Skip to content

Singapore, the misunderstood child

A mail from a friend who has just moved to Singapore reminded me of this post – I had published it on another blog that I no longer maintain and was in danger of being forgotten forever. So this might be the first in the series of reposts from my almost-dead-other-blog, as relevant today as they were five years ago. I have preserved the old comments at the bottom of the post. First published on 1 December 2005


Nguyen Tuong Van will be hanged tomorrow. In Singapore. Because he was trafficking heroin. It makes me sad – this is in a world where terrorists go scot-free. Even people who had run concentration camps have had lesser sentences. I am against capital punishment, except perhaps in cases of the most heinous crimes. And in my books, drug trafficking just isn’t one of them. Much has been talked about Nguyen Tuong Van’s death sentence. I have nothing new to add, so I will just say “Peace be to all”.

But the incident has made me of think of Singapore today and put me in a melancholic mood. Its probably not the best time to talk well of Singapore. Yet, I feel like writing about Singapore, as I knew it.

Every once in a while friends and acquaintances, often those who haven’t stepped outside of Changi airport, decide to tell me their views on Singapore. Sometimes, they tell me it is such a beautiful efficiently run city. Some others just can’t believe how people can live in a place that has such a stifling government and care about nothing else, but their materialistic needs.

I don’t usually bother to argue. At the end of the day, its not my home country and my feelings of loyalty are, at best, stretched. But I can’t help but feel that Singapore is misunderstood. Singapore is the quiet girl in the class who gets straight As in the exams, but is never really popular in school because she is such a prude. Yet she tries really really hard to be the cool-kid. Her parents tell her that she should “seriously” have fun! Yet, they tell her that grades are all that really matters. The poor prude girl is really confused. Could anyone have known that beneath the pristine doll-like image, there is a silently troubled child, with a complicated and sullied inside, every bit as human as anyone can be.

People don’t see the real Singapore – the real Singapore doesn’t exist in the tall financial centers or the huge malls or the parliament buildings, where they make us believe democracy has some role to play. Singapore is not limited to the yuppies who aspire to buy the latest Porsche or the Armani-aspiring corporate mogul-wanna-be who couldn’t care less about what happens around them, as long as they get their 5 (or is it more now? )Cs. Thats just what is presented to the outside world. In fact, even many Singaporeans see themselves through those tinted shades.

If you want to see the heart and soul of Singapore, wander not through Millenia walk or Suntec city, but through the narrow roads of China Town or Little India or Arab street, or even the little parks around Bishan or Ang Mo Kio. The fat lady who sells you the Char Kway Teow or the little girl who brings you the ice kacang at the hawker centers, has a story to tell, if only if you had the time to listen. Singapore is not a land of boring, law-abiding people who don’t think and who work and walk like machines – its a place with as much life and emotion as any other, if only you would look beyond the surface.

If the heart of India is in her villages, the heart of Singapore is in her HDB flats. Thats where the dreams are dreamt and tears are wept. If the Singapore government doesn’t hear the collective sigh of the heartlands, they would miss out on reaching out to the real Singapore. And if they don’t let us see the real Singapore, we will all go back with our own false images. If Singapore seems to you like a land straight out of Pleasantville, its only because someone has put a thick filter which blocks out all the colours, somewhere between your eyes and the reality. And you know who that someone is. It is often one’s flaws that makes us human, and thus beautiful. As you desperately try to hide your flaws, you also hide yourself. Singapore, isn’t it about time that you let us see the real you?

The next time someone talks to me about Singapore, I just wish they would talk about not just the concrete buildings or the super clean streets or the democracy that doesn’t seem to be, but something less superficial. Lets talk about the heart of Singapore, shall we?



Comments (In the spirit of free speech, the comment moderation was off. But please note that the comments below are not my opinions)

  1. Singapore, the  misunderstood child

    "Singapore is the quiet girl in the class who gets straight As in the exams, but is never really popular in school because she is such a prude."
    S beautifully introduces us to the real Singapore behind the glitz and glamor of a fishing vi…

    Trackback by DesiPundit — December 1, 2005 @ 6:56 am

  2. Most Beautiful post I have seen in a along time, excellent post. Yes, every country has its hells kitchens and madhobani or as you said HDB flats. You or anyone couldn’t have presented it in a better way.

    Comment by tony — December 1, 2005 @ 8:41 am

  3. Oh, your post sounds so right!

    I was there — may be about six years ago? — just for a few days. I went in with all kinds of preconceived notions about the place – about how it is all very stifling, and how basic human freedoms are neglected, and how the people must be feeling pretty bad and so on. During that visit, I realised that what I had were not personal notions, but personal neuroses. In a way, that one visit cured me!

    Having said that, I do wonder about Singapore: having achieved a great amount of financial success, is that the only end? Surely there is more to life? At what point will the people rise up and say “I have had grown enough in this — the economic — dimension, but I want to grow in other dimensions too”?

    Comment by Abi — December 1, 2005 @ 10:46 am

  4. Beautifully written … I’ve visited Singapore many times, but this makes me want to go there and take a fresh look.

    Comment by anjali — December 1, 2005 @ 10:47 am

  5. The sentences are always so severe there?

    Comment by Arunima — December 1, 2005 @ 2:27 pm

  6. Tony, Anjali : thanks! =)

    Comment by S — December 1, 2005 @ 4:46 pm

  7. Abi, thanks for dropping by. And I am glad you dropped the pre-conceived notions after a short visit. Not many people do that, even after spending time in SG..

    Financial success is definitely not the only end and I think Singaporeans are slowly realising it. I think the time is ripe now, for Singapore to rise above the economic dimension and aim for holistic development. Especially since most of the current generation haven’t known the hardships that the older generation went through – they are not satisfied with financial stability and success in itself, but seek more out of life.

    But IMO, this is also the time the Government needs to act (or maybe not act so much) in the right direction. I think the Government realises it too, but what will they (and the people) do about it ? – we’ll just have to wait and see..

    Comment by S — December 1, 2005 @ 5:43 pm

  8. Arunima, thanks for dropping by.
    For drug trafficking, yes, it is always so severe.
    For the rest, lets just say its not a very forgiving country.

    Comment by S — December 1, 2005 @ 5:48 pm

  9. Singapore, the misunderstood child

    I cannot help but feel that this person grok something about Singapore–at least the Singapore that I know and call home…

    Trackback by From a Singapore Angle — December 1, 2005 @ 8:19 pm

  10. Beautifully written.

    I’ve visited Singapore a couple of times. Every time, i’m struck by the efficiency and ethic, that always seems to be on the surface. Everyone’s smiling and doing their job. But there always seems to be some kind of underlying desire for something else.

    And there are little moments of madness, that you see in little India or China town…..just telling you that there’s more there than meets the eye.

    Comment by Sunil — December 1, 2005 @ 8:53 pm

  11. Very poetic, and very true.

    Comment by Elia Diodati — December 1, 2005 @ 10:01 pm

  12. Sunil, Elia: Thanks!

    Comment by S — December 2, 2005 @ 8:22 am

  13. Beautifully written with every word well verse in its meaning of what Singaporean is about. I will spend more time on your blog to read what had been posted before and here after. Glad to know some blogger with indepth thoughts about their own country.
    Thankyou for your education…

    Comment by Kristoffer — December 2, 2005 @ 11:28 am

  14. “I am against capital punishment, except perhaps in cases of the most heinous crimes.’

    Which also means you’re not against.

    “And in my books, drug trafficking just isn’t [heinous].”

    I beg to differ. You probably never have punks coming up to you, brandishing a switch blade, and asking for crack money, have you? And whose fault would it be if I’d died that day?

    Comment by phil — December 2, 2005 @ 11:40 am

  15. you have romanticised singapore. it is still tinted. that’s where the problem is. if you rule, we will probably have cotton candy balls for meals. unfortunately, our constrained space and the lack of resources have produced broken souls in the heartlands.

    tired souls.

    interestingly, we are emerging a ’softporn’ industry. our hearts, concealed i am afraid, may not be too far the image of NKF.

    pleasantville we are certainly not. try taking out the first L from the word!

    Comment by goldfish — December 2, 2005 @ 1:29 pm

  16. thanks…for looking deep beneath the surface, to see who really makes up Singapore

    Comment by MQube — December 2, 2005 @ 4:04 pm

  17. You are absolutely right and have expressed it so beautifully.

    Comment by rana (blowin’ in the wind) — December 2, 2005 @ 5:59 pm

  18. Well put, you. :)

    My Philipino colleagues love Singapore’s stability though. They’ve been to the much more “vibrant” Hong Kong to live, and yet, we are still better than them in many ways, especially the food!

    Whenever they talk about Singapore it’s with a comforable fondness. We Singaporeans have only gripe. Weird huh. Some foreigners prefer our country than its citizens. Darn.

    Comment by barffie — December 2, 2005 @ 6:09 pm

  19. Singapore Angle: Thanks for linking, and for defending my post in your blog comments.

    Goldfish: My intention was not to romanticise Singapore and I don’t think it has even come across as such. Thanks for visiting anyways.

    Phil: No, I haven’t had punks coming up to me, brandishing a switch blade, and asking me for crack money. I am sorry if you have had that experience. But that doesn’t make drug trafficking an offence serious enough for a state to kill somoene over. You could just as easily have an alcoholic brandish a blade and demand money for his next drink. I am not saying drug trafficking is good or even that it should not be punished. It should be. But just not with capital punishment, thats all.

    Kristoffer, MQube, Rana, Barffie: Thanks for the nice comments and for dropping by!

    And just to clarify for those who seem to think I am a Singaporean: I am not. So, this is still a foreigner’s view, albeit from someone who has lived there before.

    Comment by S — December 2, 2005 @ 8:42 pm

  20. You’re most welcome.

    Comment by HUICHIEH LOY — December 2, 2005 @ 10:07 pm

  21. This is an excellent post! The real Singapore can only be felt when you live here long enough, among the Singaporeans, within our neighbourhood.

    Comment by DarkHarf — December 3, 2005 @ 2:14 am

  22. my apology. on second read(first was a quick browse), the essense of your message was clearer.

    the fat lady who sells the Char Kway Teow should thank you!

    but then, her heart needs a check-up!

    too much ‘fat’ content!

    Comment by goldfish — December 3, 2005 @ 3:16 am

  23. Amazingly well written post. I, going a step ahead, can say without conviction that this place sux big time.

    The city, unlike India or any other free country in the world spends so much on camouflaging the negative aspects of it and till date it has succeeded in wooing people frm all countries by developing the brand as the most strategic location this side of the world.

    There are lots of such sad stories, and with the media and trade unions totally taken over by the government, there is really nothing that people are exposed to. The hard sob stories go unheard…and people have accepted the way things are, bcos they are constantly bombarded with news reading how big they are in the world..

    Comment by Arun — December 3, 2005 @ 6:30 am

  24. beautifully conveyed…

    Comment by dude — December 3, 2005 @ 8:35 am

  25. I don’t really think you have the right perspective of Singapore. Singapore is the child who was always tiny and sickly. Her parents weren’t rich and she didn’t come to this earth with a silver spoon in her mouth. She was so poor that there was no water in the house to drink, and her neighbour squabbled about sharing water supplies. Singapore sensed that if she didn’t pull up her socks and be the hardworking, strict child, there would be no reason to give Singapore a second glance because there are relaxed, rich children around who don’t give a damn about safety and security.

    Hence Singapore worked really hard at building up herself. People think it’s strange a scrawny kid does well. They think it’s strange that from nothing sprouted something.

    Our tall buildings and our clean streets tell of our hardwork and past suffering. The rich have worked hard for their money, and those currently poor constantly encourage their kids to study hard. If you look at Singapore’s best schools, you have a more than half of the students staying in HDB flats.

    Yes, Singapore is misunderstood. People only notice when you’re rich and successful and attribute it to luck. Only large countries with a long bloody history have a real story to tell, while tiny spots of land should remain unseen and unheard.

    I’ve always felt amazed that people think Singapore is exceptionally clean. I thought that is the way it should be. In fact any neighbouring country has natural forests and rivers, and should be at least ten times cleaner than us. It isn’t hard to keep a place clean, just don’t litter! I don’t even litter overseas where there are no fines for littering. So it’s not just the fines that prevent people from littering, it’s a mindset that wants to preserve the cleanliness of the place.

    Singapore also has poor people, or rather, even the rich eat at hawker centres and their offspring take the same public transport as every other person. If you think that having poor people are flaws we’re trying to hide, perhaps you live in a fantasy world. Well-off Singaporeans lead a good life, but they stay down to earth and rooted in local culture.

    Comment by ice — December 3, 2005 @ 7:49 pm

  26. No matter what brickbats are thrown at you, arguably it is still a beautifully written and emotive piece. Thanks for trying to see the 7/8s of the iceberg that is hidden.

    Comment by Aristocrat — December 3, 2005 @ 7:55 pm

  27. Nguyen’s brother also a convicted trafficker

    Aussie court suppressed fact that he was a drug runner and given jail term for savage attack on teen

    SYDNEY – THE brother of an Australian drug courier hanged in Singapore is a convicted drug trafficker and had been sentenced to jail for a savage samurai sword attack, but details of the case were suppressed due to fear that they could jeopardise clemency appeals.

    KHOA’S CRIMINAL BACKGROUND was not publicised in Australia, in order to avoid jeopardising his twin brother’s plea for clemency in Singapore. — EPA

    The Australian reported yesterday that Nguyen Tuong Van’s brother, Nguyen Khoa Dang, in 1998 repeatedly slashed a teenager with a samurai sword, seriously wounding the 17-year-old’s arm, buttock, ankle and left knee.

    He was sentenced to three years in jail for the attack, which resulted in the victim requiring plastic surgery.

    But County Court judge Meryl Sexton suspended the jail term because Khoa’s ‘personal situation…(had) become so traumatic because of (his) brother’s situation’, the newspaper reported.

    The judge ordered that the sentence be suspended partly because his twin brother was awaiting execution in Singapore.

    She also banned publication of case details while Australian officials repeatedly appealed to Singapore not to hang Nguyen, said The Australian.

    Details of Khoa’s conviction could be published yesterday for the first time after Judge Sexton lifted a publication restriction imposed to avoid jeopardising Ngu- yen’s plea for clemency.

    Khoa faced court in June last year, where he pleaded guilty to riotous assembly and recklessly causing serious injury.

    In December 1998, Khoa was involved in a brawl between Asian and Islander youths in a park in the northern Melbourne suburb of Reservoir.

    The prosecution alleged that Khoa armed himself with a samurai sword and struck Glen Kohu repeatedly, causing him serious injury.

    The Australian reported Judge Sexton as saying that Kohu was confined to a wheelchair after the attack, forced to leave school and had since struggled to stay employed.

    The trial took more than four years to reach the county court, partly because of concerns about the effect it would have on the Singapore trial of Nguyen, who was arrested in December 2002, according to The Australian.

    In April 2003, Judge Sexton agreed to adjourn the case because of Nguyen’s trial in Singapore.

    ‘Amongst the reasons for my doing so which I can refer to was the effect on you of having your twin brother awaiting trial in Singapore for a capital offence,’ The Australian quoted her as saying.

    Khoa is a convicted drug trafficker.

    He had also previously served time for drug-trafficking offences and was released from prison in July 2002.

    Nguyen claimed in his trial that he had been trying to smuggle heroin to pay for his brother’s mounting legal bills, partly incurred by the court case that followed Khoa’s involvement in the brawl.

    The court heard that Khoa, now 25, left home against his mother’s wishes, abused drugs and alcohol and was a frequent customer of Melbourne’s Crown casino.

    Nguyen’s arrest had resulted in ‘an increase in (the) level of (Khoa’s) maturity’ but he had relapsed into heroin use in 2003, possibly as a result of his brother’s arrest in Singapore, The Australian quoted Judge Sexton as saying.

    Khoa was in Singapore last week for the execution of his brother.

    Nguyen’s family left last night for Australia with his body.

    Mr Lex Lasry, who has been the family spokesman, addressed the media although the family members kept mum at Changi Airport yesterday evening.

    Asked about Khoa’s criminal record, Mr Lasry said he did not know about it and dismissed it as irrelevant.

    ‘I don’t have a view about it,’ he said.

    ‘I’ve got some views about Khoa and where he’s going from here and I don’t want to say anything about that.’

    Comment by Lexx — December 4, 2005 @ 8:05 am

  28. Your post is the most banal and predictable one I’ve read for a long time. Come on, no country or city is as it seems on the surface as seen by packaged tours1 So, tell me another!

    Comment by lucy — December 4, 2005 @ 9:50 am

  29. It is all a question of perspective. Comparatively speaking, Singapore is really not a bad place to live at the moment. Eventhough there are many things that’s right about the place, I can’t help feeling, the prevailing ideology embraced by its leaders will bring increase suffering to its general populace in the years to come.

    And it’s not restricted to Singapore alone!

    Comment by Icebreaker — December 4, 2005 @ 11:22 am

  30. Hrm, how insightful! :) I can’t help but nod in agreement but isnt that the same for every country, every person living on the surface of this earth? Yes, i think it is.

    Comment by dominique — December 5, 2005 @ 6:54 am

  31. interesting essay you wrote. i live in singapore and i’m a foreigner and i have many things to say that make singapore feel like home and the meaning of illusion. I can say i’ve experienced every part of singapore. eating at sarangoon gardens to partying at every place possible from zouk to MS to screaming at a store owner in sim lim to sell me a phone for $60 to realizing i need to learn chinese in chinatown(i can understand singlish perfectly, slangs included)to getting my drivers license in angmokio. I’ve also lived the illusion that singapore offers such as international school to condos to partying at New Asia at the swiss hotel and the materialistic bullshit. It has it all, but it lacks something. a love for the country that is REAL. Just about every Singaporean i’ve talked to (very local ones and foreign wannabes) seem like they want to get out of singapore. The only freedom they have is money and to spend. you watch tv and unless you have cable, its brain washing media corp. all movies/news are censored (even scenes which are very meaningful) and aside from ads and commercials, when do you see a singaporean idolizing a local star? its always a foreign one. just walk into far east or heeren and its so obvious. now they’re gonna ban smoking in bars and clubs and newton and all hawker stalls and every place possible!?!?!?!? are they kidding? lets hope that all teh uncles and aunties there don’t give a crap. singapore used to be a nice place. but singapore is changing at incredible speed in front of our eyes into something where paranoia sits in our minds like a bad itch you can’t reach. everything that makes the “cultured” parts of singapore are being destroyed and renovated for corporate shit or preserved only for tourist attractions. i love singapore. Even though it’s small n all, it has a lively atmosphere that i can’t help but love. but this has been changing over time and seeing the direction its headed, i can see that opinion changing.

    Comment by splashes — December 5, 2005 @ 8:46 pm

  32. the movers and shakers in that nation doesn’t want to accept the reality that they are but a very small country with a very small dwindling population(locals)with tremendous odds against them so they keep harboring the hope of being big, as in being extremely competitive so as to achieve no. 1 status in as many fields as possible, because to them, that’s how this small city state is going to survive and the people generally believed it!

    but poor thing, most are dead tired. many can’t get out of the rat race. many can’t afford to stop working to enjoy their twilight years. probably many will face financial problems later as the populace ages!

    most of their problems are self made. they have this philosophy of protecting mega enterprises at the expense of the people and at all costs! to them, the survival of enterprises is the survival of the people because jobs are involved! however, my personal view is that, that wisdom in the long run has many social repercussion. unfortunately, there are billions of dollars at stake in those enterprises and many VIPs involved. so i do not foresee they would want that change.

    so the pressure will always be – first, the survival of corporate entity over the individual entity. the individual then becomes a digit in such a city purpose is to feed the corporate from the day the individual is born, he/she is given a number or a value to the day he/she dies. in other words, the individual will be graded for life! either in performance or how much the person has in his/her bank account,owns,possess etc.

    why?because the movers and shakers cant think beyond the marketplace! they are trapped in that place eventhough they are sincere about seeking an even distribution of wealth. but that’s not going to happen any time soon because, the elites favor a trickle up system lead by their powerful businessmen!

    the final discourse will be very suffocating at the bottom! many young today do not know better because, they still have their youth to enjoy. but the fruits are beginning to show. if they don’t change the current course, i think, they have to accept the erosion of everything pure and sacred which they once held dearly!

    from gold to silver to bronze to iron and clay. such a ruler can only be degenerative!

    that’s my personal view

    Comment by nano — December 6, 2005 @ 5:26 pm

  33. Thanks, everyone, for the comments. Appreciate the different views on the topic.

    Comment by S — December 10, 2005 @ 6:37 pm

Posted in Travel on March 12, 2010

2 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 16 Mar 2010 linked to this post on March 16, 2010

    […] Daily Discourse – New Asia Republic: Finding our way in New Asia – The Rot Within: Two orthogonal distinctions – Icarus Flew Too High: The Human Rights Paradox – Barnyard Chorus: This is STupid – Silent Eloquence: Singapore, the misunderstood child […]

  2. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 12 linked to this post on March 20, 2010

    […] “It is often one’s flaws that makes us human, and thus beautiful. As you desperately try to hide your flaws, you also hide yourself. Singapore, isn’t it about time that you let us see the real you?” Surya […]

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.

Please answer: (required) Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.