LAST weekend, I flew to Singapore from Seoul, where I am based on a long-term overseas assignment.
Given the number of trips taken by Singaporeans to Hong Kong and South Korea, one would think these places offer something that Singapore doesn’t – and I admit that I appreciate their buzz and unique culture. But nothing beats Singapore as a permanent base.
Over the past 15 years, I have stayed in Beijing, Hong Kong and Seoul, and spent more than 10 years in Singapore. So my experiences in each Asian metropolis allow me to make some comparisons.
The first thing that struck me as I sat in a taxi at Changi Airport was the language. How empowering it is to be able to speak and be understood by the taxi “uncle”, the corner-store shopkeeper and the kopitiam helper.
Ubiquitous English is a huge advantage – not just in business but also in daily life.
Only when you have tried – unsuccessfully – to ask for carrots in a Seoul supermarket or to tell the Hong Kong cabby your house number would you appreciate how important language is.
I took the Downtown Line from Telok Ayer to Bugis and was impressed by its modernity, cleanliness and punctuality. And the national airline is admired around the world for its equipment, entertainment system and service – which, like quality products everywhere, come at a price.
So why are my Singaporean friends complaining?
“The fact that many things here are better than in neighbouring countries doesn’t mean they don’t need to be improved,” explained my friend.
True, growth creates problems in transportation and housing; some archaic laws here have no place in the 21st century; and I sometimes wish for a press that was more critical of the Government.
But compared to one hour on the bus to Incheon airport, to the Hong Kong voting system, to Malaysia’s government – Singapore has got many things right.
My Singaporean friends may complain about the lack of freedom, and some online forums are full of fierce discussions about the MRT and foreign talent.
But in shops and trains, malls and offices, I have never experienced anything other than helpfulness, efficiency and warmth.
That’s why I am looking forward to my return and to the continual improvement of this ambitious little island.