Long before arriving in Singapore we were regaled with stories about the city state. Words like “efficient”, “futuristic”, “leading edge”, “innovative” were mixed liberally with the oft-repeated stories of sky high prices. We couldn’t wait to get there and see for ourselves. 

Our first impression certainly aligned with the efficiency/innovative storyline. The MRT – Singapore’s extensive train/subway system – is clean, relatively inexpensive and super efficient. We were struck by the spacious concourses that connected lines at transfer stations, and by how clean and orderly everything is. The wayfinding is superb and one never has any sense of threat or insecurity. And, as with almost everywhere we went in the city there were ample shopping opportunities as one transferred between lines. This cleanliness, sense of safety and pervasive consumerism are all themes that recur everywhere you go in Singapore (*interesting side note: in a city that celebrates consumer culture, there were no advertisements anywhere on the MRT trains – fascinating).

One thing we heard about – a lot – before our visit was the rules-based nature of the place. Well, once you’re there that culture is glaringly obvious. Everywhere you turn you encounter signs prohibiting activities, like: eating or drinking on the MRT; loitering/sitting on steps in the stations; smoking almost anywhere; or, playing music too loudly in public parks. Signs outlining the fines for such transgressions are everywhere, and fine payment stations dot the city to make it easy for rule breakers to pay-up. 

There are also a range of signs encouraging people to behave in a courteous manner. For example, giving your seat to elderly or infirm people is absolutely expected. At the same time one is encouraged to remove one’s backpack on the trains in order to make room for more people, and orderly boarding and off-boarding is ensured by very clearly demarcated lines at the train doors. And if you’re feeling the least bit threatened, or see any suspicious activity, there are signs, videos and announcements everywhere encouraging you to report your concerns to MRT staff (and there are actually staff to report to, something cities like Toronto should emulate), or to call 999 to report your concerns to the police. 

This sense that something was just a bit “off” was accentuated on our second day. We spent time at the Gardens by the Bay, where environmentally friendly innovations like solar and biomass power generation, water recycling and the restoration of wetlands were trumpeted with justifiable pride.


Image from Hotels.com

But at the same time we were already keenly aware of the pervasive and over-the-top use of air conditioning everywhere we went. Why do we say “over the top”, you may ask? Because building interiors here aren’t just cool; they’re downright frigid. While using AC in a city situated in the tropics comes as no surprise, it was disturbing that so many large shopping complexes were running their AC at very low temperatures with large doors left open to the outside. The resulting rush of cold air into the street could often be felt from as far as ten metres away. The cost in energy consumption, and the related C02 emissions (Singapore generates 95% of its electricity by burning natural gas), must be astronomical. Where were the rules about energy waste? Where were the fines? 

The answer, it seemed to us, was that anything done in the service of consumerism, business or financial commerce in Singapore was given a pass. And this felt to us like the last piece of the “something is off here” puzzle; the one that encompasses everything about why we felt such a sense of unease with the place. As Anyes mused on our second day: “It’s as if a shopping mall decided to declare itself a country.” And we were only beginning to scratch the surface.

On our last night in the city we connected with two incredible locals who served as guides through ChinaTown. They provided remarkable insight into the unease we were feeling but could not quite articulate (kind of like how hard it is to capture this in a blog!) We learned about how the government has a long-term, decades into the future plan to raze old Singapore and replace it with high rise apartments, more shopping districts and new financial precincts. In order to achieve this, people living and working in the older quarters – like ChinaTown – will be displaced once the 99 year leases on their apartments expire. It’s not at all clear where those people – most of whom will be elderly when they are displaced – will go.

We also learned that for every two native Singaporeans, there is one foreign worker who has been allowed to immigrate but who has no rights of citizenship. These foreign workers are at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, but are crucial to ensuring that Singapore’s service industries continue to function. They are housed in 1960s era “project-style” apartment complexes, with rooms in the 400 – 500 sq. ft. range and little to no furnishings. These projects are also slated for demolition over the long term, and given the high cost of housing in Singapore this raises the question of just where the lower wage, quasi-immigrants are meant to live in the coming decades. No one we asked about that had an answer, though we picked up on some murmurings that these folks would be displaced across the border into Malaysia, then be expected to commute into Singapore every day for work (there is a new bridge slated for completion by 2028 that will facilitate this movement of workers). We can’t say if this speculation is true, but we can say that it doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility.


On the cost of housing, our new-found friends are both highly educated professionals. One is a professor at the national university while the other is a civil servant. In spite of their decidedly middle-class positions they are not able to purchase anything outside of government subsidised housing, which in their case means at least a four year wait. This is clearly an unsustainable situation, and will only get more dire as the somewhat more affordable housing is demolished to make way for shiny new high rise apartment/condo developments. Once again, when pressed no one we spoke with had a sense of a plan to address this challenge over the long term.

One final note about the dystopian feeling that pervades our perception of the city state; the lack of visible homeless – or even distressed – people is striking. Don’t misunderstand us. The visible human cost of the homelessness and mental health crisis plaguing our home city, and all cities across North America, challenges our sensibilities each and every day. But the absolute lack of any such visible problem in Singapore is, in its own way, equally disturbing.  

It’s not as if there are no homeless people, or people suffering from mental health issues. (the pervasive posters exhorting people to seek assistance is proof enough of the latter) But one would never know it while walking the streets or taking public transport. The reality is that people in distress simply have no public spaces in which to “be” in Singapore. Signs forbidding loitering, or even sitting on steps at MRT stations, are everywhere. Public benches all have metal rails bisecting them, making it impossible for people to lie down on them. Our friends told us that this design was expressly adopted to ensure that homeless people couldn’t find comfort in public spaces.

It is quite clear that the government here is determined to ensure that no visible signs of social distress are visible to citizens or visitors. That would blemish the narrative of Singapore as a shining example of future-oriented development, growth and progress. We were struck by the fact that this was the one aspect of the social challenges that our new friends were somewhat reticent to discuss. We couldn’t get a clear answer to the simple question: “What happens to homeless and mentally ill people here?”  Similarly, a government employee we met on our flight to Borneo was forthcoming discussing all manner of developments in Singapore, with the exception of questions about how the state deals with the homeless, or with people experiencing extreme social distress. 

As Singapore grows, and as the next generation of low-paid foreign workers is imported into the country, these issues are only bound to become more pressing. It remains to be seen whether the government can keep the curtains drawn, hiding the problems from everyone other than those affected.

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