We just got back from a short trip to Singapore to visit family and friends and take advantage of the city-state’s gastronomic delights. We also got a few gizmos and gadgets, as much as our limited budget would allow, and books, of course.

Any Filipino who has ever visited Singapore as a tourist will surely have one question foremost in mind: Why can’t we do what Singapore has done ? That is, make a culturally diverse, multi-racial society, with little or no natural resources, work and prosper as a nation.

Coincidentally, Conrad De Quiros’ column in today’s Inquirer provides some lucid answers. His simple but dead-on conclusion (which we all know but have sadly learned to live with) : We as a people lack discipline and a fundamental civic-mindedness, “

or a self-propelled sense of duty or sense of propriety, something ingrained in other Asians”.

A lot has been said about Singapore’s tightly-regimented, supposedly despotic, political system. But anyone who has ever been there will immediately see that it works for the Singaporeans. There are no starving beggars in the streets. There appears to be decent housing for everyone. Everybody, even the elderly, seems to be engaged in one form or another of productive work or activity. Traffic is manageable. Drivers follow traffic rules. Public transportation is efficient. And, for one of the most densely populated areas on earth, there is clean, green and breathable living space accessible to everyone.

And Singapore is not harsh and soulless, as some allege. A visit to a museum, botanical garden or the Esplanade, the national theater and center for the arts, or a night stroll along Orchard Road, will readily reveal the city’s colorful, vibrant character.

We make much of our so-called “democratic” society, but how much democracy is there really in a country where there is a wise chasm between the rich and the desperately poor, a gap which cannot be bridged by a struggling middle-class ?

I’m sure the place has a dark underbelly, but from a middle-class tourist’s perspective, one can live decently in Singapore. And that’s all anyone would really want: to live decently as a human being.

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