The Strategic Retreat

Struggle in the Lion City: Geography

ripping into chest lego singapore artscience museum

Singapore can be a miserable place. It can also be a wonderful place. I love Singapore; the food, the blending of cultures, the people, the layout, the ambition and the history of rapid success. But for my present project I’m going to focus on the misery, or more accurately; on the struggle. One thing Singapore struggles with is a lack of free press and free speech. I’m neither beholden to those restrictions or the soft censorship of neighborhood opinion. What I say may, and probably will, offend but that’s not my primary intention. My intention is to be honest, as best I can, and not to let worries of offense pervert the truth. My goal is not to disparage Singapore but to better understand and convey the struggles faced in being Singaporean, as seen through the lens of an outsider. It may not be my place to do so, but I’m going to do it anyway. We’ll see what happens.

Singapore is a diverse place of sundry people whose misery can be found in various forms, from the struggle of poverty to the emptiness of unfocused abundance. Different groups and different people have their own struggles, some shared and some unique. The misery felt by a gay Muslim is going to be different than the misery felt by a censored artist. Although many struggles of being Singaporean are shared, some are unique in time and circumstance. There are hardships I’ve been directly exposed to and there are those I’m only vaguely aware of. I’m not going to pretend to know all the difficulties faced by Singaporeans, they would be too vast and nuanced for me to even feign an understanding of. What I will do is discuss some overall conditions that seem to negatively affect most Singaporeans. Due to the complexity of the issue I will write about one facet in each post, starting by addressing broad circumstances that impact the society overall and then delving in to specific struggles of smaller groups. This will probably be spread out over a number of months and will be interspersed with recipes, travel stories and inane lists.

My original plan of a few days ago, to just sit down and write the definitive paper on Singaporean misery, was both overly ambitious and a bit foolhardy. I feel a bit like Ludwig Wittgenstein in his writing Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in how overly simplified the task was in my mind and how incomplete it came out on paper. You know, except that I’m a touch less weird and a punch less smart than ol Ludwig. Unfortunately, not everything can be summed up succinctly and easily by every outsider with an over abundance of hubris and free time. He didn’t define philosophy and I won’t define Singapore but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be gained in the effort.

For this post I’ll focus on Geography, specifically on how the location of Singapore can cause distress for its people. Admittedly, it’s not the most conceptual or riveting topic but it should give a proper foundation for me to build upon in later articles. A strong basis in reality will help to keep me on track as I move forward with less concrete topics in later posts.

lego world from artscience museum singapore


The location of Singapore is a mixed bag. I fully realize that being located on the busiest shipping lane in the world and having the busiest port is mostly a good thing. But this is not; “Singapore: A fair and balanced look at the good and bad”. No, I’m addressing struggle and misery. So when I bring up a subtopic and only seem to address the negatives; that’s why. It’s not that I hate Singapore or I’m trying to only see the bad, I’m just focusing on the topic at hand. Singapore’s wealth and prosperity are well known, I wish to look at the situation from a different angle.

Singapore is located between Malaysia and Indonesia. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation and Malaysia is the country that forced Singapore to become a country, against its own will. Singapore is completely surrounded by larger, and much poorer, countries that have different goals and values than Singapore. This creates a number of issues.

protected place singapore

National Service

Singapore is a stone’s throw from a population of 250M and across the bridge from a population of 30M. Singapore has over 4 times the per capita GDP of Malaysia and 10 times that of Indonesia. If Singapore were a person he’d be sitting on a pot of gold in a fortified nail house in the middle of the projects. Because of this, Singapore spends a grip of cash keeping up a modern military and has forced conscription, called National Service. National Service can definitely be a negative in the lives of Singaporeans.

National service forces young Singaporean men to serve the government for 22-24 months, at low pay. Upon completion of Poly or JC, Singaporeans who would otherwise begin their careers or university are instead conscripted. This typically happens at 19 or 20 but can happen as early as 16 and a half if the conscript chooses.

Although survey results can conflict on this, many Singaporean males would not partake in NS if not compulsory. It’s a burden that falls only on Singaporean men and hurts career prospects. Obvious inequality in laws and obligations can naturally lead to discontentment amongst some of those whom the burden is put upon. Those failing to serve are jailed, with many Jehovah’s Witnesses being sentenced to 39 month jail terms when refusing to serve for conscientious objector reasons.

In addition to the 2 years of service, boys 13 and older need official permission to travel outside the country for periods over 3 months. For periods of 2 years or more, for ages 13-16.5, and 3 months or more, for boys older than 16.5, a bond of 50% of the parent’s annual income must be secured before the boy is allowed to leave Singapore.

During National Service the conscripted men of Singapore receive little pay, starting at only $S480 a month whilst the women of Singapore are free to pursue their education or take on higher paying work. The unemployment rate in Singapore is under 2%, it is not difficult to get a better paying job than NS.

Not everyone is opposed to NS, many see it as a responsibility to their country and a reasonable sacrifice to make. Still, the fact that the geographical realities of Singapore force half of its citizens to give up 2 years of life is not a universally loved circumstance.

urban fishing in Singapore

Food and Water

Singapore doesn’t have enough water. Despite having 17 reservoirs and a desalination plant there isn’t enough to give over 5 million people their fill of that sweet sweet dihydrogen monoxide. Singapore gets nearly half its water from Malaysia, Singapore then treats that water and sends some of the clean stuff back to Malaysia. This has caused tension as there is disagreement on both sides over the cost of the untreated and treated water. Not having control over water, the most essential element for life, can be distressing. This is especially true when an overbearing neighbor tries to use that water to inflict political pressure. Singapore doesn’t have the water or the food needed to sustain its citizens unless shipped in from the outside world.

Although closing in on self sufficiency when it comes to water it appears impossible that Singapore will ever be self-sufficient when it comes to food. That’s not a strange circumstance when it comes to a large city but offers added challenges and risk for a city-state. Singapore imports over 90% of its food, which puts it in a tenuous situation when it comes to ensuring its citizens are fed.

Haze in Singapore


Not only are food and water supplies a concern but air quality is also controlled by those outside of Singapore. In Singapore the occasional smoked filled skies are refereed to as “haze”. It’s accurate enough but seems to downplay the choking clouds of soot wafting in from Sumatra. Due to Singapore’s location and lack of bargaining power, Singapore experiences periods of haze which can last for weeks. The haze can be terrible. You can smell it indoors, even if you can afford to keep the windows shut and the air conditioning on. The buildings become dirty with soot, visibility becomes difficult, masks must be worn when outdoors, eyes water and there is no reprieve. There is nowhere in the country you can go to avoid the haze. You just have to deal with it. Singapore can’t stop Indonesia and Malaysia from burning peat fields, it just doesn’t have the clout. Instead the citizens have to breathe in smoke until the surrounding bully countries decide they’ve burned enough.

Here we are. We haven’t much touched on politics, culture, laws, health, religion or economics. Without any of those coming into play, we’re on a small island with limited internal ability to provide sufficient food, water or clean air to its residents. Regardless of your personal wealth, you will be drinking Malaysian water, eating Australian meat, breathing Indonesian soot and your boys will spend 2 years of their lives in forced military service, and that’s if everything goes as planned. Those are the default struggles of Singapore, before anything else is added.

About Jeff

Jeff was born in the back of a War Game Store on the day the first Star Trek movie came out, to a computer programmer mother and a father who wrote the story for Dragon's Lair. Jeff has an MBA, a CSM, and a penchant for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.