SINGAPORE—Life is fast in this city-state of tree-lined roads, manmade hills, lakes and forests, bright neon lights, and giant outdoor television screens and signs.
Dubbed as Asia’s financial capital, the central bank of the East, the global elite have their enclaves on Sentosa Island, where a seaside property can cost upwards of SG$10 million. Here, the uber rich can stash their gold in or trade at the Singapore Free Port sans tax; while buying a pack of cigarettes can cost you a day’s salary.
You can blend with the crowd and eat affordable and delicious full meals at the hawkers’ centers or you can wait for months to have a degustation in a fancy and expensive restaurant at the Marina Bay Sands, and even see and greet celebrity chefs Wolfgang Puck, Tetsuya Wakuda or Mario Batali.
Again, depending on the wallet, you can shop ‘til you drop at signature boutiques along Orchard Road or hunt for cheap buys at Chinatown or the Thieves’ Market, a popular flea market, on Sungei Road.
A place of intellectual and cultural ferment, international plays, light shows, concerts by the bay and research conferences all happen simultaneously in its many venues, including Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall and the famous Esplanade.
You can reach work here by train, airplane, bus or taxicab. Like in the song, they don’t care how you get there, just get there as fast you can. Meanwhile, the Lamborghinis, Porsches, Lotuses and Ferraris zip past the taxis in the city streets.
This is the place of iPads, iPhones, Galaxy Tabs, Wi-Fi and almost eternal connectivity. Whether on the bus or the MRT, most people are hooked to their fancy gadgets amid the maddening rush, claiming a little spot for themselves and with themselves, until the next bus or train stop and the race continues.
This is also the land where the old and the new meet. Where soaring buildings lord over quaint houses with shutter windows in Chinatown and where the last remaining kampung —Malay village—in Pulau Ubin is just across one of the world’s most modern airports in Changi.
Singapore is one of the Four Tiger Economies of Asia and was ranked last year by the consultancy firm Mercer as the eighth most expensive city in the world, up three spots from its rank in 2010.
It is also in its hawkers’ centers where I have seen elderly people working, mostly cleaning or waiting on the tables. Some of the old people (mostly aged between 65 to 70 years old) I’ve managed to strike a chat with say that they have to work because they still want to. Some say they need the money what with the lack of pension and the inability of their children to support them. While they have a Central Provident Fund, some of the elderly said it is not enough to cover for what they need in old age.
“In hot-paced Singapore, where welfarism is a dirty word, the lowly-skilled aged could head for tougher times,” wrote journalist Seah Chiang Nee in an article that was published in The Star newspaper in March 2007.
The blogger who sports the handle “Lucky Tan” said in “The Diary of a Singaporean Mind” that during the last elections, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew saw an 80-year-old woman still working hard and “his response was one of delight that old folks here are working.”
But at the heart of the issue, “Lucky Tan” said, is: “… if the elderly who have to clean toilets for a living die without seeing benefits of the wealth our society has generated, who benefits from this wealth?”
Even Seah Chiang Nee admits that for the elderly to opt for work “past 62 years of age is not surprising and, in fact, could be a plus point; after all, Singapore’s life expectancy is 81.7 years, the world’s third highest, even ahead of Japan (81.25 years).”
He adds that, “what is not savvy about it is they are doing the sort of menial work once done by unskilled foreign workers. Some 35.7% are cleaners or related work, where incomes are low.”
“It’s not that the elderly don’t want to retire, many simply cannot afford to,” another Singaporean, Rick Lim, was quoted by “Lucky Tan.”
Life is fast in Singapore and it does not slow down even in old age.
• Julius Mariveles is a correspondent for InterAksyon.com. He is currently in Singapore for a study program.