Singapore – Nothing like it.

Supertrees – man made structures designed to look like trees that light up at night

We begin our two plus week study tour to Southeast Asia in Singapore. I had never been to Singapore, but have many Singaporean friends, and was quite looking forward to my visit. Singapore is a fascinating country. While we learned in class just how unique its success story is, it’s hard to really understand it until you arrive in-country. And even then, you need a trip to somewhere else like Thailand or Vietnam, to be able to compare and contrast.

Stepping off the plane made me feel as if I was in some sort of futuristic utopia, a manhattan-esque city meets southwest Florida. I was particularly impressed by the amount of nature-defying masterpieces on display, particularly around the reclaimed “paradise” that is Marina Bay Sands. But after talking to Singaporeans more, and thinking through who is actually doing the work to make this place so beautiful, clean, and impressive, I wonder about how much of the society is hiding deeper, structural issues.

What I mean is the following: Everyone we met in Singapore is thrilled with the government, and wouldn’t change anything. They are highly educated, can afford constant “air con” (air conditioning), and have high paying jobs with a sense of unlimited career growth. But someone has to clean their houses and build their buildings. These “someones” are rarely Singaporeans, and my understanding is that they are mostly from Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Indian subcontinent. There is clear income inequality between the Singaporeans and everyone else. Case in point: In December 2013 there was a riot in Little India, and I was told the undertones of the riot were related to racial issues and cultural differences.

From a policy perspective, it’s not my place to say what is the right attitude for Singapore to take. One could argue that migrant labor jobs provide better options for those who may be coming from nothing. But I don’t thinkĀ its fair if there is no long-term generational reward for hours of physical toll. However, we have witnessed first hand the importance of stability in this region, and that can come with a cost.

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