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The Singapore that’s great for everyone, except Singaporeans – Part 1 of 2

by: Eugenie Yeo/

I start off by saying that I’ve always been a proud Singaporean. Perhaps more so after a 7 year stint in Australia, where whilst I grew to love the quality of life that the country allowed me; I gravitated towards the pragmatic sensibilities that Singapore stood for.

I gave up my Australian PR to return to Singapore, because in my trips back here I found that the comforts of accessibility and efficiencies; as well as the genuine intent to cultivate a more vibrant cultural landscape, very promising for an eager, wide-eyed 20-something.

In the first years I was back in Singapore, I found myself becoming an evangelist.

Friends both local and from overseas were often subject to my ravings about how everything just worked here. When people were dismissive and negative about life here, I always rebutted with the same argument based on the following tenets:

  1. An excellent education system – particularly for the foundation years. We worked hard without remembering that we did; we had time for hop scotch and zero-point; and extra-curricular activities that weren’t forced upon us. And when we got to uni (overseas), we were well-prepared for the step up in education, and were generally well-adjusted due to the exposure we received.
  2. Things magically just work. Public transport worked like a wonder; buses were comfortable, trains efficient, cabs in abundance and very affordable. And we didn’t have to deal with crippling traffic congestions on a daily basis. Chores that would have otherwise taken a mind-numbing amount of effort and time – like registering a business, renewing a passport, clearing immigration – were a breeze. I heaved a huge sigh of relief each time I walked towards the immigration checkpoints at the Changi because this experience to me, represented exactly why Singapore got it so right. Things like that didn’t have to be difficult or tedious.
  3. A place is only as boring as the people make it. Too often had I heard Singaporeans (and expats alike) whinge about how little there was to do in Singapore. Well, I found great joy in walks down Arab Street and Chinatown, photography excursions to old HDB estates and Tekka market, big cookouts at home with produce from Tiong Bahru. Run out of options? A short plane ride and you’d be on a (real) beach sipping pina coladas.
  4. Affordability. Apart from cars (which I thought had good reason to be priced exorbitantly because it prevented the massive congestions that plague so many other cities from Bangkok to Seoul to New York) – most of our basic needs could be satisfied reasonably. Public housing made sure that the general population of Singapore had affordable homes, public healthcare was fair and accessible, food (supplies & dining out) was hardly cause for concern.

In a nutshell, Singapore got all the basics down pat. There was little to complain about and hence little to distract you from going forth to pursue the important things in life.

It’s been 7 years since I’ve relocated to Singapore. In the past year, I’ve noticed a drastic change in the Singapore I came back to. Apart from Pt 3 above, I’ve had to retract everything else I’d so fervently preached before about life here. And here’s why:

Education – I’ve witnessed my own nephew and niece being ridiculed by teachers (we’re talking about reputable schools) and let down by the system. Both of them were diagnosed with dyslexia – and despite early detection and submissions of psychologist reports, educators had not accepted their disability, and instead isolated them and ostracised them publicly.

In an extreme case, a teacher had reprimanded my sister for subjecting her young child through a psychologist’s test. Any self-respecting educator would know that it’s far more effective to detect learning problems early in order to put in place coping measures.

This still brings tears to my eyes because I saw the sheet-white look of terror on my nephew’s face the night before a Chinese test – because he knew that he’d flunk it and be humiliated in class. I cannot hold in any regard a system that has failed kids so young –that we boast of being an education hub yet have educators that do not know how to deal with different learning needs.

The basic efficiencies in life – are no longer so efficient.

We experience, read and hear of countless complains about the laughable situation on public transport; or the frustrating cab shortage during peak hours.

I waited 90 minutes for a taxi in the city area one evening – I must have called the Comfort booking line 100 times; only to be told 2 things: use the iphone application to book, and that there were no taxis in my area. I saw slews of vacant cabs driving past, ignoring the desperate waves from lines of tired workers. The iphone app miraculously fails each time I try during peak hour. In the past 4 weeks I’ve had to wait more than 30 minutes for a taxi, almost wrestling down others like me who’ve cleverly decided to walk ahead of me to get an advantage.

Affordability – I am part of the unfortunate sandwich class. This is a huge point.

Housing: My partner and I have combined salaries exceeding the pre-historic cap of $8,000, and we’ve been looking for a home to start a family that would meet our budgets for a year now. Resale flats have become exorbitant (really? $800,000 is affordable public housing? Who are you kidding?), not to mention the jaw-dropping Cash-Over-Valuations (COV) that owners are demanding (average of $50,000, said one estate agent).

Which young couple is going to have cash for the 10% down payment + COV just lying around in their bank accounts? Do we not think there’s a fundamental flaw in a public housing system that’s pricing out majority of the people they were made for?

I understand the need to be competitive and keep prices subject to market forces but when those forces compromise a nation’s reach for something as fundamental as shelter, the model needs to be overhauled. Can we not explore a tiered system in public housing to ensure that the folks who are in need get properly subsidized housing? Is it not right to favour Singaporeans over non-Singaporeans; simply because this is public housing, meant for Singaporeans?

Healthcare: Whilst public healthcare remains relatively attainable, the quality is shoddy and apathetic. When my late aunt was hospitalised at SGH for a long bout of stomach flu, it took almost 3 weeks for doctors to find out/ tell us that she had stage 4 colon cancer. They first said she had a kidney stone, then liver infection, then liver cancer, then stage 4 liver-colon cancer. In a span of 3 weeks we were taken through all phases of the emotional rapids.

When we desperately reached out for medical advice and guidance, we were simply told that the doctors would do their rounds the next day and we should just stick around to try to catch them. If we were lucky, we caught them for 5 minutes. Usually we just had to come back the next day and wait again.

I truly felt as though we were being punished for not being able to afford private healthcare and hence only worthy of sub-standard, minimal attention. We had a loved one dying, and yet, we were reeling from being snubbed by the system.

In recent months I’ve read loads about xenophobic opinions towards foreign talent in Singapore. I have a particularly strong view about this – because I once was in the same shoes when I moved to Australia to study and work.

At that time, there was plenty of public resentment against international students and immigrants because of the perceived competition they brought to the locals. Then, I felt that the Australians just needed to grow the hell up and stop whining.

I have no issues with the government’s plans to target a population of 6 million (we know there’s no way that’s coming from increased birth-rates given most of us of marrying age can’t even afford a home, let alone think about making babies). I even think that some competition is healthy for a nation that at times has become obnoxious, complacent, and spoilt.

But the issue is that we haven’t yet developed the infrastructure to support this influx of people. Clearly, Singaporeans are bearing the brunt of sky rocketing home prices, over-crowded public transport and spaces, and lack of proper assimilation of immigrant communities. We boast of top-tier healthcare and education yet the regular Singaporean encounters something quite different.

In other words, the very things that Singapore once stood for, no longer stand.

And sadly, the Singapore I once fought hard and fervently for, no longer exists.