Singapore musings

I just finished up a series of workshops in Singapore. Throughout the ten days I was there, I jotted down notes, which were little musings that popped into my head based on things that caught my attention. As I was leaving Singapore (for Vietnam,) the various notations reached a kind of a critical mass and so I am sitting down during my first few days in Ho Chi Minh City and writing this blog entry.

Entering and leaving Singapore, the immigration signs/forms have very clear wording about how “drug traffickers are subject to the death penalty.” When I saw that as I was leaving, I thought to myself, “that may not be such a bad thing.” I wonder, do they really mean the kind of low-level drug offenders, like the majority of prisoners in America’s jails? (I hope note.) Or do they mean the leaders who run the trafficking empires? (I hope so.) The only thing I might add is that I wish they also had something like “human traffickers are subject to the death penalty.” Human trafficking is a major problem across the world. If a few countries, like Singapore, attacked it as seriously as it attacks drug trafficking, it could make a real difference.

Singapore is something of a meritocracy, meaning that people with talent and perseverance are rewarded for that regardless of their ethnicity, gender, etc. The Muslim population of Singapore brings far too much human potential to that society to be marginalized because their beliefs are “different.” I wish I could say the same about America’s embrace of its Muslim minority, but I worry that I cannot. If we are serious about competing on a global playing field, we need all the talent we can utilize, regardless of race, gender or religion. In the end, I understand the levers of power are disproportionately in the hands of the ethnic Chinese in Singapore. But the minorities, including the Muslim population, generally feel like and act like they are part of the ethnic patchwork that is Singaporean society. There certainly is a lesson there for Americans.

While in Singapore, I taught my favorite class on the Photo-Essay, plus I taught a couple smaller, one-night seminars focused on the business side of photography. I suspect I scared a few people away from pursuing stock photography “on the side.” I think that doing that was a good thing, since making money doing stock photography is almost a full-time job. I wanted the students to have realistic understanding of all the work involved working as a professional photographer.

A couple things struck me as peculiarly Singaporean about some of the student’s reactions to the points I was trying to raise about the challenges involved in today’s hyper-competitive commercial photography market. First, keep in mind that Singaporeans are a notoriously pragmatic bunch. Some of the ones who said they were serious about becoming full-time photographers embraced the idea of making short-term and long-term plans for how to transition out of their “day jobs.” Such planning is something I strongly advocate, but few of the American students that I encounter are prone to follow. By comparison, the Americans I encounter, seem a bit more like irrational dreamers who would throw themselves into something they love, even if they lack any kind of plan. While that idea sounds very arty and dramatic, I wonder how many good people are unsuccessful going that route, failing when a little planning and long-term thinking might have yielded the success they so desired.

The other discussion that came up was the idea of alternative careers in photography, besides just producing images on assignment for paying customers. It was such a great dialogue, that I will be making it into a separate blog entry in the near future.

Singapore being a cultural and ethnic melting pot, I saw and heard many languages. As I was leaving Singapore (and I was entering Vietnam,) I thought about how people talk about the dominance of English across the globe. While English is certainly an important and growing linguistic force, the real 800-pound gorilla of global linguistics is the Latin alphabet. Something like 100 languages use some form of the Latin alphabet, including the obvious ones like, English, French, German, etc. Then throw in languages like Turkish, Vietnamese and Malay, and then it gets interesting. To really appreciate the global spread of the Latin alphabet, read more at

In all, Singapore, as usual, got me thinking about life, photography, politics, (and of course, food.) I tried a couple of new restaurants and enjoyed some good food at some of my old-favorite eating stops. One thing that struck me was how, by comparison, the most benign, run of the mill shopping mall food court in Singapore has a wider range of cuisines than the entirety of many American cities. The “Food-fanatic” in me likes that and wonders, why America can’t embrace the food diversity that makes Singapore such an interesting place in which to eat?

One response to “Singapore musings”

  1. Interesting piece, as usual, David. Thanks. I wonder how some of the different attitudes toward freedom vs. control and pragmatism vs. ideology play out further in Singapore as well as in the U.S. I hope you will add your thoughts on these themes in Vietnam- as well as your experience there.

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