Land of the weird? More like the fabulous

From social welfare and education to chic Christmas shopping, Singapore is near the top of world lea

You can now chew gum in Singapore. Among the changes that have occurred here since I last visited six years ago - a population increase from four million to almost five million; the rise in the cost of car permits, which was as high as £38,000 in December (this doesn't include the price of the car); the arrival of the Indian middle classes at the Sentosa pleasure island and of Thai ladyboys at Club Romeo in the Orchard Towers complex - the permitting of gum will resonate loudest in the west.

The ban was lifted (supposedly for medical or teeth-strengthening purposes only) following pressure from Wrigley, its concerns brought to the table by George W Bush at talks in 2003. The US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement stalled over two issues - the war in Iraq and, ridiculously, the ban on chewing gum. The Singaporean prime minister gave way. What appears to be social liberalisation in an authoritarian city state is in fact an example of multinational corporate lobbying.

Tell people that you are going to spend a holiday in Singapore and the response is universal: "How weird." The chewing gum ban - like the notorious death penalty for smuggling drugs - has long symbolised Singapore's authoritarian form of government, which has planned and produced an apparently near-perfect economy in a city state whose centre is dominated by financial skyscrapers, hotels and shopping malls. You haven't experienced Christmas shopping until you've witnessed the queues outside Louis Vuitton and Gucci in the Orchard Road shopping centres.

Health and happiness

Weird? I find it less disturbing than those international hotels where a room costs as much as the maid's annual salary; or the cultural poverty tour where you stare at poor people in villages, pretend to eat the same food as them and perhaps even stay in a hut for a night. If having street upon street of shopping emporia is the price you pay for almost full employment, very low crime, a per-capita GDP that both the IMF and the World Bank calculate to be almost 50 per cent higher than the UK's in purchasing-power parity, and a life expectancy among the highest in the world for public expenditure that is among the lowest in developed nations, then, I say, bring on the Chanel.

The "bumboats" ferry not goods, but tourists: they plough up and down the river, belting out patriotic commentary about the wealth represented by the skyscrapers. Singapore's wealth is spread unequally, but in most sectors, including transport and real estate, the average salary is about £25,000 a year. And income tax is low, varying between 0 per cent and 14 per cent on the first £80,000, rising to a maximum of 20 per cent for earnings over £160,000. Sales tax is 7 per cent (a man weighed down by shopping bags burst out laughing when I told him that UK sales tax was now 20 per cent).

So, what's not to like about it? They have workfare, like us. They have tax credits, like us. They have a far better system of highly subsidised public housing than us - and one that ensures a mix of racial groups in each development. They have a good pay-as-you-go social insurance system that funds health care, housing and retirement.

The jobless get occasional grocery vouchers but are expected to rely largely on their families for support, as are the elderly. Families have legal responsibility for all dependants, young and old, as in Germany - a law that has contributed to what is one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, probably Singapore's biggest social challenge.

Health? The government doesn't spend much on it - roughly 1 per cent of GDP, compared to the UK's 8 per cent - leaving a combination of what is basically social insurance and co-payment to make up the rest. Yet the people are healthy and in 2000 the World Health Organisation ranked Singapore's system as sixth globally. The UK's came 18th.

Gum disease

What Singapore does invest in heavily is education - a far better stimulant of good health than medicine. It allocates more than double the funds it spends on health to education - a sixth of the government's entire budget - and with it produces one of the world's most highly skilled workforces, beating the UK hands down on the OECD's educational scales. Unemployment is rarely over 3 per cent and intensive skills upgrading is offered to those at risk.

The one thing that feels socially exploitative is Singapore's reliance on cheap construction workers from Bangladesh and India, paid £12 a day - but as thousands of them want to work here, presumably the money they send home is worth it. It's about a third more than a bank's call-centre workers in India will be paid.

The distaste that Singapore provokes is mostly just a patronising cultural attitude from old Europe: it's too plastic, too shiny. It "lacks soul". And chewing gum. Chewing gum has long been touted by sociologists as a symbol of empty consumerism - its base, chicle, is extracted from overtapped trees by Mayan peasants in the Yucatán Peninsula at $5 a kilo to feed western consumers, who then spend millions cleaning it off their streets. Why do other people insist that Singapore have it?

The same people who generally profess to abhor Britain's imperialist legacy often seem happy to impose their own cultural expectations on countries that "ought" to be more culturally diverse - for which, read "poor, smiling, wearing colourful national costumes and performing a dance for tourists". In Singapore, the children wear chinos, not cheongsams, and they dance in the fake snow pumping from the foam machine outside the Tanglin Mall. But they aren't dancing for the tourists and there is nothing fake about the smiles on their faces. Tell them that Singapore is weird.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze