It does not happen very often, but in a few days the Dutch Queen Beatrix will visit a country that is smaller than her own. Singapore: the city state that surprised the world with rapid economic growth and chewing-gum free streets. The Dutch can learn a lot from it. Yet, a short ride with the MRT subway would provide the Queen with the darker side of the Singaporean Miracle. Checks& Balances takes her along.
At first sight the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system is perfect, excellent, impeccable. Beatrix would hide behind her royal gown comparing the dramatic failure of the North-South metro line in Amsterdam with the extreme efficiency of the MRT. Trains pass by every five minutes, holidays are no exception. The system connects real islands, not cannels, and forms a close network of 102 stations. Platforms are perfectly clean and safe. The public transport system is a masterpiece of the Singaporean state: a nation that was just one out of many developing countries in 1959.
What is often the problem with masterpieces, however, is the price that has to be paid for it. The Queen can afford a subway ticket and so can the local people; that is not the point. The low-priced electronic ticket system is as excellent as the rail network. Yet, the costs paid by the inhabitants of a strong state cannot all be measured in Singaporean dollars. The signs at MRT stations are the concrete consequences of the law-making of a strict regime. Smoking a cigarette: $1000 fine. Eating or drinking: $500. Carrying stinking durians with you: punishment unknown. Reading the Playboy: $1000. Forgetting to flush the toilet: $150. Weed? Death.
Whereas in Amsterdam the few signs are mostly decorative warnings – the Dutch all know that fines are rarely imposed – it is serious business in Singapore. And that is why it works. But the control of individuals by the state extends beyond the trains and platforms of the MRT. The Singaporean government says that the population voluntarily agrees with the prioritizing of collective welfare over individual freedom. There is health care, education, food, money, public transport, so what could one wish more? It might be Western jealousy or individualism, but I believe the visit can be fruitful for both. Smoke one, Beatrix.
Picture by richardtulloch.wordpress.com