In many ways, Singaporeans have it astonishingly good. The country has the fourth highest GDP per capita in the world - according to the International Monetary Fund, only Qatar, Luxembourg and Norway edge it out – and the people have an extremely high standard of living. The place drips in wealth and prosperity; shiny, odd-shaped buildings are constantly under construction, the streets are famously clean and the towers of the central business district are a physical reminder that Singapore is a global player.


In many ways, this is an economic miracle. Singapore has been a major trading port since the British snaffled it up in 1819, but since independence the island nation has prospered remarkably. But it’s only when you start poking your nose in that you discover the trade-offs the Singaporean people have made. There’s something stiflingly claustrophobic about living in a city that is also an island and a country – and it becomes even more so once you realise how engineered society is. If you need one example that shows this perfectly, it’s the road up to the Woodlands crossing into Malaysia. A series of signs warn that all Singaporean cars must have three-quarter full tanks of petrol. It’s an attempt to stop people nipping over for cheap fuel, and $500 fines are handed out to anyone whose tank is even minutely below three-quarters full.


80% of the Singaporean population lives in flats which are heavily subsidised by the government. Most of these are in satellite towns that become ubiquitous as you drive around the island. They’re not bad – all towns have public swimming pools and most facilities you could wish for, as well as nearby industries to provide jobs. They’re just scarily identikit.The theory is that as each satellite town is served by the Rapid Mass Transit system, and each is roughly the same, then it doesn’t matter which you live in. This is reinforced by complicated rules on reselling flats and the ethnic quotas for living in each block (an attempt to ensure racial harmony).


This rigid organisation seems to apply across the island. All of the cemeteries are in the same area, the poultry farms are all next to each other and the ornamental fish farms (a surprisingly massive industry here) effectively make a town by themselves. It’s all rather weird. Then there’s the notoriously tough penal code. We all know about the ban on chewing gum sales, but in a place where you get six lashes of the cane for spraying graffiti, you really don’t want to be doing anything naughtier. You really, really don’t want to be caught in possession of drugs in Singapore – as many foreigners on death row have found out to their cost.


But the really surprising thing about Singapore is how militaristic it is. Large swathes of the country are behind barbed wire and patches of rainforest are cordoned off with none-too-subtle signs depicting wandering visitors being bayoneted by chaps in helmets. The national service regime is unbelievably strict too. Everyone has to do two years in armed forces, police or defence force, and must be operationally ready until the age of 40. This, in practice, means that young Singaporeans have to undergo a tough refresher course every year for a week or more. And if they’re not fit enough to pass, they’re detained in an army camp for seven days and put through a boot camp until they do pass. “It’s HELL,” one Singaporean reservist told me. It’s interesting to see the other side of this apparent utopia. As long as you’re content to go along with the system, life is good. But the prosperity of the Singapore Straits comes with a strait-jacket that must be unbearable for some. And to try and break out of it can lead to all kinds of trouble.