speak a word of English and simply had to point at the photos of meals.  No cultural imperialism here; just simple practicality.  This would be fine and expected in many corners of the world—but at Hong Kong International Airport?  Score one for Singapore over Hong Kong.
  9. The history of Singapore is relatively well-maintained in terms of its physical structures.  The downtown core and other areas retain a number of older buildings with their majestic Corinthian columns.  While the value of land drives the wrecking ball, it appears that a number of quite attractive buildings have been preserved for personal enjoyment.  This makes for an impressive downtown core.  Sir Stamford Raffles would be proud.
  10. One old stately building is the Goodwood Park Hotel, built in 1900.  One of their traditions is afternoon tea.  I felt compelled to do research to compare it with afternoon tea experiences I have had in Hong Kong, London, Oxford, Victoria and other places.  The Goodwood Park Hotel afternoon tea was a buffet, which is quite uncommon, but allows you to eat your money's worth (same logic as when one a cruise ship).  Though it cost SNG$48, it was well worth it.  Probably the best afternoon tea I have had—the best scones, bread pudding, and, of course, “clotted” and not “whipped” cream (same concept as a Martini "shaken" and not "stirred")!