To a visitor, Singapore’s most obvious feature may be its wealth. It is, per capita, the third richest country in the world, topped only by Qatar and Luxemburg. This money is not well-hidden. New construction is everywhere. Our airport is the best of its kind in the world: spotless, efficient, and constantly improving. New icons of prosperity and opulence (think Marina Bay Sands) are regularly added to the Singaporean skyline. And the city is fast becoming a sought-after playground for the rich. As a nightclub owner notes in this (characteristically breathless article on the topic), “Singapore is the most successful country of the past 40 years. We’ve gone from half a million people living in poverty to five million people living prosperous lives”.
New wealth and all its trappings are an important element in Singapore’s public image. Many Singaporeans are proud of their country’s economic success. All the nice things money can buy are on full display, especially for those who pass through Singapore (at Changi Airport) and for those who visit for a day or two (at Marina Bay Sands, Sentosa Island, and other touristy attractions). This is entirely by design, the result of a careful, ongoing, and systematic PR campaign that’s been underway since the mid-70s or so.
When thinking about Singapore’s wealth and its various consequences, there are two tempting mistakes. First, one might mistake Rich Singapore for Singapore. One might, in other words, conflate a sense of all the nice things that money can buy with a sense of what Singapore is (or worse, what life is like for many or most SIngaporeans). I’ve seen visitors and expats do this. They talk about how clean and safe and shiny Singapore is (Prada bags everywhere), and about the wonderful views over Marina Bay and about how the weather wasn’t too hot (of course you didn’t find things too hot; you were air-con’d the whole time, love). And it’s so easy to get around (of course it was, you just barked the name of a landmark to the taxi uncle and let him take care of the rest). What a modern, spiffy, technocratic city Singapore is! Why is this a mistake? Well, most people in Singapore don’t regularly hang out at the SkyPark of Marina Bay Sands and drink at 1-Altitude or the Tower Club and zip around only in taxis. Sure, 17% of Singaporeans are millionaires (in USD). But then again, 83% are not. Singapore is rich, but the riches enjoy a distribution that is far from egalitarian. So there’s that.
But there’s a second mistake in this neighborhood. One might also contrast Rich Singapore too strongly with Real Singapore. I’ve seen expats and visitors do this too. The idea here, I think, is that authentic means poor. So to get to know the Real Singapore, one must eschew aircon and the downtown area altogether and travel only by bus and MRT and eat only at hawker centres (ordering, of course, in Singlish or Mandarin). Nonsense. That PR campaign I mentioned above has been in action for a long time. And it’s not just about selling this little island to foreign businessmen; it’s also changed this island profoundly. The effects are pervasive; this place really is clean and safe (almost) throughout; those are products of wealth.
I conclude, then, that to understand Singapore’s wealth one must maintain a sort of mental tension between two extremes. On the one hand: Singapore is fabulously rich. There are pockets of astronomical wealth here, and that has profound consequences for life on the island. This is a rich and clean and shiny and cosmopolitan city, especially in contrast to the rest of Southeast Asia. On the other: many or most Singaporeans are not astronomically wealthy. Many work long and hard hours for very low pay (there is no mininum wage), living simple lives, blissfully uncosmopolitan and unglam.