Thursday, January 19, 2012

Further thoughts: Singapore is a city optimized for consumption.

Struggling for a headline about Singapore, I've ended up with this: I can't say it's "good" or it's "bad", but I can say that the city revolves around consumption. I've heard multiple times that people go to Singapore to eat and to shop. Food is cheap and goods are glitzy. There's a mall on every corner, each one with more posh brand names than the last.

I traded my poor-country problems (mosquito bites and bottled water) for rich-country problems (canker sores from all the sugar, upset stomach from the rich food, sunburn from too much lazing around) almost instantly.

Well, and so? I can spare you the litany of anti-consumerism, but I do want to point out that it'd be a worthy critique. Life in Singapore seems partially the hyper-Western nightmare I'd expect from a city optimized for consumption. School starts intense, with bell-curved classes where 10% of students get A's, and woe to those who fall off the good-grades wagon. Those who succeed, after completing their 2 years of National Service (military, or "kind of a bad job where people yell at you"), get high-powered, high-paying, high-blood-pressure jobs at banks, government offices, or international corporations. After marrying, they can afford glamorous apartments, but at the cost of working 7 days a week.

It seems not an easy life, nor an ideal one. I realize it's pretentious to visit a city for four days and then start leveling criticisms, but there's mine.

On the plus side, though: as Jay pointed out, maybe consumption is not the best thing to optimize for, but at least Singapore is optimized for something. Every building placement, every district, every street name is carefully chosen by the government. They cut clever deals to make the city work smoothly. ("want to build a casino? okay... if you build us a hotel, convention center, museum, performance venue, and by the way you can't let any Singapore citizens in unless they pay $100.") And so, again, Singapore works, in its own way. I complain that it's not Shangri-la, but it's worth keeping in mind that it's also not Buffalo, Delhi, or Houston.

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