Lion City, Anyone?: Should Saigon Be Like Singapore?

Working - Saigon/HCMC: June 16, 2017

Waking up one morning to the sound of birds chirping to the sunrise, you sort out your daily ablutions and head out the front door. You cross a two-way street near one of the massive construction sites for the upcoming underground metro line, but only five seconds after the green light comes on, you do your best to make sure you don’t get hit by a stray motorbike still on third gear.

saigonImage source: baothanhnien.com

You walk past a little hole-in-the-wall coffee place where a bunch of retirees are playing checkers, accompanied by a few glasses of black coffee and cigarettes. Just behind them, a bunch of young men in their early twenties, dressed in military uniforms, are having a chat in a local dialect. Everywhere you turn, you see signs in multiple languages, and policemen doing patrols.

You board a bus and observe your fellow passengers; a nice mix of students in identical uniforms; a couple of office workers in crisp white shirts; a gang of old ladies carrying plastic bags of meat, vegetables and other groceries and an occasional old man who might be one planet short of a solar system, having an intense conversation with himself.

saigonImage source: saigonbus.com.vn

Any of this sounds familiar to you? I’ve just described what it was like for me growing up in Singapore in the 1990s.

There Was a Plan

Saigon’s leaders had a plan to turn a chaotic city into a “little Singapore” with a similar plan happening too in Hanoi, but for this article, the focus will be on the former. This term typically translates as a city with clean, pedestrian-only sidewalks, public order, heavy enforcement against littering... It’s a city that would impress tourists and shine bright among Vietnamese residents as a home to be proud of. Thus, the plan was put in motion and the sidewalks were ordered to be cleared. This was meant to be a long-term project and by estimates, it could take up to a decade to give the city the massive make-over government officials have in mind..

saigonImage source: baomoi.com

Barriers were built on sidewalks to prevent vehicles from spilling over from the roads, street food vendors were forced to pack up and leave, restaurants and other establishments were forced to remove their tables and demolition teams were in full force to clear out the sidewalks as Saigon was on it’s way to becoming Singapore.

At least for about three months.

Then the street side vendors came back, the bikers decided the sidewalks were still a better alternative to traffic jams. Heck, even a bus decided to mount the pavement recently. Restaurants planted their tables on the sidewalks once again. The plan was failing, although there’s still a proposal to increase the rental fees for vendors who wish to remain operating on the sidewalks. So maybe there is still hope for an official announcement on a ban of chewing gum too?

So has Saigon Become Singapore Yet?

To be fair, having grown up in Singapore and then moving to Saigon not too long ago, I had to deal with the culture shock of trying to get used to this place. I had to learn key phrases of a new language made up of confusing tones, often delivered at the speed of a machine gun. I had to develop the self-awareness to be able to look seven ways before crossing a street. I had to get used to having no idea what I was actually ordering or eating. Somehow, all these things made my experience here a very interesting one.

Most of you probably know what Singapore is like and maybe even spent some time there either as a tourist or a resident. It’s a nice, compact and clean city with an efficient transportation system, surveillance cameras everywhere, street food served in a clean environment, with clear sidewalks with some streets meant solely for pedestrian traffic. It has a vibrant nightlife and a very interesting cosmopolitan society due to its multi-racial population.

SingaporeImage source: wattpad.com

But beyond what you’ve seen or experienced, Singapore does have its set of issues. A widening income gap, an aging population, stagnating wages paired with a rising cost of living and a society with segments of people still largely ignorant of what’s happening around them. Even my dad, who has never been to Vietnam before, thinks the country is full of ao dai-clad women in non la clogging the road with their bicycles amid the sounds of 1970s folk music blaring from some random speakers somewhere.

Wait til he gets to see this classy ao dai-clad lady I saw the other day riding a Honda with heels, weaving through heavy traffic.

Why Singapore?

SingaporeImage source: singaporeair.com

More importantly, I was puzzled with the reference to Singapore. Why Singapore? Why not Seoul, or Taipei, or Tokyo? Why choose a country that plenty of locals I’ve spoken to don’t even like because it’s “boring”? Why choose a country that is sterile instead of a city like Taipei, which is full of interesting stories? Why choose a country where there is an army of cleaners to pick up after you, unlike Tokyo, where most people have developed the habit of throwing away their own rubbish? Yes, that’s the reason why Singapore always looks so clean  it’s the unsung heroes who have been doing all the dirty work.

Implications of Becoming Singapore

The estate where I grew up got cleared up recently for a new freehold condominium project. The buildings that housed my primary and secondary schools are no longer there, and this is really the price to pay for progress: memories get sacrificed. Some people may like it and some may not. I belong to the latter.

The mindset of Singapore’s society changed quite drastically too. People have become less tolerant and self-entitlement has creeped into the general mindset. Sitting by the roadside sipping on coffee and watching the world go by has become a foreign concept, and instead we’ve become a herd of people enslaved by deadlines, year-end bonuses, KPIs and climbing the corporate ladder.

saigonImage source: tienphong.vn

Vietnam, and especially Saigon, is beautiful the way it is. Sure, there are plenty of things that need to be fixed here (the traffic system, the pollution, the dodgy infrastructure, the drainage system, the questionable health and safety standards of street food vendors, etc) but beyond all these issues, there is a certain charm you can associate with this city, just like you would with Bangkok, Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur. It’s hard to classify Singapore as “charming” because it has gone beyond the point of being just a home – it has become a place to make money, a place where the foreign population rose so fast that within a decade national identity is still a debatable issue, a place where culture is contrived. Singapore has turned into a plastic utopia and this is something I wouldn’t ever want to see happen here in Vietnam.

To Clean or Not to Clean?

Cleaning up Saigon is something that would benefit many parties and definitely generate more interest from visitors and new residents. It would boost tourism revenue and if pollution levels can be significantly reduced, it would be great for the environment and it would turn the city into a picturesque modern masterpiece, but it could also lead to inevitable heartbreaking issues like evictions. It would sell a stronger image of Vietnam as a developed country, but it would also change many things. There is always a price to pay for progress and Vietnamese people need to prepare for this.

It’s a great idea to clean Saigon up and it’s only natural to do so because that’s how a country progresses. Vietnam is doing really well on this front, but please don’t turn it into Singapore and this is coming from a Singaporean.