Monday, June 20, 2011

The Two-Tier Society

The Straits Times today featured a fairly bland and benign, even banal story. It was entitled "Premium healthcare grows at a healthy pace." The full transcript is available (for now), strangely enough, at IM$avvy, a CPF companion website. I say strangely enough because the lux health screening packages described in the article are far beyond the reach of the average Singaporean, and yet, if there is one government institution all Singaporeans are acquainted intimately with, it is the CPF.

It has happened in business and banking (think private banking). It has happened with restaurants and fine dining. It has happened in the real estate market (Sentosa Cove, and too many condos to name). It has happened with entertainment venues, like our integrated resorts, and events, like Formula I. And it has happened in our healthcare as well. If the words "medical tourist hub" did not resoundingly ring in your head when you read this story, they should have.

Singapore is also home to the One Degree 15 Marina Club, Jetquay and FreePort. I could have chosen other examples, but these three resonate most with me as symbols of the excess, exclusivity, and expatriateness that define the new Singapore.

We have truly arrived as a first world city. Our level of immigration, connectedness to the global economy, our availability of goods and services, standards of quality, and costs of living, rival those of any of the global cities that Saskia Sassen describes in her work.

Unfortunately, at least for me, I am belatedly realizing that as much as I enjoy the energy associated with living in the "big city", warmth and homeyness are increasingly not what I identify with this city, Singapore, that I currently live in.

Inveighing against the wealth that comes to our shores from afar is a pointless, perhaps even foolish, exercise, given the benefits it brings to our economy.

I am not going to go into the complicated arguments that delve into whether inflation here has been driven up by foreign liquidity, or that medical tourism has indirectly caused an exodus of doctors to the private sector, or the multitudinous pernicious effects that income inequality has on measures of societal health, as detailed in The Spirit Level. That is better left to a day when my dispassionate, more analytical self, feels moved to comment.

But my quieter, more philosophical self senses the ineffable feeling that this city is increasingly being designed variously as a playground, a global bolthole, winter retreat, or Asian gateway, marketed primarily to the wealthy expatriate, and perhaps, incidentally, to the wealthy local (who may be a naturalized foreigner).

The feeling is particularly difficult to dispel when one considers the sorry state of public transportation while struggling to board a subway train at rush hour (with hordes of foreigners who are working class, of which I guess I am one too), or when one marvels at the price of government flats as they spiral ever higher out of reach, until the dream of owning a home becomes mere fantasy.

Each day I turn the pages of our increasingly irrelevant national newspaper, and my eyes glaze over the risibly fanciful names of newly launched condos in property ads, or the expensive marques that tout ever more sophisticated levels of automotive engineering and tasteful design. And I continue to wonder how relevant all this is to my life, beyond the evanescent pleasures of daydreaming that perhaps one day, I could have all this too.

Wishful thinking.

I am not overly worried about my future; not optimistic, but not worried either. I can differentiate between needs and wants, and my psychological constitution is strong enough to withstand the corrosive effects of income inequality.

Still, the feeling that Singapore is Home continues to recede. Feeling is irrational, and it defies logic and explanation. Yet there it is, and it persists in existing.

It is difficult to love a city that doesn't love you back, and that is both cold and hard. And it is not for nothing that cash is described as cold and hard. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Book List Refreshed! 09/06/2011

I have removed:

Making Sense of Life by Evelyn Fox Keller
Richistan by Robert Frank
Econned by Yves Smith
The Post-Catastrophe Economy by Eric Janszen

I have added:

Brilliant by Jane Brox
The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson
How to Disappear by Frank Ahearn and Eileen Horan
Dying of Money by Jens Parsson (Highly, highly recommended. Free downloads available in many places) 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Keep the spin cycle on, and get ready to be hung out to dry...

Today's edition of the Straits Times had the headline on the front page: "Government to review drainage after year's worst flood".

This is refreshing. The Straits Times is often deployed for spin damage control every time the government can't cover up mismanagement bad news. The rule appears to be: Cover up first. If not possible, then obfuscate, mislead and distract. And if that fails, underplay and de-emphasize. We now have a new fourth stage: pre-empt criticism and be seen to be DOING SOMETHING.

The front-page story read in an almost surreal way. Talking about review of drainage before describing the floods was putting the cart before the horse; I wasn't even aware that there had been floods yesterday before I picked up today's newspaper (I was holed up at home with a book over the weekend). The Straits Times seemed to be assuming that everyone knew about the floods before the story was printed today (not an unreasonable assumption to make in light of the digital age), but it certainly carried the faint scent of resignation of old world media.

Keep it up, nation-building press. The PAP government has your jobs, but with its continual expectation that you comply to its spin demands, the importance of those jobs will be eroded as the years roll by.

Conventional local media is already distrusted; it won’t be long before it ceases to be relevant altogether (especially when the older folks that depend on it die off). Then the SPH management will question the very need for investment into conventional media. What will follow will be smaller operating budgets, reduced headcount and dismal attempts at new media (to be repeated at X-year intervals with refreshed roadmaps / business plans).

The local print media need look no further than Mediacorpse to see the future. Diminished mindshare since fewer people tune in to free-to-air TV, diminished production values due to reduced budgets, and diminished advertising revenue due to irrelevance to consumers. Talent flight is a further result (as well as an accelerant to the crisis).

I don’t watch TV anymore, although my parents do, but it hasn’t escaped my attention that many TV ads, particularly outside primetime, are either ads about advertising on Mediacorpse or trailers for other programs. The Straits Times itself too carries its own advertisements exhorting subscriptions, as well as touting lucky draws for new subscribers. A sign of the times indeed.

I would cease reading the Straits Times if not for the fact that my family subscribes to it and it makes for convenient breakfast reading. However, I spend as little as 20 minutes reading the papers. I can often dispense with the Home Section in just 15 seconds; the Forum page is always ignored.

A few years ago, I might flip through past editions of the papers after returning from vacation. I no longer do so. In fact, now, if I do not pick up the papers at my appointed breakfast hour (usually because I have an early start that day), that day’s Straits Times edition will be left untouched, permanently. Reading the Straits Times is a function of my breakfast. It is not a goal in itself.

Even for someone like me with newspapers at home, the Straits Times no longer holds my attention. And I am just over 30. To younger Singaporeans, local newspapers are fast becoming an anachronism.

PS: Although causation is difficult to prove, one does have to wonder if road raising works along Orchard Road to deal with previous floods have shunted the problem to the Tanglin area. This could well be the flooding version of whac-a-mole.