Going to Singapore is upsetting

I came back from Singapore, upset as always, yesterday.

I flew from the Subang Skypark Terminal at the Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport. And, I am relieved that the finance minister in his budget announcement last week said that the government intends to expand and upgrade Subang Airport to attract more investors, traders and tourists.

This airport has seen better days, just like the shabby and tatty Penang International Airport.

I arrived at Seletar Airport in Singapore. What a world of difference. Efficient, modern, stylish, and manned by professionals. The immigration officer handling my entry was a Singaporean Malay man. He was chatty, jovial, and welcomed me pleasantly to his country, and in Bahasa Malaysia, of course.

Now, before you throw brickbats at me and tell me to move to Singapore or worse, “balik India”, don’t get riled up. You decide for yourself if expelling Singapore from the federation was in fact good for us.

Of course, Singapore has its fair share of critics too. Their 58-year-old single party rule has seen systematic clamp downs on opposition politicians, their government has been accused of being overly authoritarian, and they have had human rights issues.

You’ll be happy to learn this; they also have traffic jams on their roads. But their jams are nowhere near as bad as in Kuala Lumpur or now, in Penang too. The congestion in Penang, my hometown, where I spend half my working week, is deplorable.

There’s no end in sight for Penang. No public transport or MRT/LRT plan is apparent. At certain times during the day, traveling from the Penang International Airport to our home in Tanjung Tokong, a short 22km journey, can take up to one and half hours. And, this is not even on public holidays or weekends.

In Singapore, they have multiple expressways but mostly people use their sterling public transport system, the MRT and local buses. They’ve built more than 140 stations across six MRT lines that span the island. The 200km network handles a daily ridership of over three million people. And, it runs like clockwork.

Singapore buys their trains from China, specifically from Shanghai, just like Malaysia. But quite strangely, our operators blamed the manufacturers for plant closures during the pandemic, and the difficulties in getting spare parts for our LRT breakdowns. For this excuse, someone would have been fired in Singapore.

The hotel I stayed in was literally fully staffed by Malaysians. Everyone from their front office team to the concierge and service staff spoke decent English, were well trained and acted professionally. I met people from Sungai Petani, Alor Setar, Ipoh, Kota Bharu, Temerloh and Batu Pahat this trip, just in my hotel.

I suppose the exchange rate is very favourable for these hoteliers, even though all of them stay in Johor Bahru, and travel every day for one and half hours each way, at a minimum, to get to work and back. But then again sometimes we do the same here in Kuala Lumpur, but don’t get paid three times more (SDG$1 is equivalent to RM3.32) like them.

I remember going to Singapore when I was young and the value of their dollar and our dollar (this is what we used to call our money, too) were the same. It is not anymore. Our money is pretty dismal now.

On the way back, I had lunch at the Seletar Airport Teh Tarik Express eatery, which is the only food outlet there. I had a fried Koay Teow, a “popiah”, a Yu Char Kway and a “teh ais” (yes, I was starving). It cost me SGD$14 (RM49), and the food was pretty decent. At the table next to me were two airport security personnel. They were having a drink and a plate of noodles each. I reckon their meal was less than SGD$10. Not bad, a nice lunch at a fairly swanky eatery at the airport for less than ten bucks.

I guess there is no need for menu “Rahmah” for them.

My flight got delayed, then cancelled. Astro and Firefly Airlines are the same. Every time it rains, there will be a definite service disruption. But, tiny Seletar Airport in Singapore is so much nicer to be delayed at, as opposed to the airport in Subang or Penang. The seats were conformable, the carpet plush, the piped-in easy jazz was soothing, and the water cooler fountain was lovely and cold. I spent a pleasant four hours in the departure lounge working. I never thought I’d ever say that about being stuck at an airport.

The ground staff for the airline were excellent in managing us. From moving some passengers to Changi to take the larger Malaysia Airlines jet-plane to shifting the rest of us to later flights, they were patient and professional. They were well trained and knew that passengers would be irate, even though the cancellation wasn’t the airline’s fault, but rather the bad weather, they handled themselves admirably.

Incidentally, all the ground staff were Singaporeans of Malay heritage. Not that it should matter, but I felt obliged to spell it out before racial stereotypes are inferred.

When Malaysia launched the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1970, our GDP per capita was about the same as Singapore. Now, Singapore has a GDP per capita of US$66,176 and Malaysia’s is US$10,575.

As painful as it is for us Malaysians to admit, our neighbour has surpassed us in so many fields. From technological and educational advancements to monetary policies, and socio-cultural experiments in a plural society, Singapore is arguably leaps and bounds ahead of us.

Isn’t this upsetting?

And, without belabouring the point, we have gone down this path because of bad-governance, corruption, unfair practices, the use of special privileges to enrich the elites, the brain drain – most of our best people are in Singapore, the exclusive state-sponsored policies for the majority community in Malaysia, and incessantly making religion a political tool.

I still say we cannot compete with our tiny neighbour. So yes, going to Singapore is upsetting for me.

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