This article was first published in Reader’s Digest and MoneySense Magazine, in April 2005.
It was nominated for a Roger’s Publishing Award, and made the finals. Although it didn’t bring home the hardware, it does answer the question, why do I live in Singapore?
I’ve made a few minor changes to reflect my life, as it is, in June 2009.
Police State Paradise
Published in April, 2005
By Andrew Hallam
Have you seen Midnight Express, the 1978 movie about a tourist who’s arrested trying to smuggle drugs out of Istanbul? He’s beaten, thrown in solitary and starved before he manages to escape from his foul Turkish prison. The film is based on the experiences of a U.S. traveler and it’s guaranteed to make any North American shudder at the thought of Middle Eastern justice.
I know because that’s the way I used to react to the film—until I moved to a place that makes the Turkish legal system look like a soft-hearted uncle. Here in Singapore, smuggling drugs doesn’t get you tossed into jail en route to a film deal. It gets you executed.
The zero-tolerance attitude covers not just drugs but anything that smacks of social deviance. My wife and I discovered Singapore’s uncompromising attitude before we were married, shortly after leaving our respective Pennsylvania and British Columbia homes for an adventurous pasture. We came here to teach (Pele teaches Spanish and I teach English). And at first, the government’s control over every tiny aspect of behavior felt as suffocating as the tropical heat. Singapore bans protests and censors newspapers. It restricts films that show too much violence or sex. You’re fined for spitting on the sidewalk (because the powers-that-be consider it a dirty habit). You’re also fined for driving too close to the Malaysian border without a full tank of gas (because Big Brother doesn’t want you to take advantage of the cheaper gas in Malaysia). There’s no leeway, even for kids. They’re caned for scratching a car. When a student of mine attempted to steal a school fire hydrant as a prank, he was thrown in a dark cell overnight, his family threatened with expulsion from the country.
As a Canadian, I initially found all of this to be philosophically objectionable. After all, free speech and a free press are fundamental rights, aren’t they? And what’s wrong with kids letting off a little steam? My wife and I independently began our lives here (we married last summer) by reminding ourselves that we would be staying for only a few years.
But we have an embarrassing confession to make—we’ve begun to like having Big Brother peeping over our shoulders. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that we’ve come to appreciate the benefits of his presence. You have to be impressed by how Singapore, with next to no natural resources, has built itself into a thriving, debt-free city-state with gleaming skyscrapers, crammed shops and well-tended greenery. All citizens enjoy subsidized housing, an incredibly efficient medical system, and a level of public safety that seems dream-like to a North American. If a 13 year old girl wanted to take a taxi downtown on a Friday or Saturday night with a couple of friends, unsupervised, nobody blinks. Why should they? Singapore has no muggers [writer’s note—I have now been here six years and have never heard of anyone getting mugged] there are no visible gangs and no drugs. It’s probably the safest country in the world; it’s certainly the cleanest big city I’ve ever seen.
My wife and I have settled in. We live in a 1,700 square foot luxurious condo , a few steps away from a massive swimming pool. We take exotic two-week vacations in Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia for less than the price of a Vancouverite’s three day excursion to Whistler.
But here’s the kicker. Thanks to strong salaries and paltry income tax rates, Pele and I save more in one year than we could save in nine, if we were back in British Columbia, or Pennsylvania. Retirement in our 40s has become a possibility. The few years we initially planned to stay has stretched out to a decade for my wife, and six years for me. And we have no immediate plans to leave—seeing Singapore as a great place to raise a family.
I sometimes wonder if we’ve sold our democratic rights in exchange for low taxes and a hassle-free life. Maybe so. But if this is a prison, it’s not at all like the one in Midnight Express. In fact, it’s one that’s awfully hard to dislike.