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November 14, 2017

Ruminations of a third-world traveller


November 14, 2017

If there is a list of splendid countries you could put together, Singapore would have to be somewhere at the top. Because, simply put, Singapore is splendid.

It is the cleanest, greenest, most advanced, most tranquil and yet most happening city state on the planet. Every formal ranking list that has to do with man’s achievements on planet earth has Singapore featured somewhere at the top. And it’s not difficult to see why.

From the moment you disembark from your plane at Changi Airport to your first experience of the city’s infrastructure – flawlessly carpeted roads, the impeccable underground mass transit system, the efficient bus service, the buzzing market places and the state-of-the-art malls – you are, at least, overwhelmed.

It is a tourist paradise, one of the largest hubs of the world’s financial services industry, the most preferred foreign workplace for the world’s educated workforce, one of the largest refiners of oil, among the largest producers of the world’s technology hardware and among the safest places on the planet. It has the most technologically-advanced military force on the planet that is certainly ahead of every military force in the region. Tell me which end to grab Singapore from and I’ll pull out a list of great things from each one of them.

But this is a not a traveller’s guide or an article for TripAdvisor, so I’ll tell you what really intrigued me about Singapore in my recent visit. First, a disclaimer: it is my view that for every traveller hailing from the ‘third world’ wishing to indulge in a temporary escape from their motherland, all such escapes are always only partial in nature. Why, you ask? Because life in the third world is underscored by chaos and unpredictability. And this chaos ensures that home is always on the forefront of our subconscious. It’s hardcoded into our cognition in this way and, therefore, we can’t keep ourselves from checking the news every morning and evening or perhaps even every hour. Because who can say what’s around the corner. Another bomb explosion? Another coup? Another leaked-news scandal? Another maligned politician? Another lockdown in the capital by crazed fanatics who believe they have divine licence? And after checking the news, a small, wary part of the subconscious of the third-world traveller returns to the familiar bittersweet addiction of drawing parallels and comparisons between his or her present environment and home.

Which is what I happened to be doing on a particular muggy morning in Singapore and it eventually led me to read up about the country’s history. It’s the how-it-got-here part that struck me most. Founded as a British colonial trading post of the East India Company in the 1800s, its modern history began with a Japanese occupation during the Second World War that only ended with the Allied victory in 1945. The liberation was followed by turmoil –unemployment, soaring inflation, disease outbreak, violence and a food shortage – until 1947 when the economy slowly began to recover. It achieved self-government in 1959 when the charismatic Lee Kuan Yew of the People’s Action Party became prime minister. In the decade leading up to that moment, Singapore was fully developed.

In addition, with Singapore’s annual growth percentages often exceeding six percent and the lowest unemployment rates in the world – not to mention guaranteed housing for its lower-income populace and complete protection for the rights of religious minorities – the People’s Action Party has won every election since 1959. Singapore is a unitary multi-party parliamentary republic. All power rests with the prime minister and his cabinet. The current prime minister is the first prime minister’s son and it is rumoured that his successor will possibly be his son, who is currently being groomed for the top position.

And here’s the rub: political rights, press freedom and civil liberties are restricted in Singapore. The opposition only has seats in parliament to afford it some form of representation and the president holds only a ceremonial position, with some veto powers over use of national reserves and appointment of judges.

The state media company owns and runs all the free-to-air radio and television channels, another state company controls the newspaper industry, another owns and controls cable television and censorship is rife in all the above except the internet, which is largely unmonitored. This has led to critics often describing the island city state as an autocracy in disguise. But is anybody complaining?

The current prime minister is one of the most educated people in the country, with the distinction of holding twin degrees in computer science and public administration and for achieving the rank of a brigadier general in the armed forces. After his tenure with the armed forces, he joined public office, won a seat in parliament and rose to the top. This was not because of nepotism, but because of his proven track record of dedicated public service. This has allowed him to sweep the last three general elections and there is not even a modicum of doubt over the electoral process or its results. Indeed, in governing Singapore, the People’s Action Party has ensured that transparency and zero-tolerance for crime and corruption remain the foundational pillars of a Singapore that trades freely with the rest of the world.

So how do so many contradictions converge to form a stable homogenous whole? Your guess is as good as mine. But as I engaged in that exercise of drawing parallels, two factors stood out as a conclusion. First, the tangible political will to modernise and establish the country as among the leading nations of the world by the political elite of the country. Second, the awareness since 1947 that education will play the pivotal role in achieving that vision. Throughout its short history, which only mirrors ours in terms of time span, Singapore’s leadership has neither wavered in that vision nor compromised on the means of achieving it. Sure, it does not tolerate dissent – and yes, it boasts income inequalities like no other country – but the former does not aim to oppress its populace and the latter is only about relative numbers.

So should I waste the remaining lines of this article drawing out the parallels for you that are all too easy to identify? I’m not going to because there are none. The Singapore example just trumps every one of our cherished beliefs. I will instead urge you to consider why we, like other third-world travellers, continue to ruminate and draw parallels between Pakistan and the rest of the world.

And further, why, when asked to describe what Pakistan is to the rest of the world, we are only able to articulate ourselves in a manner that reflects a wounded pride? Do we imagine, perhaps, that 1947 or 1971 are still happening? That they are capsules within which Pakistan is frozen as time moves on, which offers the illusory hope that Project Pakistan is as yet incomplete and we will soon complete it? Or is it that, at a subliminal level, we are confronted with the shattering realisation that the project is complete and, having taken one too many wrong turns along the way, we have landed in a bog and all our ruminations are merely the function of hope?

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kmushir