Do we have it?
Or has 1st World Singapore lost it 30 years ago as some
expatriates say; a local counter-argument. ExpatSingapore.com
Jan 28, 2006
(Posted on May 24, 2004)
I really do wonder about the current debate as to how to
describe Singapore to encourage growth in tourism and the
apparent decision to go with "Uniquely Singapore".
In 1972 when I first stepped off the plane from England
Singapore truly was unique, everything about her told me
I was in a foreign Asian land.
Over the past 32 years I have seen Singapore "develop"
and advance in the international business world to an extent
where people returning after just a few years of absence
hardly recognise her.
So many of the things that made her unique have disappeared
over the years to make way for a blander westernised Singapore.
Today when a visiting tourist gets off the plane frankly
he could just as easily be arriving in Europe or the USA
on a sunny day.
In 1972 the hotel I stayed in was called the Equatorial,
a name evocative of the location of Singapore, now sadly
turned into condominiums. In the evening in the hotel you
could enjoy local food whilst being entertained by Singaporean
Today the hotel a visitor books into will normally be the
Hyatt, Hilton, Meridian, etc all foreign chains and virtually
indistinguishable from others in the USA and Europe.
The tourist, if he eats in the hotel, will probably end
up eating in an Italian, American or Japanese restaurant
and the entertainment in the hotel will invariably be a
Filipino band, there will be no Singaporean culture on offer.
a young man in 1972 Orchard Road held little attraction
during the day, we went down there in the evening when the
car park turned into one giant hawker centre.
hawker stalls sold a multitude of different dishes not just
the same few you find in hawker centres today.
We sat down at stalls with locals who would happily advise
us on the best dishes to order. Now if the tourist staying
on Orchard Road is hungry for local food he searches in
vain for real hawker food in Orchard Road at night.
Yes the tour guides will take them to Newton Circus where
they can pay top dollar to eat mostly with other tourists
but it is not unique.
if you asked about good food someone would arrange for you
to visit places such as Ponggol to eat great seafood with
locals, today the tourist will probably be directed to UDMC
on the East Coast to eat amongst other tourists; average
food at higher prices.
wanted a drink we went to the old Bugis Street, Tengah village,
Changi, Sembawang, etc and bargained at the coffee shops
until we got the best price for our beer.
We sat and drank and ate with other ExPats but with the
locals as well, we truly mixed in together. The first real
British style pub, The Yard, did not open here until 1982.
Today most foreigners will end up drinking in an Irish,
or English bar that serves European beers, food and of course
crisps; if not it will be an American bar selling Michelob,
Budweiser, beef burgers, nachos, etc.
I remember the Kampongs where everyone knew their neighbours
and doors were rarely locked, there were chickens running
loose, fruit trees growing by the houses, and yes as a young
man working in Singapore I did get invited by Singaporeans
to visit their Kampong.
I remember how in some areas such as Jurong or Sembawang
there were only dirt tracks leading to these Kampongs.
My wife grew up in a Kampong and speaks fondly of her memories
of the binding friendship and support people gave each other;
Mum and Dad late home from work? Never mind the neighbours
would feed you; now many children do not even know their
Today the tourist looks out of the tour bus window at towering
HDB flats and it is virtually certain he will not be encouraged
to visit the heartlands by the tourist board or tourist
Sad to say if he did visit he would find barred doors and
people who often do not even want to know their neighbours
from two doors down.
Now the tourist guide books enthuse about shops such as
Gucci, Fendi, Prada, Louis Vuitton in Orchard Road, back
in 1972 you were directed to the bargains to be found in
shophouses in Arab Street, China Town, Tengah village and
Local, mainly Chinese, tailors would make you good clothes
overnight at a fair price; unfortunately today many of the
tailors in the shopping plazas will charge the tourist the
highest price they think they can get away with.
In the later part of the seventies if you were lucky when
you wanted electrical goods someone would direct you to
Paris Silk at Transit Road, it is still there today now
called Parisilk and now also in Holland Village and Bedok.
Today sad to say the tourist may go away with bad memories
from paying too high a price at one of the shops in Lucky
Plaza for he is unlikely to be directed to Parisilk.
not against advancement and personally feel Singapore has
completed a Herculean task in becoming the vibrant centre
of trade she is today.
I am though sad to see just how much of what made Singapore
truly unique has been allowed to slip away or has been demolished.
As examples Arab Street is less than a third of its original
length, China town has lost many of its shophouses to modern
sterile buildings, the Kampongs are gone, the old and good
seafood at places such as Ponggal have gone.
Finally even the people have changed due to social pressures.
Today every one is driven to be successful, to buy western
materialistic goods, and to copy mainly American norms,
many of the younger Singaporeans know little of the culture
of the different races who make up their homeland Singapore,
let alone their own.
there is little that is unique about Singapore today. As
outlined a tourist couple can arrive at Changi airport and
take a taxi to a Western chain hotel.
can stay for a week and never eat Singaporean food, drink
in western bars and only hear Filipino bands sing western
will probably shop in Orchard Road, shopping in European
shops for European clothes and never getting to even see
any of the national dresses of Singapore.
can visit the zoo and see animals from other countries,
visit the Bird Park and see birds from abroad.
In their room they can turn on the television where most
channels are cable, plus sad to say on the local English
speaking channels most of the announcers speak in a pseudo
American accent whilst introducing mostly Western programmes.
words they may be in Singapore but they are doing and experiencing
things they could do anywhere else in the world.
me give you other examples of how Singapore continues to
throw away her uniqueness. Why refer to Millennium Walk
when it was first opened as the "Rodeo Drive of Singapore".
Why talk about turning Orchard Road into the "Champs
Elysee" of Singapore.
call a new condominium "The Caribbean". Why not
just be proud that these places are Singaporean which do
not need westernising to be great in their own right?
I watched Peranakans performing on television, sadly the
programme was called "Bibiks go Broadway" - why
along the road to advancement Singapore has not only lost
most of her cultural identity, she seems to be literally
determined on throwing the rest away; in my own opinion
unless she takes steps to regain and proudly display her
culture the title "Uniquely Singapore" will have
little or no meaning.
musings of an older man who typically thinks everything
was better in his youth? - well maybe; however for those
of who have travelled extensively, you tell me if Singapore
now is anything more than a mirror image of a Western city?
I was born in 1975 and could have been a little young to
notice my environment. Uniquely Singapore struck me as "yet"
another campaign (which probably will have little impact)
by the government. I like this country. It has given me
an easy and comfortable enough lifestyle.
But to find a clear identity, it might be quite difficult.
Living here for most of my life, I have yet to find something
distinctive and unique.
I do yearn for certain things of the past. The neighborhood
biscuit man, the slightly chaotic, haphazard growth of areas
- such as the East little India - something with a little
more colour, the times where we used to know all the kids
in the neighbourhood.
It was also sad that the government 'claimed' property such
as those near Arab St 'for preservation reasons' and left
the shops empty for so long (due to high rental - I think)
that the bustling streets are no longer.
It's slowing coming alive because of increased in rentals/sales
and so there is hope that not all is lost and there will
be a balance between progress and culture.
PS - there are some Singaporeans who are doing their bit
- I happen to know that the Arab heritage week is the brainchld
of a local Arab who is doing this as his hobby.
I would like to reply to the post of the one who started
I can understand your stand, but how do you think Singapore
can stand on it's own two feet in the modern world, and
have every western country pointing at them in their cold
economist fashion saying "Oh, since you do not have
you do not qualify to be a first world country."
"Therefore, you are classified as a third/second world
created that kind of hierarchy? It's stifling to treaded
down upon just because you follow your own values. Any country
could stubbornly stick to its kampong/past/hut/mudhut traditions
of the past, but who will be the ones who gain anything?
No one. It will miss out on important world issues, important
world decisions and lose its standing in the world.
when a country develops and makes something out of itself,
who gains? The government and the people.
what if another nation attacks in context of any reason
possible to gain control of any certain resources, or just
to expand its grasp in the world?
the kampong men run out with spears and the women hide in
I know it sounds unreasonable to a degree but the example
I'm giving is to say that Singapore must sacrifice something
valuable in order to make way for its 'traditions' or it's
that many foreigners, especially from the western countries,
get tired from the hum-drum hustle and bustle of their harrowed
lives in a statistic-run and political-driven country where
money/scandals/publicity really talks, and would like to
retreat into a country that is
o free from advancement.
o free from the clockwork schedule of technologically advanced
societies such as US, Japan, Singapore.
o free from social responsibilities.
then the high western dollar will be able to purchase triple
or quadriple the amt they can buy in that country. But think
of the people in the country they are visiting.
kampong community, yes, there is neighbourly concern and
close community bonding. But it is usually also simplistic
Who would want to live in an age of kampongs and ice-cream
sellers without licenses (because one would argue, the ice-ball
man concept would become commercialised should the requirement
for them to be licensed materialise.) when the world is
speeding into an age of invisible suits (Japan) and see-thru
wall radar technology?
I missed your point, that you mean that you should see at
least a community of kampongs living hand-in-hand with technology
(imagine a kampong equipped with TV and a running air-conditioner.
Ludicrous!), or maybe a country like Malaysia where poverty
and rural villages remain as kampongs which is their cultural
face reality. Even India is turning into a land of technology,
modern buildings. The only place I can think of that matches
their cultural flavour with technology is Dubai, and that's
only because they have the pleasure of billions of oil money
as a start up boost (that countries like Thailand, Myanmar
or Nepal does not have) to develop, plan and make such extravagant
large scale cultural icons.
that has cultural flavour is usually an impoverished country
a western country has labelled as 'third world' because
of no 'development' (razing down of trees and land to erect
concrete jungles in checkered styled maps), 'low pay' (the
people's earnings compared to a western concept of earning
in western dollars and a standardised rate to compare it
with) and all the other mumbo jumbo associated with that
I think countries like Singapore and China at the very least
preserve their heritage.
want to compare, and I do know I'm justifying Singapore's
actions that might not necessarily be correct in another's
point of view.
But America had a culture of gunslinging west, cowboys,
gold mine rushes and what nots, but today itself has created
a jungle of buildings.
think you expect a country like China to build a 'non-western
style building, and instead, decide to create 'Chinese'
style buildings in the shape of pagodas. That takes a lot
of research, unnecessary money and that does not even guarantee
it will be as efficient as a modern day building, would
from my point of view, yes, is rampant with the 'big brother'
syndrome even western countries like America and Britain
is stricken with, but in bigger secrecy, but it is doing
its part to ensure Singapore is up there on the world stage
as a competent, technologically-advanced country not stricken
with violence, immense large-scale, poverty, infesting crime,
homelessness on a mass scale.
While doing that, of course, it needs to ensure that its
heritage is protected and preserved, as well as upheld.
not that I don't have my grievances of Singapore as much
as you do, but I do feel that perhaps you have mistaken
Do correct me if I'm wrong,
-- Lucia Yeo
I have read Mr. Phil M and Ms Lucia's comments on this forum
page. I think that from each of their perspective they may
be correct, but I guess they miss out on a point here.
the discussion has been going on about is the fact that
Singapore has changed so much physically that it fails to
retain its uniqueness. This is the point both Ms Lucia and
Mr. Phil have been trying to make.
feel that what makes a country Unique is not that much of
what kind of structures it has, but more of how its people
are. On one hand it was very important for Singapore to
"change for better", and on the other hand to
retain its past.
the government is trying to do that more here than many
other countries I have been to or lived in.
agree with Ms Lucia that what Singapore did to become what
it is now was very essential. The invisible hierarchy, the
third world stereotype, the commercialisation & capitalisation.
had made Singapore today is the need to get past the above-mentioned
practices or trends.
know that any country outside of Europe, which holds on
to its past, not traditionally but structurally is set to
lose out in today's heavily commercialised world.
from "modern" countries will look down on these
practices without appreciating the values of its past.
world is becoming a place where anything not "modern"
or in other words western is frowned upon.
world is becoming too judgmental. Well what else could Singapore
have done to stand shoulder to shoulder with the "developed"
agree with Mr Phil that Singapore has really lost "a
big part" of its uniqueness. But I think the reasons
he mentioned are a bit irrelevant. He apparently misses
the past hawkers and past shopping experiences etc, which
Singapore had to offer.
just like to ask him, wouldn't he himself look down on Singapore
after he frequently makes trips to Europe or America and
say that "this country is very backward compared to
rest of the world" or "it doesn't move on with
like to suggest to him that what makes a country truly unique
is its people.
I must agree that Singaporeans have changed substantially
with time. They may hold on to a few of their traditions
from the past but I guess without noticing they have a set
of new vales too.
example any Indian/ Bangladeshi appearing person is a construction
worker or any Filipina is a maid. They are starting to look
down on their fellow Asians while following the Western
western people like having dominating roles in the society
and many do expect "preferential treatment", the
worst part is they always end up getting it.
really wants to be unique it should treat all people equally
in real regardless of race or colour. And racism do exists
in Singapore to a certain level but generally it limited
to the older generations when they come across a young multicultural
couple (this is based on a personal experience).
Singapore really Unique the people here should cut down
on their pride, open up more to others and throw away the
from Singapore have a lot of potential to become unique,
but only if they stop looking down on their fellow Asians.
They are truly in a position where they can connect the
less fortunate Asian countries to the rest of the "developed"
all I want to say now is, Singapore still remains a Unique
place in a truly Unique manner.
From: Singapore, France, Germany
It has surely been said before, but this is the truth: Singapore
has no character (identity, uniqueness...) because Singaporeans
have no personality. And this is the fault of the ruling
government who does not encourage free thinking. Ever seen
a charismatic Singaporean? Any creativity in this land other
than how to make money?
It's not wise to generalise. I've met my share of intelligent,
Sure, I've met my share as well. However, a handful out
of hundreds if not thousands of people is a pretty poor
PS It's amazing how the average Singaporean is so brain-washed
by the PAP. Almost as bad as the Republican Party followers!
Thirtyfive years from now people are going to be saying
exactly what you are saying now. It's called progress and
it can't be stopped as long as you live in a relatively
I've been here since 1971, in fact I came here for the first
time for a weekend in 1961. So the changes have been a lot
more for me.
Yes, I look back and kind of wish that a lot of the old
Singapore was still here but this city could very easily
gone the other way and turned out really bad.
PM Lee (Kuan Yew) did a really good job! Too bad he's not
running in the next US election? I'd vote for him!