Singapore gets more things right than other countries, even if its citizens disagree

By DAVID FEDO, FOR THE STRAITS TIMES Published on Jul 28, 2012
The writer was executive director and visiting scholar of the Wheelock College (Boston, United States) Centre for International Education, Leadership and Innovation (Singapore) since June 2007.

ON THE eve of National Day, after a little more than five years of living and working in Singapore, my wife Susan and I take leave of this amazing country. We will return to our home just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, to take up our old lives among our American family and friends.

But the truth is, after Singapore, our lives will never be the same.


Singapore’s impact on most expatriates and other visitors, no matter how long they reside on this island, is often forever. It’s the palpable feeling that somehow Singapore gets more things right than most other countries, and that day-to-day life here is on the whole better than in many other places. Not perfect, of course, but better.

Think of the excellent schools, polytechnics and universities, for example, and the fact that there seems to be less unemployment, homelessness and crime here than elsewhere – bugaboos that plague so many other nations in today’s volatile economy.

The diverse races and religious groups respect one another. The food is wonderful, with a variety unmatched anywhere, even in Paris, New York or Beijing. Medical care is exemplary. The green spaces, now crowned by Gardens by the Bay, are spectacular. Younger and now even some older Singaporeans may take these virtues for granted; those of us who are foreigners do not.

Our story is not an unfamiliar one for expatriates. Susan and I arrived here on a contract for two years, and have stayed for three more. Our work for Wheelock College (its home campus is in Boston) and our imported bachelor’s degree in early childhood education has been a pleasure. We loved our Singapore students, all young women committed to the nation’s children, and our faculty – a collaborative group from Wheelock-Boston, Ngee Ann Polytechnic and the Seed Institute – have been extraordinary.

Wheelock has just signed a long-term agreement with the Singapore Institute of Technology and will be in this country for many years to come. Susan and I will watch from afar as the Wheelock-Singapore partnership grows and flourishes.

Beyond all of its other virtues and attractions, including its economic and commercial successes, the arts in Singapore over recent years have truly ‘blossomed’, to use the word Professor Tommy Koh does in an article in the National University of Singapore’s Alumnus magazine. ‘We were once described by our critics as a ‘cultural desert’,’ he explains, but says those days are gone for good – ‘no one would say the same thing today’.

Prof Koh is right. Yet I wonder if many Singaporeans fully appreciate the remarkable blossoming of the arts – call it an explosion – through the seasonal festivals and year-round array of productions, performances, publications and exhibits, as much as those of us who come from outside Singapore.

Too often I have heard Singaporeans downplay their country’s artistic achievements, saying ‘It (the play or gallery opening) was okay, I guess, but it’s not New York or London.’

But Singapore doesn’t have to be New York or London. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra can stand on its own merits, and so can the experimental theatre productions by any number of talented groups here. The museums mount exhibits of interest to Asians and Westerners, as do Singapore’s diverse galleries. The Arts House is a jewel in the cultural life of this country.

Poetry is a special interest of mine, and Singapore’s best young poets – Toh Hsien Min, Cyril Wong, Yong Shu Hoong, Alvin Pang and Felix Cheong, among others – have all created a lively forum for verse that challenges old assumptions about Singapore’s allegedly scant impact on readers here and abroad. Speaking of poets, what small press in South-east Asia has done more to advance their works than Singapore’s own Ethos Books, headed by Fong Hoe Fang and Chan Wai Han?

Yes, there is no perfect place, as the English statesman Thomas More wrote in his book Utopia, whose title may be translated as ‘nowhere’. Singapore has its own deficiencies too, and its citizens are only too quick to point them out.

But in leaving this small island republic, I urge Singaporeans to see, as so many expatriates see, the superiority of Singapore over so many other countries – and not only countries in South-east Asia, but around the globe. I do love America, and it will be fun going home, but I will miss Singapore, its special pleasures and my many friends here forever.

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