I sometimes get amused looks from North Americans when I tell them that I moved to Singapore.
They tend to reflexively respond that I must be crazy to move to a country where "consuming even chewing gum is a crime."
The interaction that happens between us leaves me thinking that they want to rationalize not having to do the hard work of understanding what other places are like.
I love North America. A section of Americans are very free-thinking, and I enjoy their company. Such people—in such large numbers—are hard to find elsewhere in the world. But as political entities, both the US and Canada are on a rather rapid decline.
After a balanced look through respective facts at what else the world has to offer, one might still stay in North America. But warping our thinking and facts to adjust our actions to what feels easy in the short-term could have disproportionate, long-term negative consequences. So let's have a closer look at Singapore, starting with chewing gum.
On a few occasions, I decided to have chewing gum right in front of a difficult-to-find policeman. Each time, I made sure they saw what I was consuming. They ignored me completely. The reality is that while they ban chewing gum from being sold in stores, they don't have any issue with people consuming it or importing it for personal purposes. What they do have a problem with is if you spit it on the sidewalk. They penalize you aggressively if you do—and I'm happy they do.
Of course, such perpetrators are hard to trace, and regulation is not a panacea. The authorities try to keep "wrong" kinds of people out of the country. And people have a very strong sense of civilized conduct. Despite having among the highest population densities in the world, you almost never get pushed in public places. People respect your distance, and the young never occupy reserved spaces on public transport, if there is a slightest chance that someone might need them. Locals are almost always well-dressed and students well-behaved.
To those amused Americans who feel proud about their freedom to consume gum, I often ask if they would rather have freedom to buy and consume alcohol wherever and whenever they want, as is the case in Singapore, or worry about the small issue of unavailability of gum in stores. But it's extremely hard to make people aware of the slavery and indoctrination they have grown up in, for the chains they wear are not visible to them. I often lose their attention.
What about guns and drugs? Yes, both of these are illegal in Singapore. But I do not use drugs; and despite wishing that others had the freedom to live their lives the way they wanted, I'm not affected by this rule. Guns are very strictly controlled, but then the reality is that a 16-year-old girl can pretty much go wherever she wants to late in the night just by herself and not have to worry much about risks, certainly not the pervasive ones she would have to worry about in US cites.
Criminals are quickly canned and put in prison—and packed off back home if they're an immigrant.
In early December 2013, there were riots in Little India, an area of Singapore frequented by those of Indian descent: Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. While the full story is still awaited, it seems that the rioters had seen too much of a race issue in what was likely an accidental death of an allegedly drunk Indian on the road. A crowd of Indians—very irrationally—obstructed the emergency vehicles from reaching the injured person, who succumbed to his injuries on the road.
In India, it's very common for crowds to beat up drivers in such situations while paying no attention to the dying victims. Again, the full story is still not known, but one can be assured that the rioters who were arrested will be packed off home, as happened with some Chinese bus drivers last year, who had assumed that it was OK to go on strike in a country where any failure of public transport creates an emergency. Moreover, Singapore thrives on smooth functioning of its society and commerce.
If street protests and taking away other people's rights by destroying their property (as is the issue in the story above) is your way to claim your rights, Singapore is not for you.
So what about the race issues? Sometimes when I call people about renting their apartment, I am asked without hesitation if I am an Indian. It saves us drama and hassles, if a landlord really doesn't want to give me his apartment. After a bit of inquiry, I realized that for a lot of them the worry was that Indian cooking leaves a smell that does not disappear easily. I see nothing wrong with not wanting to deal with that.
But there is indeed a growing frustration among the locals that they lose out in careers because of the ease with which foreigners can come and because of demand-side inflation that rich people bring to the property market.
Today, one of out of every three in the work force holds a foreign passport. There is increasing public pressure for a "Singapore for Singaporeans." But if you're Caucasian, you will likely in totality be a beneficiary of any race issues.
Would Singapore ever become socialist?
There's likely an increase in a sense of entitlement among the young, who lack the comprehension that without the free market, Singapore, instead of being one of the richest places in the world, would still be a mosquito-infected swamp of poverty that it was a mere 40 years back.
These people indeed ask for more government, but I seriously doubt if Singapore will fundamentally change in the near-term—as a city-state, the free market is its core competency.
Singaporeans are very hardworking.
Commitments are mostly honored. But one must realize that despite a very good educational system as is conventionally defined, Singaporeans in their upbringing are indoctrinated and molded to become nice, shining cogs in a big, efficient machine. They perhaps lack critical thinking, like many others who go through the public school systems in other parts of the world. Perceived personal barriers are mostly a result of indoctrination during their upbringing; otherwise it is a free-wheeling society, making its institutions and systems extremely conducive to entrepreneurial and creative endeavors for those who are positioned to exploit them.
I must quickly add a very important nuance to the above portrayal. My two years, with frequent travels abroad, have given me a bit of linear view of Singapore's culture. Excessive emphasis on material possessions and desperation for a regular, secure job that comes from the not-too-long-ago poverty of Singapore is likely rapidly on its way out. Several people who have lived in Singapore longer than I insist that the cultural undercurrent is such that it is at a cusp of a revolution in creativity, with top international companies increasingly moving their R&D work and with world's best universities setting up their operations there. Top leadership positions are increasingly taken up by locals.
From a long-term view, being able to participate in an increasingly creative society might be the biggest advantage of moving to Singapore.
Getting a job leads to very quick approval for residency, perhaps within a couple of days. If you decide to open your own business—which takes less than a day—and employ yourself in it, it might cost you a couple of thousands of dollars to do all the paperwork to get an employment permit; less than that will get all your corporate and regulatory filing done each year.
Filing of personal income tax will likely take you a minute or two—only earnings are taxed. Your capital gains, dividends, and bank interest are yours to keep unmolested. Singapore doesn't tax any overseas earnings either. As a corollary, you don't have to expose your wealth to the government. Virtually everything dealing with the government is done on the Internet in an extremely efficient and friendly way. I have never encountered a busybody from the government, and sightings of the police are rare to none.
Most people I've known take residency and avoid becoming citizens, despite that the Singaporean passport offers some of the best advantages anywhere in terms of traveling: visa-free travels to most countries in the West, and even to many places where Western passports need visas, like China.
Given that Singapore doesn't get involved in imperialistic adventures, its passport offers higher safety as well—neither Christians nor Muslims seem to have any specific reason to dislike them. Alas, a Singaporean passport comes with a mandatory national service requirement—which is a very major drawback; a need to participate in the provident fund; and some other minor liabilities as well as benefits. Singapore also does not allow dual citizenship.
Except for those from the US and Eritrea—the only two countries that treat you as a tax slave for life irrespective of where you live—Singaporean residency might be all that you want as your first step to expatriation.
My guess based on the above is that Americans and Eritreans hoping to leave their native shores—particularly for citizenship reasons—might find taking citizenship in another country more beneficial and easier to get than from Singapore.
Moreover, Singaporeans are becoming increasingly resistant to new emigrants; as a result, by the time your turn to get a passport comes—several years after you move—the laws might have changed.
Is Singapore perfect? No. Is it for everyone? No. But shrugging it off just because it does not allow the sale of chewing gum is irrational.
Jayant Bhandari, a resident of Singapore, is constantly traveling the world to understand it and to look for investment opportunities, particularly in the natural resource sector. He advises institutional investors about his finds. He also runs a yearly seminar in Vancouver titled "Capitalism & Morality." Find him at www.jayantbhandari.com.