By Saiful Saleem –
Sitting in a small café in the Marais district of Paris, watching an interesting mix of tourists and locals pass by under the bright May sun, I begin to reflect. Only I am not quite sure what I am reflecting on. I keep staring out into the passing crowd, putting on a look I only hope could be described as pensive. So I sit there pensively watching people. The locals are marching forward purposefully, erect and elegant, while the tourists stumble forward looking clueless and conspicuous in their khaki pants, colorful shirts and obscene hats.
Well I guess I am still reflecting, sipping that café au lait pretentiously. I began to wonder what I am doing in Paris in the first place. How is it that I have spent almost half a year here? Well the answer to that is quite simple. I am on exchange from my university in the United States. But that's a very dry answer. A very technical one. And I am not a very technical person. The real answer is that I was driven to live in Paris and to absorb and understand the intricacies of the elegant French language, the immense history and architecture of the city and the culture.
I take another sip and realize with a heavy heart that I leave Paris in two days. There is no doubt that I will miss this city considerably. People often have the mistaken impression that Parisians are rude, proud creatures. But in this city I have seen some of the most charming, polite and intellectual people I have known in my life. Make no mistakes, they are proud people but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I will miss Paris the way I miss my homeland, Singapore, when I am away from her. But the things that I will miss about Paris are things that I could unfortunately never associate with Singapore.
I finish what's left of my coffee. The sun slowly begins to set and words and phrases like freedom, joie de vivre, democracy and intellectual participation fill my mind. These are the things I will miss about Paris. I will miss seeing little speaker's corners pop up every here and there without the need for a permit. I will miss seeing teenagers and adults all taking part in democracy. I will miss reading headlines like Sarkozy: Un president perdu (Sarkozy: A lost president). I will miss the numerous newspapers and media outlets that are not afraid to dig deep and deliver real news and perspectives without fear of political repression. The extreme right might be gaining more support these days in Europe but in Paris, there is still a prevalent sense of open-mindedness and acceptance of diversity. I will miss that. And it is for all these reasons that I will miss Paris.
The waiter begins to look at me strangely, the man who has been sitting in his café for the past few hours nursing one solitary cup of coffee while pensively watching the world pass by. Well at least I hope he thought me pensive. That was after all the look I was going for.
I ignore the waiter and recollect my thoughts, while skillfully concealing my empty cup from his line of vision. I realize that it will be the very absence of the factors that will make me miss Paris, that will unfortunately eventually make me resent Singapore as I spend more time there. That is the story of my life. Missing Singapore when I am abroad, but resenting her when I am faced with the country's lack of freedoms, prevalent prejudices and restrictive political arena. And I know for a fact that I am not the only young Singaporean to feel this way.
I miss the smell of mornings in Singapore. I miss the Singaporean sun that can be both gentle and brutal. I miss the unique sounds that can be heard on the streets. The soothingly familiar mix of languages and dialects, the joyful singlish, the annoying but somehow engaging honking of cars in their ultimately futile battle for space on the island's tight roads. Most of all, like every other Singaporean abroad, I miss the food. But what I don't miss is the tight grip the government holds on man, woman and child. I don't miss living in a country run like a soulless corporation.
To most outsiders, and unfortunately many uninformed insiders, Singapore seems to be one of the success stories of Asia, being a former British colony that gained full independence in 1965 and going from developing nation to becoming a highly urbanized global business hub that boasts a highly advanced economy. Singapore possesses the world's 10th largest foreign reserves, while consistently coming top in various global rankings such as being the most innovative economy, having the freest economy, being the least corrupt economy and being the most business friendly. Undoubtedly, a success story for the books! Or so it seems until further inspection. We should never forget that the success of a society is not just based on wealth. If that were so, then Saudi Arabia would be a model nation. But like Singapore, she is not.
Singaporeans live in a society where, each year, the Prime Minister and his ministers receive million dollar paychecks well above the global average. More than Obama gets in any case. To put this into perspective, the average Singaporean struggles to earn $24,000 each year. At the same time, the income divide has been increasing steadily in recent times. It is the poorest of the poor who suffer the most in Singapore. While increasing their own salaries is usually a painless and quick affair for the parliament, it takes seemingly huge effort and debate to even attempt to increase public assistance (PA). According to Dr. Lily Neo (MP for Jalan Besar), her constituents told her that in order to live on the then $260 PA allowance, they had to skip meals each day in order to survive. In 2007, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) announced a $30 increase to the PA allowance which meant that PA allowance recipients would receive $1 more each day. Considering that the average monthly rent for a rental flat was roughly $150, and that transportation and food prices are not exactly very cheap, this $1 per day increase was highly insufficient. In fact, it was an insult. It was yet another governmental slap in the face.
Many Singaporeans are not happy that their representatives in government are being paid million dollar salaries, far above the international average, while there are a number of Singaporeans who are struggling on a day to day basis with little help from the government. Minister Mentor (MM) Lee Kuan Yew has however come to the defense of his government's huge salary. He claims that the massive salaries have prevented corruption in the government. While he might have a point, one could look at their salaries as a form of internalized and legalized corruption. Also, do we want people who are driven by money to run this country, or do we want truly passionate and committed people who serve the nation simply because they want the best for the country?
But what's worse is that the whole political game in Singapore is a farce. And yes, I am well aware that there are elections and that people do end up voting for the ruling party. But before anyone points to that as proof of democracy, let us not forget the details. Let us not forget how every mainstream media outlet is in some way connected to someone in the ruling party. Let us not forget how the media continues to impose a virtual blackout on alternative parties and ideas. Let us not forget the GRC system which is effectively gerrymandering and puts every alternative party at a huge disadvantage. Let us not forget that there is no real freedom of speech in this country. Brave men like Chee Soon Juan and the late J.B. Jeyaratnam who have paid the price for exercising their right to speak up as citizens of Singapore can attest to this. There is no real democracy in Singapore because the conditions for it do not exist. Democracy is not just going to the polls. Democracy is the way a society is run. And Singapore is not run democratically.
And so while I admit that I miss my country at the moment, while sitting here in this Parisian café avoiding the strange looks the waiter occasionally throws my way, I realize that I will resent her when I am there. And this is how things will be for as long as my homeland is run by soulless individuals who care less about their people than they care about the bottom line. And with that sobering thought running through my mind, I motion for the bill as the waiter walks over with that it's-about-time look that I have come to know so well.