My friends Samir and Shubhra had relocated to Singapore to pursue a better quality of life. Shubhra recently bore a daughter and cringed at the lifestyle of working mothers in the States. Reminiscent of India, the cost of labor in Singapore was reasonable and she could find domestic help. I bid them a tearful goodbye on their departure from New Jersey, haboring visions of their nearly royal existence in the exotic Southeast.
Fast forward four years later, and I was aboard Singapore Airlines for a visit. I had heard rave reviews about Singapore Airlines before and I am positive they all came from men. I was less impressed by their service than by the fire engine red lips all attendants puckered and their bosom-bearing cobalt outfits. Compared to stately Korean attendants in smart-looking suits from Asiana Air, I got a taste of Singapore before I even got off the plane.
Singapore gleamed at first glance. Floors, walls, and handles were polished until they shone. High-rises loomed from windows and interiors were vibrant colors like pumpkin orange or lime green. The airport was a luxury house in itself with shopping galore, shimmering marble surfaces, posh massage parlors and chairs, free wi-fi, and delectable foods from all over the world. I took the Metro to my friends' place, a modern silver train that made me ashamed of dingy NYC subway cars.
Amid kisses and jokes, my friends introduced me to Meera, their beautiful three year-old toddler and Alma, the Filipina "help." I was shocked when they opened the door to their flat. It was painstakingly bare. There was one table in the living area; only mattresses and sheets in the bedrooms. Refuge-style. The air-conditioning was turned off, despite a temperature of over 92 degreess Fahrenheit. Now Samir and Shubhra were both successful professionals in their fields, and I was under the impression both had been promoted in Singapore. Yet they seemed far more affluent in America. Then they shared with me the reason...taxes.
Samir confided, "Don't be misled by the low income taxes. I had no idea things would be this expensive." He proceeded to enumerate a litany of grievances. "In Singapore, you pay taxes on your home and on your car and on the radio inside your car. You pay a special tax for every television you own and every computer you use. You pay wages to a domestic servant, and then taxes for using her services, even though she is not affiliated with the state. You pay for a license to own a car, another license to drive it on weekends and evenings, and an additional license for unlimited use of your own car. Then you have the exquisite honor of paying a toll every single time you cross a stoplight, whether it is red or green. Multiple times if you are lost or looking for a parking spot..."
"No taxation without representation." So goes the famous American mantra. In Singapore, it is "no breathing without taxation." Every movement you make, everything you own or use, is fair game in the name of taxes.
I began thinking about expectations. My friends had envisioned an entirely different future when they moved here, one of prosperity and relaxation, far from the bitter cold of the American Northeast. Singapore was a veneer of glass and mirrors and glittering opulence, behind which they struggled. The city was everything in material success. The food was fantastic, designer brands were prevalent, and inviting real estate sprawled for miles. It just had no heart. And it was a dream they could scarcely afford.