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 singers.

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.

For 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.

The 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.

In 1972 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.

If we 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 next-door neighbours.

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 books.

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 Changi village.

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.

I am 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.

In reality 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.

They can stay for a week and never eat Singaporean food, drink in western bars and only hear Filipino bands sing western pop songs.

They 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.

They 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.

In other words they may be in Singapore but they are doing and experiencing things they could do anywhere else in the world.

Let 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.

Why 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?

Recently I watched Peranakans performing on television, sadly the programme was called "Bibiks go Broadway" - why Broadway?

Somewhere 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.

The 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.

From: Singapore

Hi everyone,
I would like to reply to the post of the one who started the thread.
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 country."

Who 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.

Ultimately, when a country develops and makes something out of itself, who gains? The government and the people.

And 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?

Would the kampong men run out with spears and the women hide in the huts?

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 so-called 'heritage'.

I understand 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.

And 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.

In a kampong community, yes, there is neighbourly concern and close community bonding. But it is usually also simplistic and ignorant.

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?

Maybe 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 flavour.

Let's 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.

A country 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 country!

I think countries like Singapore and China at the very least preserve their heritage.

I don't 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.

I don't 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 it?

Singapore, 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.

It's not that I don't have my grievances of Singapore as much as you do, but I do feel that perhaps you have mistaken Singapore.
Do correct me if I'm wrong,
-- Lucia Yeo

From: Singapore

Hello Everyone,
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.

What 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.

I personally 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.

I notice the government is trying to do that more here than many other countries I have been to or lived in.

I do 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.

What had made Singapore today is the need to get past the above-mentioned practices or trends.

We do 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.

People from "modern" countries will look down on these practices without appreciating the values of its past.

The world is becoming a place where anything not "modern" or in other words western is frowned upon.

The world is becoming too judgmental. Well what else could Singapore have done to stand shoulder to shoulder with the "developed" world.

I also 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.

I would 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 the times".

I would like to suggest to him that what makes a country truly unique is its people.

Sadly 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.

For 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 way.

No doubt 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.

If Singapore 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).

To make Singapore really Unique the people here should cut down on their pride, open up more to others and throw away the stereotypes.

People 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" world.

Well 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?

From: Singapore

It's not wise to generalise. I've met my share of intelligent, charismatic Singaporeans.

From: Singapore

Sure, I've met my share as well. However, a handful out of hundreds if not thousands of people is a pretty poor average.
PS It's amazing how the average Singaporean is so brain-washed by the PAP. Almost as bad as the Republican Party followers!

Steve PS
From: Singapore

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 free country.
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!