Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Best Country In the World

Welcome to Singapore
There might be exceptions, maybe one in a million years, maybe more, but as a general rule all politicians are bad. They are corrupt, they think they are smart when they are not, they think they have power when they don't, they think they are doing something important and historical when they just blunder chances and mess up good things. The big name freedom fighters or liberators invariably fail when they get in power. The occasional decent politician makes things even worse because he propagates the illusion that there is "hope". For newly established democracies they sell the political American model,
where corruption is so highly institutionalized that they don't even realize it anymore, they think it's normal. They even give you tax deductions for buying politicians and the politicians choose and divide their electorate as they please. For economic model they sell you the Singapore model. For a whole generation of liberated third world countries in the last decades of 20th century and even today for a myriad of developing countries - the "Singapore model" is what the politicians are selling to the masses. The poor buy it, they suffer for a number of years and then it all fails. To me it makes more sense why there can be no other Singapore. I read countless articles and tried my best to make sense of Singapore. I thought that I would have a better chance to understand it if and when we visit. Yes, I wanted to see the real thing so I could understand it. I failed miserably, I am no smarter now than last week. I enjoyed our 75 hours here tremendously, I even said that "I would never move here, but I could live here forever." Still I am no better at understanding it. But for all I know, that one exception in a million years might be the guy that created and guided Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. He built a nation, a country, a national consciousness out of nothing and he doesn't even have statues at every street corner.
I love my country - Red Swastika School

They don't kill you here if you chew gum, like I heard when I was a child. They do kill people if they traffic drugs, they let you know that when you enter the country. Apparently there are tons of other tough rules, but it was not in our face all the time, like in Hong Kong.

So, here we are: Singapore. Is this the only in place in the world that was forced to become a country after being booted off from another? In 1965, Malaysia's parliament voted in unanimity to kick out Singapore for some various reasons, the best being their "culture of meritocracy". Instead of promoting Malay people, they were trying to build a society of equal rights for everybody (!). People caught in Singapore at that time were given Singaporean citizenship and over the years, some of them started to believe it. They teach children in school that it is a patriotic duty to learn, because their country is small and only with smart people they can survive in this world. Surprisingly our 17 year old friend who showed us around had no idea when their national holiday is. It is a big event, they were raising the platform for the parade two months ahead, the pictures that I saw looked like North Korea, but he didn't know when the national holiday is.

At 5 million people, Singapore holds several records in the world, some of them good, some of them bad. They have the highest percentage of millionaires, one in six; they kill most people per capita, more than the Americans, the Iranians or the Chinese. It is the second best economic environment in the world (after Hong Kong) but it is also a paternalistic society where most people live in government built and sponsored apartments and they force you to buy a new car every ten years. Pointing to high stress levels, Singaporeans hold another world record, the highest per capita number of personal massage chairs. There are scores of little examples of what makes Singapore special. It is by far the nicest place to visit in South East Asia, a garden city with tons of attractions, same perfect weather every day of the year, perfect transit system, potable water, good and cheap food, ideal shopping, all sorts of accommodations. Out of four official languages, English is first, used and understood by almost everybody. It is expensive, but not as much as one would expect and a perfect destination for a few days.

The best airport in the world

Advertisement for Popeyes on the KFC wall

We stayed in Little India, a clean variant of the real thing, maybe a sort of fantastic, idealistic version of what India could be if and when they get out of their confines and poverty to evolve into a modern economy.
Little India

We visited the National Museum and spent several hours inside a splendid building. There are multiple sections. The historical side does a poor job, at least in my opinion. There are two tracks, a personal one, stories of people who got through historical events, and a traditional exhibition, presenting the "facts". Too much information, long texts, long audio tracks, very few historical artifacts and soon one gets exhausted. I think they failed in helping me understand the economical miracle of Singapore and they definitely failed to explain how their country came into existence. There wasn't much to present,... it is barely a couple hundred years of simple history, evolving from malaria-infested swamps to the best country in the world.
Where do they make these trees? In front of the National Museum

We laughed in disbelief visiting the "Gold of Ukraine" itinerant exhibition, presenting the history of Ukraine in a way that would be hard for a Romanian to believe or accept. We enjoyed an exhibition about cheongsam, an uniquely Chinese type of dress and some more rooms about fashion. Ileana wrote more and put pictures here.

Million dollar traditional houses in the center of the city

Our friend's father gave us a short tour of the center of the city and we visited by foot the Esplanade, the modern seafront development.

An attempt to imitate the Sydney Opera. Becoming a cultural city.

As Maria described here, we entered a huge commercial area with an oversize skating ring. The children wanted to get on, but they made it impossible. I wouldn't have expected so much stupidity here. We just laughed.
Indoor skating rink

We crossed the harbor in an old touristic boat. The tickets were not refundable and only after we bought them we learned that we entered into a contract in which we relinquish any rights to seek compensation if anything bad happens (including death). Interesting logic.

One of the best parts was the visit to the Botanical Gardens. Unfortunately the girls chose not to come, but for the three of us who made it, it was a fun, beauty-filled morning. Check Ileana's post here and here are a couple of other pictures.

We should have made it to the Asian Civilizations Museums, unfortunately we were too late. Next time.
A day of fun and crazy pictures

The best by far was visiting the family of Maria's friend. Again the human connection is the best part of our trip, we learned a lot, had a great evening and a fantastic dinner.

Foreign workers in Singapore: one of the founders of Facebook gave up his American citizenship and emigrated to Singapore. Widely accused of lack of patriotism (he might have saved some dollars in future taxes!) the runaway Brazilian-American simply pointed to the fact that he has being living for some years in Singapore where the business environment is better and the taxes on capital gains are much lower. On the opposite end there are hundreds of thousands of foreign workers doing the menial jobs for little pay. I thought that the best chance in life for women in Philippines, Indonesia or India or for men in Bangladesh or else, was to get a job in Singapore. It's not quite like that. Everybody has live-in maids, it is even advertised not as a luxury, but a necessity. The papers are full of stories of maid abuse, the income is about 250USD per month (lowest in the civilized world), and they usually work the first 11 months of their contract to repay the loan they made to be transported here. There are thousands of runaway maids every year seeking refuge in their countries embassies. Of course these are the exceptions and there is a growing movement of educating the population about human rights and about basic human values (your maid is a human being!). In the house that we visited the two aids were clearly a necessity, they were called aunty or nana, their room was nice and spacious right next to the children's rooms.

I read in my guidebooks that there are plenty of buses to go to Malaysia, so we just went to the long-distance bus station. There were plenty of travel agents, but they were literally shocked that I wanted tickets on the same day, five, nonetheless. There wasn't anything available, people should make reservations ahead of time! We took a taxi with one of the nicer drivers we ever had. He was concerned for us, "people in Malaysia are not like here, you cannot trust anybody!" He dropped us close to the border, a minute later a public bus came by and we crossed the borders in that, descending, entering a big building, checking out of Singapore, getting back in the street again, back on the bus, getting out for the same thing in Malaysia and then again on the bus. There was a long line of cars and buses and apparently 5000 Malaysians students do that every day to get to school in Singapore. The end of the line was at the bus station in Johor Bahru, the border city in Malaysia. In a few minutes we had another bus lined up, we travelled in luxury to Melaka and we saved $50 in the process, the tickets were much cheaper on the other side of the border. For the first time ever, we had five complete meals at McDonalds, a shocking experience for the children...

What would this guy think of his purchase after 200 years? 
Singapore. What started as few fishing villages became a place for commerce with trade routes passing by and merchants focused solely on their own profits. Later, by using smart and clean economic policies and encouraging the creation of wealth, they eliminated abject poverty, avoided the creation of a welfare state, developed the best healthcare and education systems. The system works and people here have achieved an enviable level of politic, economic and social stability. Through rule of law, meritocracy, (some) racial and religious tolerance and with people giving up significant political and individual freedoms - they created the best country in the world. But that is sad news! The best is far from being perfect.

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