The Singapore Phenomenon

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the Singapore government’s new campaign to instill in its people a spirit of boldness and entrepreneurialism has been slow to take off, for the simple reason that they’re trying to teach an old dog new tricks.

I think a lot of people would be surprised to see just how deeply rooted this sense of complacency bordering on passivity really is here. I’ve come to notice little hints that actually say quite a lot about The Singapore Phenomenon.

Take u-turns. Nearly everywhere I’ve ever been, there are signs that tell you where you cannot make a u-turn. In Singapore, you are only allowed to make a u-turn where signs say that you can. In other words, it goes without saying that you cannot make a u-turn anywhere in Singapore except where The Government tells you you can.

That’s a good metaphor for the Singapore psyche, at least the way Lee Kuan Yew molded it over the past 30 years: If the government does not explicitly tell you that you can do something, you are to presume it is forbidden. The government makes the decision, and you always assume the government knows best.

Just today, I asked a client what she likes most about Singapore, and she replied proudly, “I love the way the government always takes care of me, and I never need to worry.” And the prime minister is wondering why the people are risk-averse and disinclined toward making bold decisions?

It was only a couple of days ago that I got another hint. I noticed the day I arrived that whenever I get into a taxi and give my destination, the driver automatically says, “Do you want me to taxe XYZ Road, or should I take ABC Street?” Every time.

It was only recently that I realized this is not a matter of politeness, but is rather one more bit of fallout from what Lee Kuan Yew hath wrought: the drivers will not choose the best route, even though they are the professionals and know best. No, instead they wait for you to tell them which way to go. They wait for your permission. I usually reply, “Look, I don’t know how to get around in Singapore — that’s your job, so take me there the way you think is best.”

Usually that works well enough, but last week I had a taxi driver who was absolutely petrified when I told him to make his own frigging choice. He literally couldn’t do it. He turned and started to explain, “Well, if we go this way, we have to drive through blah blah blah, and if we go that way, we might run into traffic because blah blah blah….” I almost lost my temper and I finally told him to just get me home and stop explaining the Singapore highway system to me.

Part of my enthusiasm about coming to Singapore was a mistaken impression that it was basically another Hong Kong, just a bit hotter and wetter. I had a lot of learning to do. Honkies may just be the world’s most cut-throat, entrepreneurial money-driven businesspeople on the face of the earth. They are the opposite of Singaporeans. They are hard-driving, hard-partying, preternaturally motivated ueber-capitalists. No one tells Honkies where they can make their u-turns.

Don’t get me wrong; I still love Singapore. I’ve just had to adjust my expectations of what life here is all about. It lacks the dynamism and excitement of HK. But then again, maybe after my year in China, it was time for me to live a less exciting and dynamic life. No complaints. Just lots of observations.

The Discussion: 7 Comments

Good post. I hadn’t really given any thought to the taxis before, but now that you point it out, you are absolutely right.

September 19, 2003 @ 3:45 am | Comment

Hehe.. ok when taxi drivers in Singapore ask you which way you would like to go, most of them are really testing you. If you tell them whichever way, they will take the longest way. If you say you don’t know and just to take whichever way is the fastest, they’ll go the longest way. Either way, you pay more unless you tell them from the start which way you want to go. Judging from your experience, I think the driver is new on the job. Did he drive recklessly?

September 19, 2003 @ 9:50 am | Comment

Idle, it happens every day, without fail, when I take a taxi. Now that I know the streets better, I can safely say that they are not ripping me off; the two routes they suggest from my apartment to my office are about the same fare. If they truly wanted to rip me off, they’d just o the long way, just like the drivers do in New York City.

September 19, 2003 @ 9:59 am | Comment

Heh. Sounds like Singapore is the ultimate nanny state… ironic, really, when you consider the high regard in which its government is held by so many American conservatives (cf. the “economic freedom index” published by the Heritage Foundation, in which S’pore usually occupies one of the two top spots).

September 19, 2003 @ 11:00 pm | Comment

The Heritage Foundation has multiple orgasms just thinking about Singapore, which isn’t at all surprising.

September 22, 2003 @ 4:24 am | Comment

Actually, I have to say I’ve found the taxi drivers in Singapore to be some of the nicest I’ve ever seen, in Asia and the US. They never once tried to rip us off the entire time we were there.

Hell, we were stumbling out of Zouk’s at 2am, drunk as can be, fall into the taxi, and when the driver realizes we’re staying at the Concorde he just points it out to us – despite the fact he’s already started driving for a hundred yards or so.

September 22, 2003 @ 10:14 am | Comment

I agree completely on the niceness of the taxi drivers. And I don’t think I’ve ever been ripped off. It’s just funny, the way they always ask me what roads they should take.

September 22, 2003 @ 10:52 am | Comment

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