Happy Birthday, Singapore! What If.. My Parents Never Came Here?

Approaching Singapore from the air makes us realise how small our city state is

We live in a little red dot, filled with 5.7 milliom people. How small exactly? We measure only 50 km from east to west and 27 km from north to south. To put things into perspective, the state of neighbouring Johor measures 19,166km2, a whooping 26x larger than Singapore’s 728.6km2.

But it is only when you approach Singapore via plane, when you can truly appreciate how tiny our island city is. In order to land in Changi airport, the plane has to make a loop, and fly over parts of Indonesia and Johor in the process. There you can catch a glimpse of how vast our neighbors are in comparison. We see large rivers with tributaries, large swaths of undeveloped land. This is in stark contrast when the plane reaches Singapore, where every inch of available land is developed. Space in Singapore is truly scarce, and much sought after.

Uprooted in Search of Safety and a Better Life

Shops were burnt during the May 1969 racial riots in Kuala Lumpur
Cars were wrecked in Jalan Bangsar

What makes this little red dot home to so many of us? Both my parents are from Malaysia, who came to Singapore in search for a better life.

My father and his family were terribly poor. But the May 1969 racial riots in Kuala Lumpur was what precipitated the push for him to uproot himself to a foreign land. Following the 1969 General election results, riots broke out in Kuala Lumpur. Much of the violence was directed against the Chinese. He witnessed horrific violence where shops were looted and burnt, cars set on fire, and his friends killed. And so, he made the decision to sign away 10 years of his life to serve the Singapore Armed Forces, in pursuit of a better life for himself and for his future children.

One thing he tells me that always sticks in my mind is this: When my father was serving the Singapore Armed Forces, the rice in the Army was so hard, and poorly cooked. But yet, he was so happy and grateful every mealtime, simply because he knew that there would be food in his stomach.

My father served the Singapore Armed Forces as a specialist, then Officer for 10 years. He is the 2nd from the left.

My mother on the other hand, was a hard working industrious lady. She took on two jobs, and did odd ones, including door to door sales of cosmetics, and organizing Tupperware parties. 😂

My parents used to be neighbors back in Selangor. So when they serendipitously met again in Singapore, they started dating again and eventually tied the knot. 2 people, in a foreign land which was welcoming, safe, and conducive for them to start their new family.
When I was born, I hardly saw my father, who was busy with overseas deployments and had to stay in camp. We lived in a 3 room flat in Ang Mo Kio, always trying to make ends meet. My parents worked hard, and I contributed by starting to work part-time early. From a three room hdb flat, we eventually move to a bigger flat, where they still live today. 

High Cost of Living – For a Reason

I was recently stuck in a 2 hour jam in Paris, where traffic came to a standstill

In Singapore we enjoy safety, convenience, stability. But because of the lack of space, the cost of living is high. We complain about all the difficulties of living in Singapore. We complain about the high Certificate of Entitlement (COE) prices and astronomical costs of owning a car, the high property prices, the inflation. I am guilty of that as well. But I think we often need to take a step back, and understand that it isn’t easy to balance creating progress in such a small city-state, versus keeping the cost of living as affordable as it can be.

It would have been easy for the government to allow the number of vehicles to keep rising, but what would have happened? The vehicle growth rate was as high as 12% per annum between 1975 to 1990, in contrast to the current growth rate of 0.25% today. If we didn’t have a system to control the growth, that will be more and more cars as the country became more populated and affluent. We would be stuck in endless jams which would probably be worse than that of other cities like Jakarta and Paris, given our higher population density and tiny size.

The COE system is not perfect and needs to be improved. For example, the open category is a loophole which can exploited; luxury vehicles should have to pay higher COE; there should be a higher tax for owning a second vehicle and so on… However, the COE system (and ERP) has kept our roads amazingly smooth even at peak hours. It is painful for all of us, but can we think of a better solution? Probably not at this point.

Housing prices have been steadily rising, simply because of the high demand, and the lack of space to build enough residential developments to meet the demands of an increasingly affluent population. Space is simply finite in Singapore..it is a premium and a luxury. Our government knows this, and puts into place property cooling measures so that the market does not overheat. Compare and contrast this with many other countries, where they have so much land that they get to choose and pick which parcels they want to develop. The geography and situation is simply different, and it is erroneous for us to compare our housing prices to that of neighboring countries. We have no choice but to make do with the728.6km2 we have (or reclaim more land!).

What If?

Life-Long Brothers- with my section mates back in 2005, Medical Officers Cadet Corp

In the spirit of the Multiverse concept, I often wonder: What if my parents never came to Singapore? In the very unlikely event that they did get married in Selangor I was still born in a Kampung there, what would life be like?

For starters, my accent would have been different, and I will speak without Singlish additives like “la” and “leh”, and instead place them with the endearing Malaysian terms like 吧了 (ba liao), and 几够力一下 (ji gou li yi xia)。I would probably be speaking three languages (including Malay) instead of two.

I would not have served my National Service, and miss out on a one-in-a-lifetime experience in the Navy and Medical Officer Cadet Corps, and we would not have made the life-long friendships we treasure dearly.

I may not have gotten into medical school. In a different education system, anything could happen. And if I failed to enroll in a local University, it would have been impossible to study overseas with my family’s financial situation.

There would be no SOSD as we know it today, and perhaps less or none of great strides in Animal welfare in Singapore in the past decade. Even if I did take up Animal welfare work in my alternate life, it would have been very difficult to implement programs such as Trap, Neuter, Release In Muslim dominant Malaysia. And for being so open to collaborations and consultations in the animal welfare field, I’m always grateful to the Singapore government.
Most importantly, it would have been unlikely for me to enter the field of Medical Aesthetics, or spend time teaching, one of my great passions. There would be no Radium, or drsiew.com. ,the very website that you are reading now. 
Indeed, life would be vastly different for me from what it is now. It could be better or worse, but it will never be the same. We pursue our own paths in life, but the paths can only be walked when the conditions are right. Singapore happened to harbour the seeds, and provide fertile ground for me to become the person I am today, whether good or bad. And for that I am eternally grateful to Singapore, who’s so graciously gave my parents and I a place we can call Home.

Happy 57th birthday Singapore. You will always be my Home, my Motherland, my Little Red Dot. ❤️