What Is Truly Unique to Singapore (Uniquely Singapore)?

“If one measures it in our uniquely Singapore ways, like dignity is measured by how much one’s income, and education is measured by how many straight As, then we are very successful.”

Prior to year 2010, the tagline for the Singapore branding championed by Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is Uniquely Singapore. It has received a lot of flak from Singaporeans as every country is unique in their own ways, so Uniquely Singapore does not convey Singapore as a brand let alone the message to the visiting tourists (STB has changed the tagline from Uniquely Singapore to Your Singapore since 2010, another unimaginative tagline and a wasteful marketing campaign). That aside, the debate definitely sets me thinking what are the phenomenon or characteristics that are truly unique to Singapore. Here are my list:

1. A Land of Contradictions

This point comes to mind immediately, there are so many instances of this phenomenon. Singapore is a open economy but not a open society. Case in point: while economy is thriving and Singaporeans enjoy one of the highest per capita income in the world, Singapore has been criticised frequently for lack of freedom of expressions (e.g. no strike or demonstration is allowed). We want a thriving night social life and yet we do it half heartedly with all the restrictions. We want to encourage more artistic expressions and activities and yet we do not want to spell out the clear OB markers. Singapore is a first world economy but the citizens have a third world mindset, just check out the dirty toilets, rubbish littered all over the HDB flats, aggressive tailgating drivers, hogging of lanes on the escalators, wastage of food and resources, maid abusing etc…. and you will know what I mean. Singaporeans are rich but not necessary happy, look at the grumpy faces of the shop attendants and taxi drivers and the numerous anti-establishment websites on the internet. Enough said!

2. Singlish

It is hard to master one language let alone two languages or more. As Singapore is an immigrant society with multi racial and dialect groups, many Singaporeans have trouble mastering English, which is a working language here. As a result a distorted version of English known as Singlish has evolved over the years which include expression borrowed from Malay, Chinese and dialects (predominantly Hokkien). Words and expressions such as makan (eat), mati (die), Kiasu (afraid to lose), Kiasi (afraid to die or no guts), go where?, how?, leh, lor, shiok,  skarly are commonly used (see more examples here), Some of tenses are clearly borrowed from Chinese language and it has the unique characteristic of being short,sharp and straight to the point. The government are clearly not impressed with the development of Singlish but it is widely spoken by the mass of Singaporeans from all ethnic communities except, perhaps, the high society.  By the way, many Malaysian, Indonesian and Brunei Chinese speak impeccable “Singlish” which strictly speaking is not truly unique to Singapore. I must confess.

3. Food Paradise

Ask any overseas Singaporean the number one thing that they will miss and it inevitably has to be the local hawker food. As Singapore is the melting pot of Asia, you will find the wide range and variety of food ranging  from Malaysia, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Western, Arabian food. Some dishes are uniquely Singaporean, the famous ones are Hainanese Chicken rice, Laksa, Duck rice, curry fish head, chilly crabs, just to name a few.

4. Multi-Racial Society

It is indeed a unique social phenomenon where there are four official languages. Public holidays include the important festivals of all the prominent races and religions. It is a unique place to see so many religious celebration and other races’ costume all year round. The government has ensure that there is an even mix of all religions in the public housing to prevent ethnic enclave which is common in other countries.

5. Government Dominance

The government dominance is truly almost everywhere. The Singapore Government has significant share ownerships in publications (SPH), national carriers (SIA), public utilities, telecomm companies (Singtel, M1 and Starhub), properties, transport, healthcare and etc. The government also comes out with numerous incentives and regulations from encourage citizens to get married, to have children, retirement planning and housing, everything seems to be taken care of by the government so much so that a clutch mentality has been developed and it seems that without the government, majority of the citizens are unable to fend for themselves (see the Two Men and A Lady joke here). While it may be a compliment to the government for having done an exceptional job, it is truly a Unique Singapore social problem that I and some Singaporeans wish less of.

6. Unique Political System

Singapore is a one-party government despite being a democratic country by constitution. How on earth can a country has a ruling party who has a 67% vote and yet own more than 95% of the seats? Currently there are only two elected opposition MPs in more than 80+ seats. Other than the obvious reason that the ruling party has done a good job, the other often cited reasons being litigations against opposition leaders, goodies handed out and feel-good factors created prior to elections and most of all a truly unique Singapore system called GRC which stands for Group Representative Constituency. It was originally conceptualised as a mechanism to ensure the minority and women candidates will be elected, the GRC originally constitutes 3 candidates was however expanded gradually to 4,5 and 6 candidates within a GRC under the watch of ex-PM Goh Chok Tong to also provide a “backdoor” for otherwise reluctant politicians to enter into politics. Not a single GRC has been won by the opposition parties so far. The single ward constituency was also drastically reduced over the years to only 8 in the last election in 2006. In the last election, almost half of the eligible voters did not get to exercise their votes. To give credit to the government, the current PM Lee Hsien Loong has taken the steps to try to reverse the trend by introducing more single ward seats and reducing the sizes of GRCs and we shall see if this will result in more opposition representations in future elections.

7. Meritocracy

Meritocracy is a central political concept in Singapore which places a great emphasis on identifying and grooming bright young citizens for positions of leadership. The Singaporean interpretation places overwhelming emphasis on academic credentials as objective measures of merit. This has created a unique social class of scholars with the awards of hundreds (if not thousands) of scholarships by the government alone (many more scholarships are offered by private sectors annually) . It remains to be seen if such over-emphasis on academic achievement and the long term effect on gifted children and scholarship holders will cause social issues in the long run if they are not carefully managed. As it is today, many “scholars” are expected to have an accelerated career path planned for them and there are distinctively “scholar networking circle” amongst them which is not healthy for the social development of Singapore as a whole. The Wee Shu Min’s incident in 2006 presents an evidence that Singapore was suffering from increasing signs that political elitism, “smarter-than-thou” snobbery and class consciousness anxiety were creeping into its meritocracy model, a widening social stratification that will cause long-term implications for Singaporean society

The Singapore version of Meritocracy is not a true meritocracy in my opinion as it will be much much harder for a late bloomer or non-scholar to achieve the same position as he is not blessed with a “planned” career for himself/herself. A real meritocracy should recognise a person’s capability on the job, without any preferential treatment given to scholar and non-scholar alike. There are also online comments by readers that if meritocracy is truly working, someone should take responsibility for losing money by Temasek and GIC, Mas Selamat’s escape and recent Orchard Road’s flooding which are sadly not the case.

8. “Seat Chopping”

This is probably the most unusual sighting that amaze foreigners alike. It all began probably around 10 years ago where people put a pack of tissues on the dinning tables in foodcourts and hawker centres to “reserve” their seats for fear that they will not be able to find a seat after they purchase their food. To fight this unusual phenomenon, some local expats have also joined in this very unique Singapore’s phenomenon. As the saying goes: if you can’t beat them, join them!

9. Land of Acronyms

In Singapore, acronyms are used almost anywhere, any time and any place whether in casual communication or in formal speeches. See more Singapore related acronyms here and funny takes on Acronyms here.
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