Posted by: yannaungoak | December 26, 2009

24 Hour Life: Part I

Merry Christmas everyone! It’s been a balmy 26°C (79°F) Christmas here in Singapore, kinda weird after four years of Vermont winters, but hey, I ain’t complainin’.

After about a month of not going out of the house at night for my 3 in the morning strolls around the neighborhood, I’ve gotten into the habit of doing them again. As all of you probably know, I love staying up at night, and I love walking around in urban areas, and so it’s kind of sad that I haven’t been indulging in my favorite pastime for so long. And the best thing about this time of the year is that coffee and breakfast-oriented shops in the central area all tend to open twenty-four hours. This means the streets are less deserted and spooky, and every now and then I can just pop into a shop for a wifi+caffeine fix!

It’s kind of ironic though, that Singapore takes on more of a “city that never sleeps” vibe during Christmas season, because this is probably the only time of the year that the average Singaporean can get any decent amount of sleep. Let me explain.

Singaporeans are expected to work A LOT. It’s the same situation across every strata of society.

Even this morning, on the 25th of December, I woke up to the sounds of construction work going on in all the the new condominium projects near my house. There’s no weekends or public holidays or fat old bearded men bearing gifts for them. It’s all just work work work. The poor Bangladeshi immigrant construction workers, the very bottom wrung of Singapore society. It seems like they live an entirely separate existence from the rest of society.

One thing about Singapore is its peculiar economic/political/geographic situation. As one of the few places in the region which has developed to first world standards, it seems like there’s this vast hinterland of resources that can be called upon at will by the powers that be that run this country to fulfill whatever grandiose plan they have envisioned for their little city-state. Need to build a world class casino? No problem, just get a couple of hundred thousand more Bangladeshis. But what happens when there’s about a million more people on the island than anybody in the right mind could imagine? Orchard road on Christmas Eve is a gridlock of human bodies, the trains during rush hour are soon going to be like Japanese subways. Well, we’ll just build another subway, and more shopping districts. How do we do that? More Bangladeshis (and Thais, Mainland Chinese, Indonesians, Indians, Burmese and what have you), of course. All the while, the massive government spending spurs magical Keynesian multipliers, making the economy buzz along at a comforting 5% annual growth rate.

My point though, is not that this place is overcrowding (although that’s true), or that the Singaporean government often acts detached and unconcerned (although that’s also true). Its the fact that this city which is a country onto itself, this weird artifact of colonial history, is an odd arrangement of politics. See, in China, Brazil, India, the US or wherever else, there’s also a big problem of rural to urban migration. Cities are so big now, that often they are governed as separate political entities, on the same stature as states or provinces. However, most of the migration to the cities in these other countries come from the within their own countries. The migrants are their citizens, and possess the same political rights as urban people. In this country, that is definitely not the case. The migrants are foreigners, most of whom are overjoyed at getting a chance to leave their bleak, flooding, poverty ridden third world villages and slums to come to this city that is a little piece of the developed world amidst a sea of poor countries. When they do come, they are discriminated, not only as part of the culture of racial, socioeconomic, linguistic, religious divisions that is very prevalent here, but also as officially ordained by government policy. And after all, how would you expect it to be any other way? After all, these are foreign nationals, and the Singaporean government really has little to no interest in their general welfare. After all, do these people not have governments in their own countries who are supposed to watch out for their well being? Well…. no, not exactly. Welcome to the third world.

Also, these migrant workers only come here temporarily. Imagine, the average Chinese villager who goes to find a better life in a coastal city like Guangdong or Shanghai only goes there so that she can make enough money, to afford to come back to her village as a rich woman, be able to afford a house, a TV, washing machine and the works, and rise up the village social ladder. This is what a Chinese citizen, traveling to a Chinese city, where people speak the same language as she does (+/- some dialects), where everybody looks like her, aspires for in her temporary migration to the city. Now imagine someone in a similar situation coming to Singapore, a different country, where no one speaks your mother tongue, and most of the people will look down at you for petty race and cultural differences, and where life is so unrecognizably different from home. Why on earth would the migrant want to stay in Singapore for even a day longer than she absolutely needs to? This is not the kind of migration that took place when Europeans came to America, leaving home completely to search for a brand new life.

So, that is my point (not particularly well made). Singapore is a peculiar place, and exists in this weird amalgamation of barely holding together, yet being meticulously planned and structured and thought out. The moment you step into the airport, you’d think you’ve finally found a group of people who’s read Plato’s Republic as an instruction manual and executed it to perfection with an anal retentive kiasu attitude. The moment you step out of the airport and into a taxi, the uncle will tell you a different story, a much more complicated one.

So that was about the people who come here temporarily, usually from a poverty ridden life in a neighboring country. How about the rest of the people here, the ones who come here with more in mind than simply dreaming of becoming the first person in the village to afford a TV? Or the locals, the people born and bred here?

Higher up the socio-economic food chain, in the skyscraper office buildings, if you just look at working hours, there’s not much of a difference either. For most people I know, regular office hours end at 6PM, but very often they are expected to stay until 11 or midnight, with no overtime, and they’re also expected to come in on Saturdays. I’ll write about them in a separate post though. This one has become too long.

I’m so lucky to have spent a significant amount of my life in this city/island/nation but having never had to be part of the core system that keeps this place going. I’ve always just been an observer. *empties bottles of pepper into his plate of food 😛 *



  1. Can’t wait to read the next post.

  2. Hahaha, your last paragraph almost makes me laugh. What a coincidence because I just read the economist article about “being foreigner” before coming your site. There, the writer said that the foreigner feels relieved and even irresponsible because the country’s problems are not yours, it’s theirs. You are not caught up in the banality of everyday life, in your words, “the core system that keeps this place going.” I love this post. Ditto to what Lamin said.

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