It’s 8 a.m. here in Singapore.
I’m sitting outside on a balcony on the 16th floor of the Espada condominium in the Somerset neighborhood. From here I can look ahead and into other people’s property – that is, other homes in other luxury abodes surrounding me. There are at least a dozen within a two mile radius of where I sit of similar high-rise buildings exuding the same posh status akin to the one I’m staying in also represents.
According to my friend Ryan, with whom my wife and I are staying, many of his building’s residents are expats – and this particular neighborhood is well-populated with Westerners from around the world. Ryan is American, as are my wife and I, though we are all also Asian, which we all agreed, makes for many less-than-ideal introductory conversations surrounding “where we’re from”.
Ryan is placed here temporarily for work and he’s been put up handsomely. From his bedroom he has a panoramic view of the Somerset neighborhood at his daily disposal. Each room of his “modest” apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows, as if peering into other people’s places is one of the many understood perks of living in such residences at all.
If I had actually lived in this unit, I would likely be engaging in unhealthy amounts of people-watching and would probably indulge in my fair share of voyeurism (My wife acknowledged that she would probably do the same, and so I feel a little less alone in my admission).
Because it is still quite early in the morning, Singapore at its most bustling and buzzy is less apparent. It feels more like a quiet jungle interspersed with high-rise concrete structures darting up from the ground (Which appropriately, beckons the the “concrete jungle” saying).
To the left of the balcony is another development, the only blight to an otherwise, stunning view from above. It looks to be the beginnings of another residential building, still in the stage of exposed beams and rusted metal. According to Ryan, next to the development is a tiny residential building, which apparently, houses the migrant workers that have been hired to work on the development next door.
It is Sunday, today, and early, but I can already tell, these workers won’t be having today off.
Besides the rumored worker housing and the eyesore of early construction, there is little about this neighborhood that feels any less manicured into a self-contained sort of perfection. It looks like the neighborhood was built especially for their own residents to walk around in, to bask and delight in the magnificence of where they live.
I write this knowing full well that this temporary fantasy world of luxury will cease in the next 24 hours, as my wife and I will return to our humble abode on Penang Island, where we must downgrade to the 15th floor balcony view instead.
Where we live in Penang is far from shabby, as well. What we earn, however, is absolutely modest which requires us, in turn, to actually live modestly, as well. Still, we both value living simply and with unwavering commitment we hope to actually do so (Which makes having a partial ocean view from the 15th floor of our rented apartment already a slight compromise).
I told my wife last night, that I didn’t want, to want all of this.
What I mean is, I don’t want to have this festering desire to accumulate more than what my family and I need, simply because the kind of lifestyle around me seems to demand it. As if luxury, begets more luxury – which I believe, it would.
And to be clear, I mean this not as an indictment of my friend Ryan’s lifestyle. He was gifted with an opportunity to come to live in Singapore temporarily for work, and he’s genuinely taken to this little, powerful cosmopolitan city-state. He didn’t choose this way of living for himself – it was given. And if I were in his position, offered a chance to live in a safe, exclusive neighborhood, high above the rapid living below, there’s a good chance I’d take it in a heartbeat too.
But I’d want to be able to leave it all behind, just as easily, if I could.
I want to live with enough conviction to walk away the moment I felt a borrowed lifestyle consumed me more than my own integrity did. I’d much rather, still, the latter.
I can imagine the comfortable living here to feel, almost contagious. Like a kind of good-feeling disease people wouldn’t mind having, or sharing, for that matter.
I’m allowing myself a little room for judgment here, so I’m just going to say this: in Singapore, to have things, just seems so utterly, Singaporean. As if there isn’t another desirable way to live, than to accumulate wealth and establish comfort. That said, I want any Singaporean friends to show me something else. I invite any passionate sort of retort to my judging, American ways.
Had I had loads of cash at my disposal, I’m afraid I may have burned it all quickly on this short trip, as if I needed to purchase things I didn’t really need because purchasing things is exactly what people did here. Even those without much money, I imagine, still found things they could afford to purchase.
Perhaps I’m not saying anything particularly egregious when I say that this country reeks of rampant materialism (Though, I suppose, by saying it that way, I’m not exactly saying it, nicely either, even if it were true). I can’t help but imagine some thoughtful Singaporean citizens having already made this sort of a self-condemnation long ago, and often. I don’t imagine everyone is swept up by an uncontrollable desire to accumulate things, or to literally “rise up” into a luxury home. But I do get the sense that the pressure to want this for oneself, in a place like this, that beams with material success, is more than just palpable. The pressure might be boiling over, for many…
Though, maybe not for everybody.
When I see women sweeping the balconies of the apartments across from where I sit, I wonder what it is that they really want, living here. Or the men hired to build an apartment complex they likely could never afford living in in their lifetime – what do they desire? Or perhaps the maid pushing around the stroller behind the family with a newborn – what would she like to have for herself?
I’d hate to start assuming everyone wants the same things.
As I said earlier, for me, I wouldn’t want, to want any of this, really. Perhaps luckily for me, I actually get to leave it.