February 5, 2018
Upon moving to the equator, about 80% of the music on my phone threw up its hands and resolutely moved to the cloud, where it lives- too cool for this weather and my lack of consistent wifi- in complete and utter inaccessibility.
Since I spend 3-6 hours every day either walking or in public transportation, this was initially disappointing. I have rediscovered, however, some gems I might otherwise have forgotten.
Thus I know it takes almost exactly one run-through of 20th Century Masters- The Millennium Collection: The Best of Cher, Vol. 2 to get to school.
And I am pleased.
It’s music that’s conducive to thinking. I don’t have to decide whether I believe in life after love, but I am trying to figure out what makes Singapore tick: what they do well and why, and how to bring some of the best stuff back home. It’s almost my monthaversary here, which is enough time to form some surface impressions after a (metric, of course) ton of history and observations.
The man at the Ministry said it best: this place is a paradox.
Singapore is a physically small country- about 3 1/2 times the size of Portland- with an outsized presence in the world. It’s also densely populated, with over 83 times as many people as our little city, yet it’s covered with green: from literally living architecture to gardens to protected parks.
It’s known in the realm of education for international prowess in math and science, yet I’m here studying what some (though not I, ew) call the “soft skills” of social and emotional learning, and that’s because they’re one of the only countries I could find that includes mandated time for it in the curriculum.
Singapore is also famously politically conservative, but tell that to the kid with the pencil case reading “make epic shit happen” or man on the MRT with the “it’s Friday and I’m horny” t-shirt or this store selling tops emblazoned with “the world has bigger problems than boys who kiss boys and girls who kiss girls”.
I’m looking for a pattern or a pigeonhole in vain.
One thing that is clear (says the social studies teacher) is that it is impossible to understand the present without consulting the people’s past. Trips to the Ministry of Education’s Heritage Center and the Former Ford Factory, and books like Peter Thompson’s The Battle for Singapore have helped me do that.
At the MOE HC (they love acronyms here, and when in R, right?) I got some good history. In 1819, Stamford Raffles signed a treaty establishing Singapore, with its deep harbor and strategic shipping location, as a British trading port. At that point, there were perhaps a thousand people on the island, mostly native to the Malay peninsula and those of Chinese descent. According to HistorySG, “the first census in Singapore, which was taken in January 1824, recorded 10,683 residents comprising 74 Europeans, 16 Armenians, 15 Arabs, 4,580 Malays, 3,317 Chinese, 756 natives of India and 1,925 Bugis”.
Can you imagine? The population increased by a factor of 10 within five years! That’d be like Portland exploding to over half a million people by 2023. Oh, don’t even get me started on how badly the middle schools would smell. Bet we’d have a lot of interesting new foods, though.
Anyway, over the next 50 years people kept pouring in by the tens of thousands, mostly from China, Malaya, and India to work tin and rubber mines or on the docks. The British possessed and ran the island. They were essentially building a multicultural colony for profit, and from scratch.
I will let you imagine the kind of problems that might arise, what with colonialism, turf wars, mismanagement, and- speaking of smells- a conspicuous lack of modern plumbing.
Ahhh, “night soil”. May we never return to your heyday.
The Former Ford Factory is more of a World War II museum, but that’s a big deal because Singapore became our Singapore as a result. If the book I’ve referenced above is to be believed (and full disclosure, I’m only 42% through it, so grain of deep water harbor salt) the British leadership in the days leading up to a sure invasion was pretty much BungleFest 1941. Imperial Japan was suffering an embargo of steel and oil by the US, Britain, and the Netherlands, so they figured they’d head to the oil fields in Indonesia and take those over, thus fueling their war with China. To do that, they needed the Malayan peninsula, including Singapore.
So the same day they bombed Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces bombed Malaya and Singapore, too. Britain pretty much threw up the bloodied white flag with an unconditional surrender in this room the following February.
Japan took over. They weren’t kind. There are some fascinating, heartbreaking oral histories in this model of a museum, and I cried and cried and shivered. (WHAT is with the arctic AC, humanity? There is a happy medium between stifling and frigid.)
Anyway, to a large degree colonialism fell apart- at least on paper- after the war. Singapore eventually became a state of Malaya (with its new name Malaysia) in 1963, but not before a period of (say this in an exaggerated local car dealership commercial voice) TOTAL CHAOS. Also, Malaysia booted them in 1965 so they were forced to figure things out on their own.
How do you take a city, newly a country, with three distinct ethnicities with their accompanying languages and traditions, who have quite recently been totally ravaged by war, and turn it into anything resembling successful in the world? Your two major natural resources are the human brain and a strategic port that is as inviting to takeover as it is to ships.
What? What do you do? Can you imagine trying to tackle that?
The solution Singapore found was a strong central government that laid out exactly how people would have to come together and harness their brains for success. The message was to work, to survive, to be rugged, and to study, and thrive… and the view was that there was no way it was going to happen without the government ensuring a uniform process through which it would.
This country has borne criticism about federal heavy-handedness, but to be fair, over the course of a relatively short time they rose to world leadership in business and education.
So what’s next? Do people still need this strong push toward strict work ethic, efficiency, and pragmatism? Now that the country has established inarguable strengths, is it time to reevaluate the focus? Is the Character and Citizenship Education I’m seeing in schools a key for people to start leading more balanced, fulfilling lives?
We shall see, I hope. At least, I’m definitely looking into it as I move into month #2. And I flippin’ love this place with its interesting and diverse people, its spicy and succulent foods, and the thunder… so I’m looking forward to the parsing of the paradox.
If you’ll excuse me for the moment, however, I think I hear Cher in the distance. So I’m off- but don’t worry your pretty little head about the answers to those questions. I’m here to stay for a bit, and I got you, babe.