Monday, 5 October 2009

Singapore: Are Litter and Cyclists the Price of Freedom and Foreign Talent?

Five years is a long time.
Interest rates change, economies fall into recession, Malays become generals and Singapore becomes a tributary of China or India (depending on your neighbourhood).
Ok, so I exaggerate slightly but you get the message.
Much, including the city's demographic composition has changed in Singapore since I left for the Middle East in January 2004.

In the last few years, Singapore has seen a large influx of foreigners from China, India and other ASEAN nations

Earlier this decade, expatriates were still 'traditional' expats who relocated to Singapore to take up jobs in the regional offices of large multinational corporations (MNC). Once a standard 3-5 year contract was up they moved to whichever new city the corporate head office decided they were needed.  
There were exceptions but generally that's the way it was.
Fast forward five years to 2009 and let's examine the differences.
Gone are the generous salaries and benefits that 'international staff' received a few years ago. Many live in public housing. Expats are merely foreigners living and working in Singapore.
Foreigners work in all segments of Singaporean society.
Government officials argue that foreigners provide a much needed buffer in times of an economic downturn, such as we are in now. The contention is that foreigner workers are let go before locals and thus they create a natural 'shock absorber' for locals.
There were few foreign residents from mainland China and almost none from smaller ASEAN nations like Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar or Cambodia. Today it is hard not to come across someone from the PRC during a normal day's routine.
The smaller ASEAN nations seem to have encroached upon the Filipinos traditional turf in the service industry. New blood is good.
Change regenerates, invigorates and keeps the competitive and creative juices flowing. In the Singapore context, immigrants also expand the small domestic consumption base.

Singapore's strict laws are still in place but enforcement is not as stringent as in the past

But immigrants often bring with them social habits which Singapore worked hard to expunge from its society, like respect for common spaces.
Litter is everywhere. Footpaths are strewn with the plastic bags, McDonald's cups, beer cans and all types of refuse.
Cyclists have taken over footpaths. Pedestrians walk the pavements in terror of cycles speeding past them. It is necessary to have eyes in the back of one's head while walking around housing estates.
Pay someone enough and they will stuff mailboxes, post flyers and anything else that either borders on the illegal or is outright illegal.
Singapore is known internationally as a 'fine' city where everything from chewing gum to spitting is liable to a hefty fine. That was 2004. In 2009, enforcement of cycling and littering laws is a relic of the past.
The authorities seem to have been overcome with inertia. The general population has acquiesced itself to its littered surroundings. Yes, the odd complaint letter in the Straits Times is published and some bureaucrat dutifully responds but action on the ground is markedly absent.
Today's Singapore is the new, hip and happening international financial capital where everything from litter to blatant violations of traffic regulations are tolerated. The focus is on activities such as the Formula One night race or the arts scene.

Tourists and visitors to Singapore only get a small peek into the 'real' Singapore

Tourists walk around Orchard Road and not HDB housing estates. They are neither endangered by cyclists on pavements and nor do they see the litter.
There is a glimmer of hope (yes, I am an optimist).
The authorities recently undertook a campaign to keep food and drink off the subway system. The blitzkrieg campaign to enforce the rules handed out a large number of fines. The effects are visible and the operation is working.  
Perhaps the government will embark on a similar drive against cyclists and litterbugs soon.
It is imperative that the authorities get tough soon or the situation will completely spin out of control. At this rate of decline, I will be writing about Singapore's black market in chewing gum next year!
How very un-Singaporean.


  1. i agree with you on this.

    the number of cyclists has increased significantly.

    put on your armor people.

  2. Hi Mahathir,

    Thanks for taking the time to visit my blog and your comment.

    As you point out, the sidewalks are getting pretty dangerous for pedestrians and armour might be the only solution!

    Have a good day and I look forward to more comments from you in the future.

    Kind regards,