imagined communities

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I just read this report which engages with the long-touted issue of Singapore being the most expensive city in the world.

It found that for expats, Singapore was about the fourth most expensive city in the world. But for the ‘ordinary residents’, it was 48th, wedged between Lisbon and Pittsburgh.

That’s a good thing, I guess? I mean, on the one hand, I suppose it means that even the poor in Singapore can enjoy some of the benefits of being Singaporean: relative security, convenient and cheap public transport, etc.

On the other hand, it makes me uneasy to think that so many of the things of which Singapore is so proud — our “Arts Hub” status, our most famed attractions; so much of our world-renowned food culture; even Changi Airport, which you don’t tend to spend much time in if you’re living from h and to mouth — seem to be only for the well-to-do.

It’s very difficult for me, whenever National Day rolls around, and we’re supposed to “come together” and be “one Singapore”, but at the same time, if you look at the sea of faces, you start to wonder where is the shared experience? Where is the shared intellectual and emotional space?

I’m a big fan of the Imagined Communities idea: that societies really only exist in the minds of people. But is Singaporean society really functional if, when thinking about Singapore, you and I have entirely different concepts? Singaporeans from different backgrounds don’t really dwell in the same physical, intellectual, cultural/linguistic, or experiential spaces. The divide between those who dwell in public housing and private property is symbolic of a much greater rift in terms of experience and upbringing.

Arguably, the system still works as long as everyone has something to be proud of, but I’m not sure if that’s true. It’s hard to understand where people are coming from until you understand how their touchstones for how their Singapore should be might be threatened by something you want. NIMBYism is just one of the signs of these clashes: everyone can understand that need for something, like a columbarium, but we don’t want to surrender our Singapore, the Singapore we live in and experience on a daily basis, in order to make way for these things.

I’m pretty sure most everyone is OK with living in a Singapore that is tolerant towards A group or B group. Everyone wants a Singapore where our foreign workers are well-treated, but nobody likes having evidence of that tolerance shoved in their faces, because “a Singapore for foreign workers” is fine to them, as long as it’s not their Singapore. So they complain about new dormitories being constructed in their areas, or too many people taking the bus, etc.

Sometimes when I wander around my own country, I have to stop and wonder where I am. I have to ask, “Is this my Singapore?”

Infrastructure can only do so much to alleviate these sorts of clashes, because the real gulf isn’t merely physical but intellectual. I tell myself that I’m Singaporean, but the Singapore I live in is just a series of bubbles of my own personal experience — how do I connect with someone with whom those experiences don’t intersect? It’s hard, and the more we embrace the logic of a “Singaporean for locals” as being different from a “Singaporean for the rich”, the harder it’s going to get. When he shows me his Singapore, I can’t locate myself in it, but maybe not vice versa.

Possibly the worst thing about the two Singapores problem is that they’re not even mutually inaccessible. Anyone who really wants to can “slum it”, either because of necessity or curiosity: anyone who lives in the city and drives everywhere can choose to take a train out to the heartlands and experience the ‘stench of the poor’. Anyone who dines at fusion-style wholefoods places can instead choose to shlep down to the nearest coffeeshop or hawker centre for some rojak or char kway teow. But that doesn’t run both ways. Someone who eats simply, or intermittently, is unlikely to decide to sample filet mignon or foie gras.

So to some Singapore is a garden, where they can browse at leisure, stopping to smell the flowers on both sides of the tracks; to others, it’s a prison, or a zoo, where the exhibits look out from between the bars and can only wonder about the world that these exalted visitors come from.

It’s easy then to understand why anti-intellectualism can be so rife in a supposedly-smart city.

Social mobility and meritocracy aren’t enough, I think. Even if everyone can climb, what they’re climbing isn’t a ladder but a cliff. Yes, everyone can ascend, but it matters whether you do so with chalk on your hands, or in the belly of a helicopter.

I don’t think we’re doing enough to flatten the gradient, to reduce inequality. I’m worried that in celebrating this report of two Singapores that we’ll head in the other direction: of normalising this marginalisation of the majority in their own country. We’ve seen what happens in other countries when that happens, and it isn’t pretty. It leads to loud, orange, angry, incoherent disaster.

And that is definitely not my Singapore.

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