We live in unsettled times. Angry mobs are striking and marching in France. Paris is nearly paralyzed. Protest is pandemic around the world: in Poland they march against a creeping autocracy, in Hong Kong they oppose mainland China’s heavy hand, in India they inveigh against a new citizenship law. Similar protests are taking place, in no particular disorder, in Iran, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Italy, Germany, Spain and Ecuador, and, from time to time, in the United States and the United Kingdom.
This past summer, seeking some sanity, I flew to Singapore and from there to Switzerland. I struggle to think of any other two countries where the citizenry is as contented. In my imagination, the two countries meld into a single entity: Swissapore.
The similarities are more interesting
Casual observers disparage Swissapore. Here’s Harry Lime, the swindler played by Orson Welles in the 1949 film “The Third Man”: “Switzerland had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” As if 500 years of peace isn’t enough. Singapore gets some scurrilous shade as well: science fiction writer William Gibson belittled it as “Disneyland with the death penalty.” Was he put off by the meticulously trimmed shrubs lining the highways? Miffed by the government’s strict drug laws?
Indifferent to their detractors, both countries go about their business, safely ensconced on their islands (Switzerland, as Diccon Bewes writes in her book “Swiss Watching,” is “the landlocked island”). To keep potential invaders at bay, both nations require two years of military service from all able-bodied males, and maintain strict neutrality in geopolitical affairs.
Is all the shade just jealousy? Life is good in Swissapore: the Swiss and the Singaporeans on average live four years longer than Americans do and, according to the Paris School of Economics, their Gini score, a measure of wealth equality, is also identical, higher than in most countries, including the U.S.
Bragging not allowed
One more thing: even though both countries are relatively well off, and things are otherwise hunky-dory, Swissapore disdains conspicuous displays of prosperity.
So when the over-the-top Burgenstock resort reopened in 2017, one commentator sniffed, “it’s not Swiss to show off.” And when the producers of the hit movie “Crazy Rich Asians” approached Singaporean stakeholders to participate, Singapore Airlines, year after year voted the best in the world, demurred because the movie’s immodest title was off-brand.
Switzerland, famous for its five-star hotels, such as the Alpina Grand in Gstaad and the Royal Savoy Hotel in Lausanne, had never seen the likes of the Burgenstock when it emerged from nine years of construction and renovation, high on its ridge with views of Lake Lucerne and the Alps. It’s another world, peaceful and rarefied. Misty whiffs of clouds float over the green hills and hug the Alps and the lake below, while cowbells and chirping birds serenade guests.
The resort is so vast you almost need a St. Bernard carrying a map and a keg of Evian, and so intriguing that those not staying for the night pay $40 for a 90-minute guided site visit.
No more wild boars
There are also guided tours of the sites appearing in “Crazy Rich Asians” now, one of which is Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, reopened in 2019 after its own cost-be-damned, top-to-bottom renovation. The famous white-turbaned Sikh doormen, as regal and imposing as ever, festooned with gold braid and medals, remain as they were. In 1904, one of their predecessors chased a wild boar through the lobby and wrestled it to the ground.
Wild boars no longer roam the streets, but not all of Singapore has been tamed. One Saturday night K. F. Seetoh, a local restauranteur and the country’s answer to Anthony Bourdain, took me for a tour of the city’s sequestered red-light district, where dozens of young ladies gather for inspection by the South Asian guest workers who build the Swiss-watch infrastructure. The government takes a pragmatic approach to the sex industry, as it does with much else; sex work is legal here and the workers are subject to health inspections. Another time I took a ferry to Pulau Ubin, one of Singapore’s many out islands, a trip back in time with no signs of urban development other than biking trails and boardwalk paths.
One place Singaporeans like to eat is the airport, even if they’re not flying anywhere. Changi is, after all, the world’s best airport (just ask anyone who flies a lot).
There’s a butterfly garden, a rooftop swimming pool, a free movie theater, dozens of restaurants, and a huge mall. And now there’s the Jewel, opened last year, a mixed-use Xanadu with gardens, shops, dining and a hotel, all upstaged by the world’s largest indoor waterfall, under a climate-controlled, geodesic-like pleasure dome.
This HSBC Rain Vortex, as it’s called, discharges a torrent of reclaimed rainwater (130,000 gallons of it), descending 130 feet from an orifice in the building’s ceiling, a deluge so fierce it could serve as Paul Bunyan’s power-shower. What would Gibson make of this high tech waterfall? It is Disneyish. Heck, it out-Disneys Disney.
OK, yes, Swissapore does seem a bit make-believe.
So what, I say. Disneyland, eat your heart out. You, too, William Gibson.