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What Europe and America Can Learn From Singapore About Diversity

· Real Estate,Socioeconomics,Immigration,Diversity,World Economic Forum

As you might have been aware, world leaders met again at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year in January.

One particularly interesting talk that might be relevant for people all around the world was the session on Secrets to a Long and Happy Life.

National Geographic Fellow and Writer Dan Buettner reveals insights about Singapore's diverse community in "Secrets of a Long and Happy Life" at the World Economic Forum 2018 in Davos, Switzerland.

Although from popular media, happiness may often be equated with the accumulation of wealth, fame and ambition; over the centuries, philosophers have had many theories of happiness in terms of egalitarianism, collectivism and self-agency. And it appears that in practice, philosophers have been mainly accurate in how societies achieve happiness.

Despite that happiness might be a subjective perspective that might not be easily quantifiable, writer Dan Buettner gives a little background about two nations that are considered to have the highest happiness index in the world: Singapore and Denmark.

Singapore used to be a fishing village 50-65 years ago, but transformed from a third world nation into a multi-racial, diverse, first-world nation within a single generation. In addition, Singapore is an outlier nation in which many different ethnicities live together in harmony: Indian, Malay, Muslims, and the Han Chinese.

In Singapore, where many different ethnic and religious groups, such as Indians, Malays, Muslims, and Han Chinese live in harmony, children are taught at the same schools and residents in housing developments reflect the diversity of the population without segregation.

Whereas, many nations, such as the US focus on self-actualisation, and individualism, in many Asian nations, Confucian values such as harmony, respect for others, and security reflect the values and education of the people.

The cultural and political architect of Singapore was Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore. With his educational background from the University of Cambridge, he had a vision of how Singapore would transform and become the nation it is today. Some of the plans he implemented ensured that everyone in Singapore would be able to own their own home and also one in which every housing project would reflect the ethnic diversity of entire country. There are no ghettos of Malays nor gated communities of the Han Chinese in Singapore and everyone attends schools together without segregation of economic disparity. This should be a somber reflection on the segregationist history of the United States, beginning after the Civil War to the current era in which dramatic, geographic distinctions have risen between the different classes with San Francisco being a prime example where the homeless often congregate on the streets and often pushed out from home ownership by real estate investors, and where the most number of tech billionaires are located.

This lack of security in the community - where people are not guaranteed housing, and where many people have fallen into severe debt from home ownership in which during the housing crisis of 2008, many people eventually lost their homes has been a continuing pattern in the United States. In addition, the severe, displaced, geographical segregation between the classes and advent of crime and gang warfare has transformed the United States from one of the happiest nations in the world, to one of the least happy nations in the world, in terms of quantifiable population markers.

In Denmark, design thinking is a part of everyday life. Everyone has access to free education, free healthcare, paid to attend university, offered long maternity leaves and retire with complete comfort. This allows the population to focus on pursuit of their passions, instead of being afflicted with the stress of finding work to pay for basic necessities or the pursuit of the accumulation of wealth as is prevalent in other nations, such as the US and the UK.

Other nations, such as Denmark may not have the most number of billionaires in the world, but it is a place where trust, tolerance, and equality are prevalent in the population. Every man, woman and child in Denmark have access to free education, free healthcare, and are even paid to attend university; they are also offered long maternity leaves, and retire with complete comfort. According to Dan Buettner, Danes over 60 years old are the happiest people in the world. This should serve as a stark reminder to the American and British populations, in which our senior citizens are often forgotten, discarded, overmedicated and sent to die in nursing homes and the growing number of homeless people and rise in crime have been the talking point of much political debate.

Windsor Council in the UK has been implementing a plan to remove all the homeless people near Windsor Castle ahead of the Royal Wedding which has caused controversy. The sight of the homeless has become commonplace in San Francisco and London, two cities where the most number of billionaires live in the world.

Furthermore, Mr. Buettner sources a Gallup poll in which he cites that only 30% of people love their jobs in the US, whereas in Denmark, 80% are happy in their jobs because Danish people are able to pursue their passions, and not merely their ambition for wealth accumulation. Living in an environment where all their basic needs are taken care of such as having a home, free access to healthcare and education, and having security in their communities, Danes are able to extend their energies on the sectors that fuel their passion and curiosity. Design, art, architecture, and the environment become of central importance, and not a mere distraction.

"We certainly don't wish Singapore to be a first-world economy but a third-rate society, with a people who are well-off but uncouth...We want to be a society rich in spirit, a gracious society where people are considerate and kind to one another, and as Mencius said, where we treat all elders as we treat our own parents, and other children as our own." -  Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong

This should be in stark contrast to the rather grim problem of racism and segregation that is occurring in the rest of Europe, in regards to the immigration problems that are currently taking place in Germany, Sweden and the UK. Although Chancellor Angela Merkel had the best intentions in allowing immigrants to enter Germany, as a reminder of the painful lessons from WWII that eventually lead to the formation of the European Union, the sudden spike in the rate of crime has made many in the population fearful for the future of Germany.

Currently when migrants enter Germany, they are often segregated from the rest of the population and do not have access to community resources; young men are often left without parental supervision whilst many are barred from having jobs for a period of time. This has lead to a desperate state in which many immigrants have been self-organising into gangs and committing crimes, similar to the problem of ghetto culture in the US. The US, Germany and UK should take into account how Singapore was able to assimilate many different ethnicities into a relatively compact geographical area where they live in harmony. It appears Singapore was successful in doing so by preserving the cultural differences between ethnicities and by not segregating neighbourhoods nor housing projects nor educational opportunities, and allowing everyone to have access to all of the nation’s resources.

If we take Singapore as an example in diversity - Germany, the UK and US would have to make changes in law in how real estate investors operate within their nations, by preventing corporations or investors from buying up all the properties, flooding the market, and inflating the prices to extreme levels.

Recently, a writer, lecturer and journalist friend of mine in San Francisco has told me that the house he has been living in for 10+ years has recently changed ownership by a real estate investor, who is planning to renovate the house and sell the house for 10x its current value, inflating the value of the house and raising the rent into unattainable margins. Like many long-time San Franciscans, he will be moving out of the area, and the house will probably remain empty, like many investment properties across the United States, UK and Germany in which a significant rise in the housing market could be attributed to the collective actions of the investors and real estate conglomerates that have been buying up all the available property and pushing out its local citizens from ownership.

In comparison, in Singapore, 80% of the population live in government-built residences. At its inception, Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) began by building rental housing for poor families in 1960, but by 1964, switched to building flats for sale to the masses. Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew wrote that, “home ownership would give every citizen a ‘stake’ in the country.

When we examine migrant crime, from a cursory view, it appears to be based on differences in religion, language and culture and we have attributed these differences to violent clashes and rise in crime; however, further in-depth examination may lead us to see migrant crime from an entirely different perspective. Singapore has taught us that for many different ethnicities to be knitted together in close harmony within a single community, that the key to solving these clashes may be as simple as home ownership. When immigrants have a “stake” in the country, as PM Lee Kuan Yew has written, there is an incentive not to commit crime. Crimes by migrants can largely be attributed to being abruptly rooted from their own nations and communities, not having a permanent place to live, and being segregated from other citizens without having the same rights to live, work and have ownership of where they are. This lack of community and self-agency lead to acts of desperation, which is what is currently occurring in Germany, the UK and many other nations in Europe.

If we examine the landscape of the UK and the US, many investment properties are left uninhabited. In North London, inside “Billionaires Row”, rotting, derelict mansions worth £350m+ are left deserted. These crumbling mansions may serve as a reminder of what could potentially occur in cities such as San Francisco. They also represent an opportunity for lawmakers in the UK to make a change in law to perhaps allow these kinds of buildings to be renovated into government-owned flats in which they can follow Singapore’s lead into home ownership for the masses.

Billionaire's Row in North London. These mansions are unoccupied, rotting and falling into disrepair.

To build a nation in which happiness has a tangible and quantifiable factor, we must first build homes for the people who live there, and allow acceptance of different cultures and religions through education, architecture and art. For many years, San Francisco has been throwing money at different charities and organisations to help the homeless which have not had much success. The underlying root of the rising crime by migrants in Europe can be parallel to the homeless problem in America’s tech capital and also in London: a lack of a place where they call “home”.

As the University of Cambridge educated, current Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong has said: “No race or culture is coerced into conforming with other identities, let alone that of the majority...In fostering such an approach for a multi-racial, multi-religious society rooted in its Asian cultures, [we] also need the arts and culture ‘to nourish our souls’”.

Art, music, performance and architecture are ways that people have celebrated our different cultures throughout history, and these are also the mediums in which we can also utilise to build a more cohesive, harmonious and multi-racial community.

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