Everything I know about Singapore, I learned from a taxi driver.
Okay, maybe not everything.
But for sure, you can get a taste of the history and the local flavor and the vibe of this fine city’s life through the eyes of he who plies the road at about S$20 per pop (that’s about USD$12).
We had the pleasure of the company of three very talkative ones. On the way from the Night Safari back to our hotel, at 12:30 in the morning, the taxi driver told us tales. Real tales.
And what he has told us has earned my respect for this beautifully manicured City. There are a lot of lessons to be learned here – some on money, some on good governance, others still on not taking anything for granted.
Because they – the Singaporeans – they cannot take anything for granted.
The taxi driver went on with his story: Singapore does not have any resources – no fields where they can plant rice (or anything for that matter), land is small (spanning about only 710.2 sq.km.), no rich marine life to amount to an industry, nothing they can offer, even their water has to be imported from Malaysia. And so Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, knowing that all he has on his side is an iron will and intelligent planning, put his all to the task: He “cleaned house” (he tried to stop corruption at its root by offering government officials salaries equivalent to that of professionals in the private sector), started the “Stop-at-Two” family planning campaign (this was reversed 20 years ago because the program was very successful), set up a matchmaking agency so the men will choose to marry highly-educated women (uhm), outlawing homosexuality (that’s why we didn’t see any!), and caning (hitting the buttocks, palms or soles of the feet with a rattan cane – ouch!). Okay, okay. Some are more controversial than others (fine, most are). But in three decades of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s rule, present-day Singapore stands on the forefront of history.
I do not know what it is about starting with nothing that makes one relish what he has. But do not be fooled – the Singaporeans have to pay a huge price to retain the financial independence that they now enjoy.
The price is taxes.
The Singapore government taxes everything. Look and the 7% GST (goods and services tax) is stamped on every receipt. But the Singapore government taxes some goods more than others – and I have to admit – there is a certain beauty to this, it makes so much sense that it is revolutionary.
The “some goods” are the luxury goods.
You want a car? You have to get a COE – that is, a Certificate of Entitlement which will cost you S$30,000 (or almost USD$20,000) – and no car yet! It is a program designed to limit car ownership and only a few thousands are issued every year. This insures that only a certain number of cars will be on the road and if someone does not get his car off the road (5 years max for a car to be retired), then sorry, only a few COEs will be issued. No COE, no car. One COE, one car. The government reasons: Singapore is so small, there are only very few roads and if everyone had a car, the roads would be so clogged the city would be at a standstill (literally and figuratively). And they have a very good public transport system – taxis and buses and the metrorail are all convenient and accessible. Why have cars?
You want beer? Fork over S$9 – that’s USD$6 for you. Cigarettes? A pack is equivalent to a box when sold at the border. And you cannot smoke here too (well, hardly).
Food is cheap (but not at the tourist traps where we have gone), housing is cheap (the government gives you money to pay them for housing – so you end up paying just about 20%), everyone speaks English and smiles are everywhere.
And so I look at this City with a new understanding, with new-found respect.
Our taxi driver asked: Your former president, the one accused of corruption, how can he use his hands for that and still be able to show his face?
How, indeed? (I did not have the heart to tell him that now, he is running for president too, again)
I shake my head and looked far away. Travel indeed can open the eyes, expand the horizons and fill it with hope. It is a desperate hope for one’s country but it is hope.
Some notes on this Singapore trip:
1. If you can stay at the island of Sentosa, do so. It is a little pricey but you will have at your beck and call peacocks and squirrels and the white sands and the beach. Public transport within Sentosa is free too and very convenient.
2. At Sentosa, watch the Songs of the Sea. It is something you probably have never seen before. Also, ride the Go Green Segway (my daughter loved it) and the Sky Ride with the Luge (we tried the ride but not the luge which is a downhill drive – it looked scary and interesting).
3. Meals typically range from S$4 (USD$2.50 at the Food Republic in malls and the Makansutra at the Gluttons Bay in Marina) and S$20 (USD$12 in theme parks) per person. Try their barbecued chicken (wonderful), their pulled coffee and tea (sweetly addictive) and the laksa (if you like your food with a kick).
4. Go to the Merlion park. It has a beautiful mosaic of water fountains. Go at night.
5. Shopping is the Orchard Road. Charles and Keith and Ipanema sandals are cheap there. I am not sure about the electronics. If you can, go to the Great Singapore Sale which happens from the end of May to the end of July of every year. If you buy more than S$100 worth of goods in a participating retail store (single receipt), you can apply for a rebate of the GST at the airport (this is about S$4 per S$100 – yahoo!).
6. Resorts World – Singapore (a casino) and Universal Studios are also opening in early 2010.