A Singaporean Utopia
Dystopias are easy to imagine; set the stage for a crumbling hellscape and chuck as many horrendous things at it as your mind can dream up. But a utopia, now that one is difficult. It isn’t just simply because utopias are virtually impossible since everybody has their own ideas about what makes a good society. There’s also the weight of the many failed utopian experiments through history that have devolved into dystopian nightmares. The difficulty is in setting aside the tendency to be cynical, to meet every hopeful vision with a dose of reality according to how we currently see it.
With the 24-hour news cycle delivering bad tidings on all the ways we are going to hell in a handbasket, it is a little bit hard to envision a brighter future. But we can’t get anywhere without a little bit of hope, can we? So, here’s what I would like Singapore to be in 20-30 years.
No retirement villages in Johor Bahru, there is something cruel about keeping the aged isolated and far from where we can see them. And with a rapidly aging population, how many other locales can we chuck our elderly in before we run out of space. In my utopia, seniors remain a part of the community with accommodations made to every part of the public sphere. Signs with bigger fonts, cars with mandatory old-age plates so other drivers are more mindful of them, more lifts and travellators wherever required. On a payment sliding scale judged by means-testing, homes will be outfitted with subsidised conveniences that can make life easier like easy-access beds and toilets that can check on the user’s health through pee and stool samples. Tech will come into play; we’re not talking androids yet but non-humanoid helpers that can act as auxiliary aids to human workers that will check on the elderly. If all this seems familiar, that’s because I am inspired by the methods used in Japan to deal with a population that has the highest percentage of the aged.
It takes a village to raise a child, so don’t abandon young families the moment they spawn. Free to subsidised childcare from birth up to Primary 1, I say. We’re setting the stage for future productive members of the society here, folks, you’d want to pull out all the stops and get them going right from the start. Not that I’m saying these would be perfect indoctrination grounds, but a child’s mind in the early stages is far more malleable and impressionable. It’s difficult for the parents to raise a child well if they must spend a lot of time chasing the dollar just to afford having one in the first place. Ease their burdens and subsidise childcare so that the parents can go to work.
And then once these kids reach sentience and can think for themselves, don’t stifle their creativity. The education system needs to be reformed, the insistence on separating kids based on intelligence levels right from the start leads to high stress levels and a further stratified society. Encourage play and creativity even in the sciences instead of focusing on rote learning. It’s interesting to see that despite the reports of young Singaporeans surpassing American school children in Math and Sciences, we still don’t have any prominent scientists, innovators or researchers. In my utopia, schools will resemble the Scandinavian models where there is no clear distinction in the quality of schools. Because they’re all good anyway, nobody needs to compete and drop loads on tuition just so that precious Aloysius can get into RI.
Let’s pay people better, starting with a higher minimum wage. Money may not buy happiness but people who can meet their basic needs far more easily tend to be happier than the ones scrabbling to be able to afford rent and food every single day. Segueing from the previous two components of my utopia, workers in the service sector will be paid better. A heck of a lot better. In fact, these jobs will be considered respected and highly valuable ones so top talent will be attracted and retained. Of course, the nature of the jobs involves unpleasant elements like screaming children and cleaning human excrement but when people are greatly monetarily valued for it, they feel like what they do matter. And that goes a long way in filling empty positions with people who will not abuse the vulnerable.
While we’re at that, in this ideal society no one’s worth is measured by their profession. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
This is where I let my freak flag fly. Instead of visions of the future where we populate the skies, let’s go underground. Think vast subterranean farms powered hydroponically/aquaponically/grow lights/whatever farming technologies we need to come up with. Impossible burgers have set foot on our shores; time to ramp up production! The future will be vegan, with lab-grown meats whose research and development are led by the brilliant, creative children nurtured in the ways I’ve mentioned earlier.
Cars are no longer status symbols, not just for the dreaming middle class but the moneyed ones as well. Owning these oil-guzzlers will be passé; public transportation is efficient and technologically-advanced because the powers that be use them as well. The city will be even more well-connected, breakdowns are rare and swiftly dealt with because the companies involved understand the values of public good over profit.
Instead of world-class manicured forests for Instagram pictures, there will be concerted efforts at revitalising the ecosystem with native vegetation and returning the fauna that have been scared away. No more multi-million, multi-billion-dollar vanity housing projects that will only be bought to sit empty for investment portfolios.
It comes down to this, our collective ideals and values. For any of the above to work there needs to be an overhaul on what we consider good. We need to lay kiasu to rest, discard the five Cs, and abandon the desire to be so much better for no real underlying reason other than to be greater than someone else. In this utopia I’ve envisioned we have all become a lot kinder and courteous, the gotong-royong spirit that politicians love to trot out will be at full force in this future I dream of. Of course, our taxes will also be a lot higher.
Thomas More coined the name Utopia in 1516 for his satirical work about a fictitious island. Deriving from the Greek words ou meaning “not” and topos meaning “place”, put together it means nowhere. Utopias do not and cannot exist. But couldn’t we at least attempt to dream up a better world, and then take the steps necessary to get there? I like the term protopia, coined by futurist Kevin Kelly. It reflects a state to get to but also one that is evolving and changing according to the problems that arise in the efforts to get there. Utopias turn into dystopias because they are static visions of a specific person or group of people bent on making it into reality. Perhaps a kinder take would be to evolve together for a collective good, but ever mindful of the pitfalls of dogma, rigid ideology, and selfish human desires.