I can’t imagine there’s a much more dramatic juxtaposition of cultures than the one we created by flying directly from Delhi to Singapore. If India was like the summer camp with pre-teens running in crazed passion every which way, Singapore was the marching band practice three fields over. Nik and I brought with us from Delhi a flu, a parasite , no cash, and pounding heads, so it was nice to catch our breath in such a perfectly functioning city. And then it was nice to move onto somewhere a bit more interesting after a couple days.
Singapore is order. Trains run on time and traffic flows freely. There is no jay-walking nor litter (including gum). Restaurants are clean and prices strict (it was so strange to not bargain). Crime is rare and scandalous, with criminals punished harshly. A tiny island country, Singapore is built to squeeze every ounce of potential out of its people through an incredibly demanding, effective and conformist education system.
We were there a few days after the 6th grade placement test, when the country’s 13-year-olds take a test that largely dictates their career track. Fathers routinely take that year off to help their kids prepare for the test full time. There was apparently scandal this year, as a subway was running a couple minutes late and forced some kids to scramble to make the test on time. This day - the day of a 6th grade standardized test - is apparently the biggest day of the year to Singapore.
With the focus on education comes results. 98% of students pass, with 64% tracking towards University level. For comparison, the US is ~37%. After this test students are tracked towards careers that match their performance. The top students have costs covered to study at top international universities. Lower performing students are prepared for careers to make a living. Tracking has plenty of downsides, both practically and ethically, but the results and efficiency are clear and Singapore does a number of things to help keep the tracking from leading to runaway inequality. A country-wide mandatory service requirement does a decent job ensuring people from all backgrounds interact, and civil service positions are highly paid (benchmarked to the private sector equivalent) so there’s strong incentive to serve the public. And the education system is relatively adept at helping late bloomers move up and realize their potential given their particular strengths - a developmental pediatrician I talked with has a patient who’s autistic and was failing many classes, but ended up in a top magnet school that plays to his strength in mathematics.
Such high demands and a systematized approach do lead to a very conformist culture. This can be seen in small daily quirks - the neat queues formed at every subway station, the ubiquity of brand-name shopping - and also crops up in important ways in the culture and economy. While a small startup scene is starting to emerge, Singaporeans seem to be much more adept in the corporate world, exceeding expectations at a defined roles rather than creating something from nothing. That’s one hypothesis I heard from for the international openness of Singapore: the desire for foreigners to bring creativity, originality and entrepreneurship to the city-state that the more high-achieving but conformist locals can add to.
Experiencing the function and conformity as a traveler made me start to think about what and where I’m most enjoying about travel. When I’m living in one place I like cities with lots to do and explore, but with some dependability to live my life somewhat chaos-free. But traveling, I want the opposite. Cities often are too overwhelming to really see in a few days; smaller areas I feel like I can get to know more completely. And I like some chaos when I’m on the road - it’s what makes places interesting, different and memorable. Of course, those thoughts tempted fate a bit too much since I got my bag stolen in Malaysia the very night I left Singapore...