Singapore Cabbie Anecdote

I had a conversation with our cabbie on the way to the airport in Singapore that was worth memorializing. It’s one man’s perspective so the anecdote must be put in that context, but it’s still interesting.

Our cabbie told us that rents for nice 1 and 2BR apartments on the outskirts of town run S$3500+, and the same apartments in the CBD are closer to S$5000+. He said many foreign manual laborers were earning S$1-1500/mo ten years ago and make about the same now.

Foreign expats who come to take corporate jobs are often on contract and sign up to make S$10-12,000/mo by his estimate. While they could choose to live outside the city and save money, many live in the CBD and obviously rent consumes a substantial portion of their income each month. As a result many feel that Singapore doesn’t offer the opportunity they imagined and look to leave when their contract ends.

He said that if he didn’t have a wife and kids, he’d be looking to move to Australia, New Zealand or another economy like that as he thinks the job and living standard opportunities are better. But he thinks it’s too hard to do it if you’re not single and flexible. I thought this was interesting because to me it says a lot about a place if people want to immigrate in or emigrate out.

I asked about the press. He said the press was completely controlled by the government and they painted an often comical picture of reality compared to alternative views people can now freely access on social media. He said they don’t seem to understand how that has put the truth to their lies but nonetheless it is not a free press.

He said that the different races mostly get along, and there are no ethnic political parties, they’re all mixed, but he said it wasn’t so simple as everyone getting along with everyone else and there is definitely some stigma toward the darker skinned manual laborers from India and similar areas.

He said life is not bad in Singapore, but it just isn’t quite like the official story and a lot of people are beginning to struggle to get by and can’t manage to save, and the government doesn’t seem to have a good plan for managing this.

The Singapore Success Story

At the National Museum of Singapore, we learned about the islands history from the time of the Melaka Empire to European colonialism, Japanese occupation and finally independence. The story goes that because Singapore was an island country with no natural resources to speak of, it needed visionary guidance from the “Founding Fathers” (this is actually what they’re referred to as here) of the People’s Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew and his English and American educated Peranakan technocrats to develop it’s economy and provide all the people with a first world standard of living.

I find this myth fascinating, mostly because everyone believes it, but also because of two related observations:

In mainland China right around the time Singapore was struggling for independence and then climbing to first world status, the idea of economic guidance by benevolent central planners was being tried and failing miserably. There, the excuse was that China had been exploited by a series of colonial and external players not to mention left purposefully backwards by the Qing rulers so a strong central government was needed to push a modernization effort.

Why did this fail in China but succeed wonderfully in Singapore?

Here’s my other observation. The town where I come from is not economically self-sufficient and is also on the ocean. We too do not have an abundance of natural resources and must trade with others to survive.

But no one used that as an excuse for establishing sovereignty or central planning by a one-party state.

So what makes us different if a lack of abundant natural resources is not the issue?