Society: A dime a dozen

Singapore, a city of about 6m people, now has more millionaires than London, a city of over 9.5m. This was one of many stark findings in a new report on the world’s wealthiest cities by Henley & Partners, an investment migration consultant. Singapore’s millionaire population rose 64 percent from 2013 to 2023. There are now 244,800 people here with liquid investable wealth of at least US$1m (S$1.36m); 336 “centi-millionaires” with at least US$100m (S$136m); and 30 billionaires with at least US$1bn (S$1.36bn). These segments would be far bigger if measured in Singapore dollars. Henley & Partners said that Singapore, “with its business-friendly policies and strategic location”, is one of the world’s top destinations for migrating millionaires, and the world’s fastest-growing family office hub. Some 3,400 high-net-worth individuals moved here last year.

During the two-decade tenure of Lee Hsien Loong, outgoing prime minister, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has created a global city where the world’s rich can live in peace and luxury. Its efforts to raise the living standards of poorer Singaporeans have been far less successful. Some 30 percent of working households earn less than the amount required to meet basic needs, according to the Minimum Income Standard (MIS) 2023 report, produced by Nanyang Technological University and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. (The government disagreed with their delineation of “needs” versus “wants”.) In 2022, meanwhile, there were over 1,000 homeless people in town. At last week’s Labour Day Rally, some 600 people, from doctors to delivery riders, made clear their dissatisfaction with oppressive labour practices.

Perhaps most objectionable, for a “Smart Nation” that claims to prize facts and analytical rigour, we don’t measure inequality accurately. For income inequality, we use a uniquely Singaporean version of the Gini coefficient—leaving out some incomes at the top and bottom—to present a society more equal than it actually is. This also leads to a flawed comparison with other countries. And wealth inequality? Singapore doesn’t even bother measuring it: “difficult to track comprehensively,” said Lawrence Wong, incoming prime minister. Singapore wants to attract the world’s billionaires—but is scared to then look in the mirror. Though Wong has introduced minimal wealth taxes, and appears focused on tackling inequality—as do some richer Singaporeans—it’s unclear how far he’ll get. PAP politicians have long glorified cheap food and other aspects of life in what’s sometimes called “a first-world country with a third-world wage structure”. For many of the plutocrats living here, including Karl Liew and members of the “Fujian gang”, inequality might be a feature, not a flaw. Our “business-friendly policies” allow them to reduce their global tax bill; while our drastically unequal wage structure allows them to offer scraps to domestic workers, hawkers, nurses, and many others. “Meritocracy” and “trickle-down economics” provide the intellectual ballast to soothe their souls, to comfort their class angst. What’s not to like?

Society: See you again, Thambi?

For decades, visitors to Holland Village would be greeted by Thambi Magazine Store, a family-owned shop run by Periathambi “Sam” Senthilmurugan. Thambi’s offerings were joyfully varied—from hard nosed current affairs periodicals to comics, gaming mags and more arcane ones covering design and the arts—and enticingly displayed along a public walkway that stretched far from the shop unit. “If you know how to display, it’s a beautiful art,” Sam told CNA. The wares were usually unwrapped—Sam understood the intimacy between a magazine and its reader. Customers could just mill around under the awning on the walkway, flipping through glossy pages as Holland Village hummed in the background. It was a casual, cosy affair. And always, there was Sam, manning the counter or hovering around, ready with recommendations. Once you were drawn into Thambi’s old-world charm, chances were you wouldn’t emerge without a purchase or two. 

No more. Sam was asked, he did not say by whom, to halve the store’s display area. Unwilling to compromise on his art, Sam tearfully closed it down for good on May 5th. The news of this 80-year-old institution spanning three generations vanishing elicited an emotional outpouring. One Redditor fondly recalled how Sam once gave him a book he couldn’t afford. “We keep losing a lot of our culture and heritage due to modernisation everyday,” bemoaned another.

Sam has been offered rehoming options in Orchard and Changi, but to transplant Thambi Magazine Store to a mall or next to a WHSmith would be to fillet it of its very essence. More encouragingly, Chan Chun Sing, minister of education, announced on Facebook that he was assisting Sam in sourcing alternative locations in the same neighbourhood. As it stands, the shuttering of Thambi Magazine Store continues Holland Village’s degradation into yet another cookie-cutter commercial space. The iconic windmill is long gone, of course, as are many of its other beloved spaces, as Zachary Hourihane captured so evocatively in an essay for Jom last year. There are new malls though, and a newer condo. For a semblance of anchoring in an ever-changing city, for a world of print fast disappearing from our shores and for the sake of plain old nostalgia: Thirumbi Vanga, Thambi. 

Society: Pedalling into the sunset

It would seem that the fabled trishaw has taken its final ride on our streets. Last month, CNA reported that the last remaining licensed operator—Trishaw Uncle—had not conducted any tours since last June. On Sunday, the Singapore Tourism Board confirmed that the decision to not renew the Albert Mall parking space lease for the operator’s vehicles was connected to the ongoing construction of the North-South Corridor. Some may decry this as yet another instance of heritage sacrificed for development. Yet, there was something deeply discomfiting about the sight of mostly middle-aged or older pedallers taking tourists out for a lark in the Singapore sun. Particularly when one considers the conditions in which trishaw riders and their predecessors, rickshaw pullers, lived while greasing the wheels of both the pre and post-colonial Singaporean economy. 

In Rickshaw Coolie: A People’s History of Singapore (1880–1940), James F Warren wrote that by the 1920s, basic necessities like “accommodation, rice, and staples such as salted vegetables and cooking oil were almost beyond their means.” They lived in “filthy overcrowded tenements” in which each “had only a wooden bunk, or a bit of space on the floor; the rooms were extremely stark—dark, poorly ventilated, and unhygienic.” Tuberculosis and other deadly infectious diseases were common. Harking to a later era, the filmmaker P Ramlee depicted society’s deep iniquities in his 1955 classic “Penarek Becha(Trishaw Man). A love story between a trishaw rider and a merchant heiress, “Penarek Becha” does a wonderful job of capturing the socio-cultural milieu as well as the conditions in which these labourers worked.

In other parts of the world, most notably on the sub-continent, battery-operated trishaws are gradually taking over but mechanical trishaw riders remain a fairly common sight, battling pollution and disease to eke out a meagre living. Naturally, one hopes that the 20 riders employed by Trishaw Uncle landed on their feet. However, given this troubling historical and contemporary backdrop, perhaps there are better ways to remember the nameless thousands who toiled on our roads than through tacky rides for tourists. Converting a part of the erstwhile Jinrikisha Station on Neil Road—a heritage building owned by movie star Jackie Chan—into a public memorial or museum would be a good start.

Society: Honk! if you see a bad driver

Some 40 years separated them but it took one reckless driver to bring their lives to a horrific end. Last month, a multi-vehicle collision at a Tampines road junction killed a 17-year-old student and a 57-year-old, and injured six others. The senseless violence sent shockwaves across Singapore. Anger and sadness at the tragic loss of life led to an outpouring of tributes and condolences to the families of the deceased. In Parliament on May 7th, Amy Khor, senior minister of state for transport, noted that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) did not receive feedback on safety issues at the Tampines junction before the crash, and that it had been designed according to international safety standards. The fatal accident also brought up questions of road safety. Eight members of Parliament (MPs) filed questions about whether existing penalties were sufficient to deter dangerous driving, including three who asked if the Road Traffic Act needed to be reviewed. “What the laws provide today are already quite stiff,” replied Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, minister of state for home affairs, noting that the Ministry of Home Affairs had stiffened penalties significantly in 2019, while it also regularly reviews different aspects of the framework. “In this context, we have been studying the adequacy of composition amounts and the demerit points framework,” he added. 

The number of accidents resulting in death rose from 117 in 2019 to 131 last year. The top causes of fatal accidents were drivers’ failures to keep a proper lookout and to adequately control their vehicles. The police investigated an average of 29 per year as speeding-related; and an average three per year under the offence of reckless or dangerous driving causing death. Drivers here have often been criticised for being impatient and inconsiderate. One content creator went so far as to declare Singaporeans the “worst drivers” in the world; dashcam videos on SG Road Vigilante’s YouTube page may just be proof of this. So what’s the solution? Focus public education efforts on improving Singapore’s driving culture, as Sylvia Lim from the Workers’ Party suggested? Better policing on roads? Clamp down harder on dangerous road behaviours—heftier fines and lifetime bans? Whatever it takes, so our island’s stretches of asphalt are no longer potential death traps. 

Earth: What’s owl this fuss about?

A nesting family of Sunda Scops Owls has taken the birdwatching community by storm. Two owlets and one of their parents were spotted in an unusually urban and visible spot along Telok Blangah, offering observers front-row seats to a scene right out of a National Geographic documentary. Telephoto-lens toting birdwatchers flocked to the nesting site, accompanied by curious passers-by waving phones in the bewildered owls’ faces. The crowds have drawn the concern, and even ire, of many who worry that the human disturbance may threaten the owls’ safety. One observer commented on Facebook, “What an embarrassment. Encroaching into the space of these animals for the sake of a few good shots.” Kalai Vanan, Animal Concerns Research & Education Society’s (ACRES) co-CEO, told Mothership, “crowding with hundreds of camera lenses and eyes fixated on the owl will certainly stress [the owls] out,” especially as they are shy animals that rely on stealth to survive.

Since then, NParks has cordoned off the tree, and urged members of the public to avoid the site. While it’s easy to label this as another case of Singaporean kiasu-ness, one earnest birdwatcher makes a convincing plea, “please do not paint all birders as irresponsible show-offs—to most birders, it’s an undying passion to document wildlife in its natural state which contributes to better understanding of wildlife in the midst of our urban environment.” This weekend, eyes will be turned to the birdwatchers themselves. Let’s hope the inevitable weekend crowd will be a gracious one, and that we’ll soon celebrate these adorable owlets’ fledging. 

Note: NParks’ recommendations for ethical birdwatching is “Avoid feeding them or using artificial lures and calls to attract them, and refrain from using flash photography or shining lights, as it may cause distress to the birds.”

History Weekly by Faris Joraimi

Last month, the University of Malaya (UM) invited Bruce Gilley, a Canadian-American political scientist, to give a keynote speech. Among other things Gilley said in “Will Malaysia become an active middle power?” was this: “A country whose political leaders advocate a second Holocaust against the Jewish people will never be a serious player in world affairs, and will certainly never be a friend or partner of the [United States].” Backlash from furious students and the public compelled UM to make a public apology; Malaysia’s Ministry of Higher Education also ordered an investigation. Anwar Ibrahim, prime minister, wondered why a “mediocre scholar” was platformed, while sociologist Farid Alatas blamed it on the “intellectually slavish mentality” of Malaysian institutions for hosting Gilley. Diagnoses aside, there’s something strange about this episode that invites speculation. 

Gilley is no stranger to controversy. In 2017, he published an essay, “The Case for Colonialism,” in a reputable academic journal, Third World Quarterly. This is old news, but bear with me: he wrote that successful countries (including Singapore) did well by adopting colonial governance styles, that the West should recolonise parts of the world to restore international order, and that anti-colonialism failed to accept colonialism’s “objective benefits”. The man moves through far-right wing circles, having been invited by the German ultra-conservative Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party to give a lecture on the achievements of German colonialism at the Bundestag. He once wrote that it was “good fortune” for Africans to be enslaved by Europeans, and responded to the Black Lives Matter movement with the hashtag #BLMterrorists. 

Were the UM event organisers really that clueless of his track record? Or are they ardent champions of the academic freedom that Gilley claims is being undermined by the “academic left”? Gilley’s remarks suggest his invitation may have a local backstory involving contemporary politics in Malaysia, as well as its stance on Israel’s war on Gaza and the US-China tug-o’-war. It’s easy to imagine how Gilley would provide an easy scapegoat to rally the Malay constituency around the current leadership (especially Anwar, given how pissed voters are with his administration), and the stakes are low since Gilley is mostly persona non-grata in the Western academic world. Gilley’s views make him particularly odious to Malay conservatives, tweeting: “Chinese and Indians should get out before the Islamofascist mob brings Taliban rule.” It takes considerable logistical effort to transport opinionated cargo from abroad. But if this was the wayang, it hardly worked.

Arts: Grad shows galore

It’s graduation show season! Art and design schools across Singapore are pulling out all the stops for their final-year cohorts on the cusp of entering the creative industries. Nanyang Technological University’s “ADM (Art, Design and Media) Show”, LASALLE College of the Arts’ “LASALLE Show” and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ (NAFA) “The Grad Expectations” are a culmination of students’ undergraduate and postgraduate journeys. (Many have devoted an entire year to developing their projects.) Apart from wooing prospective collectors and curators, these shows also act as snapshots of generational preoccupations. From social anxiety to diasporic journeys and the climate crisis, current urgencies are given new shape and form through unexpected mediums. Over at NAFA, Kenenza Michiko Hasan and Charlene Andrea Ramos reimagine the complex migratory paths of their respective South-east Asian families. In Kenenza’s haunting three-channel video work, she traces the journey of her great-great-grandfather from the tin mining island of Singkep in the Riau archipelago to a grave in Singapore’s Bukit Brown Cemetery, where she recently discovered he lies buried. Charlene takes a different approach, inviting spectators to activate her installations by sitting and sweeping with her, and turning to the concept of kuwentuhan, a communal mode of storytelling, as a means to reconcile with and reclaim her Filipino identity.

But is it still worth getting an art school degree? The brand-new University of the Arts Singapore welcomes its first intake later this year, and vice-chancellor Professor Kwok Kian Woon has been on the campaign trail to fill its classrooms and studios. The university positions art students as potential changemakers and thought leaders, alongside an art school education’s promises of lateral thinking, collaborative practices and socio-political engagement—something also championed by Clarissa Oon, Esplanade’s head of communications and content, in a recent op-ed for The Straits Times: “ performance can break through real or imagined cultural barriers – an extremely precious commodity in this globalised yet increasingly fragmented world. [...] It is a safe space in which to shake things up, ask hard questions of our lives and societies, and harness a range of creative resources to move audiences to the core of their being.” If Singapore really wants to cultivate positive social change through the arts, let’s hope the new university won’t face the same hurdles as a soon-to-be-shuttered college of liberal arts.

Disclosure: Corrie Tan, Jom’s arts editor, is a senior lecturer at NAFA, a founding member of the University of the Arts Singapore.

Arts: Paper trails

Dense rafts of Chinese calligraphy float down a choppy river of paper pulp. Thin veins of copper wire, so fine they feel like they might snap, are threaded delicately through skins of handmade paper. Watermarks unfurl like wings on translucent sheets of mulberry. The conventionally flat landscapes of paper take on sculptural forms in “Departures | New Releases”, a sumptuously tactile exhibition that runs till June 9th at STPI - Creative Workshop & Gallery. Artists Yanyun Chen (Singapore), Hong Zhu An (Shanghai) and Prabhavathi Meppayil (Bangalore), fresh from residencies with the workshop-gallery, have each made personal points of departure to bring different aesthetic sensibilities and lineages of craft to the same space.

Material explorations can be some of the most time-consuming processes in artmaking, but can also yield some of its most exciting outcomes. Artists fluent in the language of one material can bring fresh vocabularies to another, resulting in new syncretic idiolects that challenge what a material can do, or be. Here, paper becomes a vehicle for each artist’s creative voyage away from their usual practices: Meppayil’s minimalist installations, Hong’s vistas of Chinese ink, and Chen’s work at the intersection of charcoal drawing, new media and installation. Meppayil, for instance, comes from a family of several generations of goldsmiths, and used the traditional mark-making tool thinnam to scratch rhythmic patterns into the topmost layer of her paper canvases. STPI traces the route of the incising tool from its original function in Bangalore and describes it as “transiting” through their Creative Workshop. Much like the multilingual and multicultural port cities of this region, STPI acts as a port of call—paper is the vessel through which a diverse range of communities might participate, across artistic languages, in a shared public sphere.

Tech: AWS is doubling down on Singapore

The latest in a slew of artificial intelligence (AI) investments here comes from Amazon Web Services (AWS). The tech giant announced that it would pump S$12bn into cloud infrastructure from 2024 to 2028, doubling its existing investment base in the country. This not only affirms AWS’s confidence in Singapore as a pivotal hub for technology and innovation in Asia, but also underscores the growing importance of cloud services in facilitating wide-ranging digital transformation. AWS aims to use this additional funding to propel the integration of generative AI within Singapore’s public and private sectors, reflecting a broader trend in the tech industry towards leveraging AI for enhanced efficiency, innovation, and service delivery. AWS suggests that its cumulative investments will add US$17.5bn (S$23.7bn) to Singapore’s gross domestic product by 2028, and lead to the creation of some 12,300 full-time equivalent jobs annually. Former AWS employees in Singapore have gone on to start AI start-ups—such as Dorje AI, a financial enterprise resource planning system powered by AI, founded by Bernard Leong, AWS’s former head of machine learning and artificial intelligence for ASEAN. This is testament to the catalytic role of cloud computing and AI technologies in generating economic growth, employment opportunities and new start-ups.

Tech: Greenlight for Anywheel fleet expansion

In 2019, market-leaders Ofo and Mobike had hastily exited the Singapore bike-sharing market, and young start-up Anywheel had only a sandbox licence. Five years on and pending LTA’s approval, Anywheel looks set to expand its bike-sharing fleet by an additional 5,000 units, underscoring the burgeoning success and operational efficacy of the homegrown company. Anywheel’s fleet will increase to an impressive 35,000 bikes, solidifying its position as the dominant bike-sharing service in the city-state, having ridden over the potholes that have felled bigger players. Anywheel’s closest competitor, HelloRide, is backed by tech giant Alibaba and operates a fleet of 10,000 bikes. The recent exit of SG Bike, which had permission for 1,500 shared bikes when it ceased operations, points to the continuing operational and regulatory challenges these companies navigate. However, Anywheel’s strategy to allow former SG Bike users to convert their credits for use on its platform indicates a thoughtful approach towards market consolidation and customer retention. Founded in 2017 by Htay Aung, Anywheel has been profitable since February 2023, a notable accomplishment given the often volatile nature of transport-sharing. Contrary to the usual stories of start-ups seizing a first-mover advantage or rapidly blitzscaling to dominate the market, Anywheel’s journey to the top is a reminder that slow and steady may be the way to win the start-up race.

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