A few days left before I am back in India and so my smileometer is beaming high signals in the midst of hazy Singapore skies (an annual haze in this part of the year caused by forest fires in Sumatra). A sign of confused times when you make money but wonder what exactly you want to do in life and is it worth troubling your mind but satisfying your pocket. As I ponder over this question and ask myself how much I can take all this, I decide to tread the conformist path of doing nothing but journeying along till you are forced to take up the less trodden path.
A vegetarian’s life is a difficult one outside India. Wherever I go, I find the meat of some animal or the other ornately decorated and put up for sale but very few restaurants catering to the needs of a herbivore like me (Fellow Indians think it blasphemous for a Keralite to even be a vegetarian). Since I stay in a predominantly Indian environment in Singapore, its fine but otherwise it can be a tough choice. Vegetables are at a pretty low priority here.
India is quite inclusive when it comes to such eating habits as it serves both the vegetarian and the non-vegetarian palate. I find it both amusing and outright crazy when I see a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Singapore Zoo. How can a zoo which is meant to be a home for animals be a place for serving them hot? Of course, it may be a case of forward integration for the zoo!!!
I am shocked (an understatement) when I am told that it is a govt. policy that birds are not allowed into the city limits. Not allowed??? There are, supposedly, shooting squads to ensure this compliance. I cannot confirm the veracity of such a law/policy in force but honestly, I have never seen a bird here and the closest I have come to, is reading, in The Strait Times, of bird droppings being a menace for poor car owners. This would have been funny if not an example of insensitivity of the state towards anything that does not derive economic value.
We forget very conveniently that buildings and malls cannot substitute the beauty of nature and that co-habitation is the key to a greater and more fulfilling existence. Imagine a day when future generations here do not know what animals are and have to visit museums to see their remnants.
The Government plays an important role in the lives of people through the usage of subsidies. It taxes private transport and subsidizes the public transportation and housing sector. The railway tariffs are capped at a maximum value of about 3 Singapore dollars for a trip to encourage greater usage of the MRT. The surcharge on cars to increase the purchase and ownership costs (as mentioned previously), tolling on high congestion spots at peak hours (using Electronic Road Pricing) and Area Licensing Scheme (restricted zones in business areas) have eased the traffic which is fairly dense at peak hours. It has developed a system which even the Americans have tried to emulate but have not been able to do so far.
Urban development has not been given due importance in India and it is worthwhile for us to consider measures to reduce the movement of cars in cities and boost public transportation, like in London or Curitiba (in Brazil, considered as one of the best examples of urban development). Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities are all aiming to be Shanghai but they are all slowly choking and require urgent measures to get them back on track.
In the housing segment, there are two types of flats here – HDB (Housing Development Board) and Condors. The Govt. constructs and sells/leases out HDBs at lower than market rates and this serves a substantial portion of Singapore’s housing needs. Condors are private flats and are more elitist in nature. This is another example of the Govt.’s presence in a very commercial business which may be scoffed by believers of laissez faire.
A massive urban renewal programme which began in the 1960s resulted in the replacement of all slums with these housing units. The Govt. of that time required that a percentage of everyone’s wages be placed in a forced retirement account or be used to purchase a residence which resulted in everyone owning a property in the country. Slums and displacement is another serious issue that we face in India and there needs to be a further debate on how we address that issue.
Democracy is a virtue that we do not necessarily celebrate because we take it for granted. This is alien to Singapore but they do not mind it – probably a frog in the well syndrome. Singapore’s First Premier and principal architect, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, believes that democracy is a primarily Western concept and not necessarily required for Asia and so they should not be judged on this yardstick. This has found its echo in various Asian countries with China, Malaysia and a few others endorsing this opinion. He had famously stated in a newspaper interview :
I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn't be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn't be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters - who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.
But as an Indian who sees and cherishes the ideals of a free world, I do not subscribe to this thought process. Economic freedom without political freedom is a very superficial freedom, something that has earned Singapore the dubious name of a “nanny state”. Policies like excessive fines, tax reliefs for sterilization, compulsory saving schemes, strong censorship and archaic draconian laws have diminished its position in terms of human rights but it's principle has been Greater Capitalism for Socialism, dubbed by Singapore University scholars as "meritocratic,elitist,Confucianist, bureaucratic state". The principle seems to work fine currently and the people are very much in favour of it but can it sustain in the long run??? Let's wait and watch.....
Tail piece: You would be surprised to know that chewing gum was banned in Singapore until a few years ago (2004) when the US Govt. negotiated, alongside the active lobbying of gum maker Wrigley’s, with the Singapore government for the lifting of the ban. Sticking of the gum in train doors and other public places was leading to a public nuisance, so the ban was imposed. Even now it is available here only in drugstores and that too on prescription!!!