Sunday, August 29, 2010

Singapore, August 8th – 15th

First let me just say thank you to Sherman Teichman and the Institute for Global for making this trip to Singapore possible with their generous sponsorship. The main purpose of my trip to Singapore was to investigate how this progressive city-state is implementing solutions to climate change, through sustainable urban planning, energy efficiency and using cleaner energy sources. This continues some work that I began but wasn’t able to finish for my internship at the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE) last summer: writing a case study of Singapore’s energy efficiency programs to present to Chinese mayors during JUCCCE’s Mayor Training Program. The purpose of this program is to present examples of how these mayors can implement energy efficiency and other energy planning programs in their own cities. At the same time, spending a week in a country that I believe is one of the world’s most interesting political experiments was quite eye opening. So this entry will detail both the fun things I did in Singapore, as well as some of my research findings.

Marina Sands Hotel & Casino
After spending only six days at home (which for the first time didn’t feel like nearly long enough), the prospect of returning to such a foreign place as Asia seemed a bit daunting. But as I arrived in Singapore I was greeted at the airport by the beaming face of my friend Sharmaine and her two brothers, who took me to their apartment where I would be staying for the week. As we drove across the southern end of Singapore, I got my first glimpse of Singapore’s skyline, and a close-up view of the newest building in Singapore, the Marina Sands hotel and casino. The building has three towers, with a structure that looks somewhat like a high-speed train spanning the top of all three towers. It’s definitely one of the coolest buildings I’ve seen. The rest of the skyline is dominated with modern skyscrapers, most of them financial buildings. Palm trees and other plants lined the highway. And as we drove over a bridge we could see off in the distance, across the water, one of the darker sides of Singapore: gas flares from the oil refineries.

A little background on Singapore: In just a generation, this small city state has grown from a large fishing village when it gained independence from Britain in 1965, to one of the richest, most modern nations in the world (in fact per capita income in Singapore is higher than the US). This dynamic growth has classified it as one of the “Asian Tigers,” along with South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong; four small Asian nations that have achieved rapid development since the 1960s. This small island now has a population of about six million, making it one of the most densely populated countries. The government is extremely conscious of land conservation, giving rise to some of the tallest high-rise apartments I’ve ever seen. As we drove past them, Sharmaine commented that these high rises are in fact public housing, and that some 80% of the city’s population lives in them. In contrast to the US, where mostly poor people live in public housing and there is a certain stigma associated with them, in Singapore this a very normal thing. This, more than anything, is a reflection of Singapore’s political-economic system: the country is technically a democracy, however one political party has been in power since the country’s independence and the opposition parities are very weak. The state also owns a significant chunk of the economy. On one hand, it seems that no one wants to vote the ruling party out of power because they have done such a good job developing the country into a modern state, but at the same time there are rarely any opposing candidates to vote for. So in reality the country is very authoritarian, but has a very capitalistic, free-market oriented economic system.

Sharmaine's family's condo
When we arrived at Sharmaine’s condo on the west end of the city, I fell asleep almost immediately, having gotten very little sleep for the last two nights. When I woke up around noon the next day I was greeted by a blast of heat and humidity – but also a beautiful view from the back porch of a lush palm tree garden lining the path that snaked through the condo. I was then shepherded out of the house by Sharmaine’s family to Holland Village, were we ordered breakfast/ lunch from hawker stands (the government has actually designated certain areas throughout the city for hawks so that they don’t just pop up haphazardly). That evening we also went out to dinner with Sharmaine’s extended family and friends. In fact, throughout the whole week her family was extremely generous and welcoming. Thanks for a great time, Sharm J

The next day, August 9th, was Singapore’s National/ Independence Day (also my mom’s birthday). I was lucky enough that my friend Dilys was able to get us tickets to the national day parade (a fact I was reminded of several times by Sharmaine and the other Singaporeans I met who had never attended the national day parade before).

I’ve never seen a more elaborate display of nationalism.

What I thought was just going to be a simple parade was actually an elaborate five-hour performance including pop stars, choirs, dancers, light shows, a military display, fly-overs, parapenters and fireworks. Around 4:00pm we gathered in a 30,000 person temporary stadium that had been constructed in the heart of the city near the old parliament building. The show began with four MC’s riding in on motorbikes and leading some activities to get the crowd fired up. A choir composed of high school students from across the city sang some national day songs, as did a Singaporean pop star Kit Chan. As the songs were sung, I learned that a new pop song is composed every year for national day. Then the real show began.

The parade began with a series of fly-overs by Singapore’s most high tech military aircrafts. From above the clouds, a group of parapenters jumped from airplanes and circled high above the crowd, with smoke tailing from their shoes, which held small thrusters to allow them to propel through the sky. They landed in the middle of the stadium one by one as the MC’s described their experience and commitment to national service. Then in the distance we spotted a formation of five jets flying toward the center of the city. As they flew low over the stadium we were suddenly struck by the rumbling sound and felt the intense vibrations from their engines. Just as they flew overhead they suddenly twisted in the air split off in different directions, as the MCs described with great enthusiasm the impressive capabilities of these aircrafts. After the flyover, a dozen military companies paraded out into the center of the stadium and stood in formation facing the Parliament building. The Prime Minister had arrived by this point, and he gave the command for the leading officer to march the troops off down the street to start the parade. As the soldiers left, dozens of Singapore’s most high tech tanks and other military vehicles began parading down the street in front of the parliament building. Seeing these modern war machines set against the backdrop of Singapore’s financial district, created a really strong image of wealth and power. As dusk turned into night (we’d already been there for three or four hours), performers and glowing floats paraded out into the stadium and gave several performances that reminded me of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. At the finale of each performance, fireworks would erupt from all four corners of the stadium and from the tops of all the major skyscrapers in the city, with the largest display over Marina bay, which sits at the heart of the city near the financial district.

Foreign spectators might think from this display that Singapore is an aggressively nationalistic country, but in fact the military display was mainly to deter Singapore’s unfriendly neighbors, aka the much larger countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore’s government is in fact very peaceful, commerce and free market oriented. But every country that grows wealthy will have jealous enemies, especially if those countries are poorer – and much larger.

I spent the rest of the week between research meetings visiting various parts of the city such as Singapore’s many parks, Little India (very much like real India, except cleaner and more orderly) and the Marina Barrage (I’ll explain this really cool concept in the next entry). Sharmaine also took me to see a Mandarin Chinese musical called December Rains, or 雨节 (the direct translation is really “rainy season”), the first of its kind produced in Singapore, and on Saturday evening we went out clubbing. I’d like to detail each of these experiences, but in the interest of not going on forever, if you want to learn more about them we’ll just have to talk in person. Overall it was a great week and I only wish I could have spent more time there, but I’m sure I’ll be back soon.

Also, you can see more pictures from my trip to Singapore here

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