I visited Singapore immediately after Brunei, and though the two have many obvious differences, I think the comparison is worth making. Both are tiny nations in Southeast Asia, each sharing a border with only Malaysia and the sea. Both are extremely wealthy and well-developed (the UN human development index lists Singapore and Brunei as first and second in the region). Both found the origin of their wealth in a unique geographical feature: Brunei its rich oil deposits, and Singapore its deep harbors and strategic position on the trade route between East Asia and South Asia / the Middle East. Both have strict, almost authoritarian governments, tolerated due to a cultural preference for collective harmony over individual liberties.
But that’s where the similarities end. Though they’re both physically tiny, Singapore’s 5.6 million residents outnumber Brunei’s 10-to-1. Where Brunei has a hereditary sultanate, Singapore has an elite planning committee full of the island nation’s best and brightest. Where Brunei is an Islamic theocracy, Singapore holds ethnic and religious diversity as one of its greatest strengths. And while oil and gas still account for 90% of Brunei’s GDP, modern Singapore boasts a remarkably broad economy including shipping, finance, oil refining, manufacturing and tech.
Ok enough economics, let’s talk impressions.
Singapore is awesome.
It’s sparkling clean. The streets are spotless, the sidewalks well-maintained, I don’t think I saw a single building that needed work. This is the only city in Southeast Asia where you can drink the water out of the tap.
The architecture is inspiring. They call it a “city in a garden”, and there’s greenery everywhere. The different neighborhoods are interesting and distinctive, each bringing something unique to the city.
Singapore is also possibly the best planned and best funded place I have ever been. The city revolves around its residents, organizing them, empowering them, and keeping them safe. Every detail of the built environment seems carefully considered, deliberately chosen to serve a need in harmony with its neighbors. This is a city that’s not afraid to dream big, and clearly doesn’t have qualms about paying taxes. They also know how to do maintenance, keeping the infrastructure in good shape long after its initial construction.
And the food – oh, the food! Hawker centers full of incredible bites. Coffee shops, patisseries, the best egg tarts and curry puffs I’ve ever had. Restaurants for any budget, cheap local bars and exclusive cocktail lounges with no menus. You could do nothing but eat here for a month and never get bored.
It’s not without its problems, of course. Singapore is quite expensive, on par with other top tier cities like New York and London. This is especially apparent when compared to other places in the region – you could probably get a whole keg of Saigon beer for the price of a single Singapore Sling. The government has absolutely no tolerance for rule breakers (caning is still a thing), and Singapore has the biggest prison in Southeast Asia. The role and rights of immigrant laborers is another point of contention, and I’m sure a local could point out a dozen other issues that I missed entirely.
Yet the Singapore model clearly works. The city is beautiful, functional and clean. Its citizens are wealthy, healthy and happy. Its companies are powerful, and it’s economy is robust and steadily growing. From the outside, it seems the kind of place where if you work hard and follow the rules you’ll be well taken care of. It makes sense to me that the ruling party has won 60-70% of the votes in every election since they became independent in 1965 – what they’re doing works, and Singaporeans clearly agree.
I could totally see spending a few months here as a digital nomad, or even taking a job for a Singaporean firm and settling down. The city is absolutely a must-visit if you’re in the region.
Just make sure you budget for it.