“Wealth and social status matter a lot in this city. Everyone in Singapore knows this.”
– This Is What Inequality Looks Like, Teo You Yenn
Long before my home country became known for playing host to that infamous Trump-Kim summit, every self-introduction I made abroad was often followed up with “no we’re not in China”, “yes English is our first language”, “yes chewing gum is illegal”, “yes we still flog people for some crimes”. In one particularly unusual instance in a tiny student town in Ontario a bouncer had squinted suspiciously at my ID and demanded that I “speak some Singaporean” for proof of origin.
For a young nation that just celebrated its 53rd birthday this month, a well-loved and oft-used narrative is our country’s successful leap from third world to first world within a single generation. Fellow city rats that I meet abroad rave about the urban comforts and cosmopolitan luxuries that Singapore offers, without the high crime rates and dirt that often comes with dense living. Those far less attuned to a life of close proximity – country dwellers from farms or islanders from isolated archipelagoes – are often horrified when I describe how 5.8 million of us cramp in a space of 50km by 27km.
In these conversations on my travels, it always strikes me how nowhere else in the world are people so singularly defined by what they do for a living, the schools they went to, the districts in which they live, the logos on their car keys, the labels on their arm, the designers on their feet, and above all – the money that they make. While some measure of this exists in every developed society, in a city as small as ours, confined by narrow benchmarks self-imposed and self-perpetuating, the distinctions are inevitably made more stark; the greener green of the grass across the fence that much more apparent.
Yet the average visitor to Singapore would not bear witness to these harsh juxtapositions. Unlike most major cities, the ‘poor’ are kept off the streets (like skeletons carefully hidden away) and you’d be hard-pressed to spot the homeless on the spotless roads or the gleaming train stations (out of sight, out of mind?). It is our top 1% which is set to be proudly displayed on the world stage – in the upcoming blockbuster that is Crazy Rich Asians – fictional characters, but inspired by real-life Singaporeans who very much exist.