In Which I Libel the Minister Mentor And Am Sued for One Zillion Dollars by mattsteinglass
May 15, 2007, 9:04 pm
Filed under: Asia, Internet

So I interviewed Larry Diamond, former Iraq democracy czar, for an article last week on how the Singapore model is helping kill Asian democracy, and he said: “There’s never been an authoritarian regime that has been as rich and successful as Singapore, in the history of the world. That’s a problem.” Now, this is an interesting point. But what is more interesting, in my view, is that Singapore is supposedly the one city in Asia where things and systems are simple, efficient, clear, and easy to do business with; and yet, in my brief experience of this city, lasting about 2.5 days so far, NOTHING F***KING WORKS.

This, obviously, is an exaggeration. Singapore is a very nice city, and a lot of things do work. But let’s take an example, a showpiece of Singaporean 1st-worldiness: the city-wide WiFi network. This system is a beautiful thing indeed, with the one minor drawback that it doesn’t exist. Even on paper. Let’s walk down the ladder of claims. First, Singapore claims to be the first city in SE Asia with a city-wide WiFi network, wireless@sg. But that claim quickly evaporates: it’s actually only accessible at a few hot spots, notably Starbucks and McDonalds outlets. And here’s the thing: I turned on my laptop at Starbucks, and wireless@sg didn’t even appear. Nobody at Starbucks could understand why, including the seemingly tech-whizzish kid who was huddling in the cushy lounge chair area hacking around; he spent twenty minutes on my computer before giving up.

Additionally, all internet cafes in Singapore are of the dismal, cramped terminals-in-a-wallboard-hellhole circa 2000 variety; and access costs 3 singapore dollars PER HOUR (2 USD), minimum. (This is about 12 times as expensive as in Vietnam or China.) There is one chic classy internet cafe downtown, “Chill Cafe”; access there is FIVE dollars an hour. So each day I’m failing to access the alleged citywide WiFi is another day I spend throwing away money in a dirty cubicle instead of having free WiFi access while I sip my coffee in a lounge chair to the sounds of Norah Jones, like you’d get at any medium-shitty coffee shop in the US or Hanoi.

The following day, at another Starbucks, an employee explained to me that I probably would have to sign on to the internet and download some kind of doohickey to use the network. This was subsequently confirmed by some tech guy at an electronics store. (I had by now been trying fitfully, for over 24 hours, to access the magnificent seamless Singapore WiFi net, in the gaps between doing my actual job — viz., reporting, interviewing, etc.) I thus went into an internet cafe, logged on, and tried to access SingTel to get the doohickey in question. But access at the internet cafe was interminable — I waited 5 minutes trying to download the page, then gave up. Finally a lady at my hotel advised me to go down to Bugis Junction shopping mall, where there was supposedly a SingTel store, and figure it out.

Oh, in the meantime, I tried accessing WiFi from my hotel room, and found something called M3, or something, which claimed to offer 24 hours’ access — for 32 Singapore dollars! (About $21 USD.) What a steal! That would get me a month of ADSL in Hanoi. And, of course, nobody knew how or where I was supposed to go to pay for this M3 WiFi access, or get an access key; so it was irrelevant.

And then it was time for an afternoon of interviews. Finally, at about 7 pm, I took the subway to Bugis Junction, and found a store called “Mobi****????” (can’t actually remember), which fortunately turned out to be the mobile brandname of SingTel. (WHAT is the POINT of a brandname which CONFUSES the consumer about what the product is and what he’s buying? WHY do we have this USELESS proliferation of brandnames? The frogs are all going extinct, the pandas are dying out — the only thing we’re going to be left with on this planet is a cornucopia of brandnames.) All these employees in little red shirts are running around frantically servicing customers; you have to take a number, and the line is like 10 people long. I don’t even know if I’m in the right place, so I grab this kid in the back and ask him: can you help me connect my laptop to wireless@sg? He says, yes, take a number and we’ll help you adjust the settings on your computer. So I take a number. I wait. My turn comes. The guy says: “We can’t help you in this store, we don’t actually have wireless access here. We can just set it up, but you can’t use it here, sir.” (Note: this is with regard to the alleged CITY-WIDE WiFi network.) I say: “I don’t trust that it will work, then. But jesus, if that’s all you can do, then who can help me?” Mobi???!!! Guy: “Do you have a SingTel subscription, sir? Do you have an access card, sir? Do you have a this? Do you have a that? Do you have the other, sir?” Me: “No, no, and no. I just came from abroad.” Mobi??!!! Guy: “Okay, you’ll have to buy a SingTelWhoopDeeDoo Card Wireless Subscription Doohickey… Do you have your passport, sir?” Me: “My passport? No, I have my driver’s license.” Mobi????!!! Guy: “No, we can only with passport.” Me: Steam. Grrr. Smile. “It’s really not worth it, then, is it?” Mobi???!!! Guy: “Oh, yes, it is worth it, sir.” Me: “You really can’t do it with a driver’s license?” Mobi???!! Gu: “Only passport, sir.” Me: “You’re afraid I’m going to steal the wireless access.” Mobi??!!! Guy: “Not exactly, sir.”

Here’s how this works in Ho Chi Minh City. You walk into Highland Coffee*. You turn on your computer. The Highland Coffee WiFi system shows up. You have to get a Highland Coffee login id and a password. And that’s it. All done. You surf for free.

But Singapore is a model of efficiency.

Curse you, Minister Mentor! Curse you and your evil minions! And now you may go ahead and sue me for a zillion dollars like you do everybody else.

But I did get one thing accomplished today: I bought a wide-angle lens for my camera at an electronics store in SimLim center. Check out my badassed wide-angle action — the dude with the “Reality is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency” T-shirt was actually French.

reality is an illusion

* The post originally said “Starbucks”. As alert reader Mike pointed out, Vietnam has so far been successful in preventing the evil Green Empire from establishing a toehold on its territory. The relevant coffee place is Highland Coffee.

5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Are you sure this is Starsbuck store in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City? I just came back from Saigon last week, no sight of Starsbuck / Mac Donald…could only find 1 miserable KFC. Anyway, there are a lot of home grown coffee house like Highland Coffee.

Comment by Mike

Of course, you’re right — slipped my mind. It would be a Highlands Coffee.

Comment by mattsteinglass

so you’re a wimp after all. dare not publish my comments for fear of looking silly? hah. thought so.

Comment by ethan

Singapore city-wide Wifi Networks is not for any foreigner who comes into the country and use. One needs a registration before one can use.

Comment by CYMUN

CYMUN: the questions remain as follows. First, why require a registration? What possible purpose does this serve, other than potentially monitoring who is looking at what? Second, given that the registration is itself, as it turns out, free, and requires only that one provide one’s passport number, what is the point? There doesn’t seem to be any way to check whether a user has provided a fake passport number — unless, unbeknownst to me, the system actually checked my passport against an Immigration Service database before sending me my wireless@sg password. Third, why did the employee at the Mobi store tell me I needed my passport, when in fact all I needed was my passport NUMBER; and why do employees at mobile phone stores, internet cafes, and Starbucks outlets mostly have no idea how to sign up for the service? Fourth, why do almost no hotels in Singapore (none that I talked to) have internal WiFi networks — standard, by now, at two-star hotels elsewhere in Asia? Fifth, why do internet cafes in Singapore cost at least 12 times as much as in China? The bytes aren’t more expensive.

All of this casts Singapore as less efficient than not only first-world cities like New York (where WiFi is free and easy to use in coffee shops, libraries, airports etc.) but than third-world cities like Ho Chi Minh City. If Singapore is serious about remaining competitive in the era of the “Rise of the Creative Class”, it will have to change its attitude on questions like these.

Comment by mattsteinglass

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