Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Pre-Departure Thoughts

Hey everyone,

I leave for Singapore in less than two days! These past few days have been so stressful, with packing, paperwork, and last minute details to sort out. I'm flying out on Thursday from Richmond to JFK, and from there I'm taking Singapore Airlines to the Changi Airport in Singapore. It is a 22-hour flight with a stopover in Frankfurt, Germany, so I'll need lots of entertainment. If anyone has suggestions for music, books, or magazines, please let me know!

During the past few days I have learned so much about Singapore, its culture and history. It is an incredible place with a unique past. The city-state was once a British colony, and it gained independence in 1965, breaking away from Malaysia. It is one of the most developed post-colonial societies - some attribute this to the rather strict control the government has over the people. From the articles I have read, there are two sides to the story.

Singapore is an economic miracle. Think about it - the tiny city has basically no natural resources. It even relies on neighboring Malaysia for its daily water supply. It is surrounded by nations with different political, religious, and cultural environments. In a speech to Columbia University (found here), the Minister of Home Affairs Mr. Shanmugam describes Singapore's geopolitical situation by using an analogy with the United States. He states,

"Assume the US is shrunk to the size of Connecticut, and with a population of about 20 million; (2) To the North, replace benign Canada with Russia; and (3) To the South, replace Mexico with China. (4) And assume you have to get water everyday from Russia."
Singapore has many bragging rights; it is one of the largest financial hubs in the world, its citizens enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, its students excel in math and science, it is clean and safe. There is low unemployment. Everything is efficient and technologically advanced. There is social stability, despite the diverse ethnic groups and languages that make up the national identity. These achievements occurred in the past four decades against all expectations.

In order to raise society to such a standard, the government had to make sacrifices at the individual level. The rule of law is severe - selling chewing gum, littering, and spitting are all outlawed. Narcotics offenses are punishable by the death penalty. The freedom of the press is restricted. The People's Action Party (PAP) has been in control since the founding of the country, though some argue that this is due to the successes of the party rather than manipulation or corruption.

I wonder if there always exists a tension between societal good and individual freedom. It's true that with less checks and balances in the Singapore model, the government can take action in a speedier fashion and avoid the gridlock that so often plagues the American system. I agree that Singapore may not be at its current economic point had it been a liberal democracy from the beginning. Singaporean officials argue that we cannot hope to apply the same liberal western standards to every developing society. China is attempting to follow Singapore with its free economy/closed political system.

Assume, for the time being, that societal well-being and individual rights are at odds. The second point: I suppose the question should not be, "Is it okay for a country to sacrifice personal freedoms for the sake of economic well-being?" but, "Are the citizens of the country willing to sacrifice certain rights in return for a higher standard of living?" Therefore, what is right is not what we as Americans think the Singaporeans should do, but what the Singaporeans (who are highly-educated and knowledgeable about the rest of the world) think is right for their country. Are they happy enough with their great healthcare, low crime rate, clean streets, successful education system, to grant the government a greater degree of control over their lives?

I hope that throughout the next nine weeks, as I work, eat, shop and explore Singapore, I will be able to gain some insight into these questions. On a lighter note, I will be traveling on the weekends to nearby countries with my fellow Bulldogs. We are tentatively going to Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. I'm probably going to be posting at least 3 times a week, so be sure to check back often!