Red tape

Singapore, as anyone who has lived here can tell you, is all about the red tape

Standing in line to stand in line.

At the bank and the cell phone stores this week we have stood in line to talk to a person to tell them what we wanted to do there so that we could get a number and stand in line some more.

Provide all the documentation in the world

When we went to go get cell phones, we were told we needed a signed tenancy agreement.

We brought out signed tenancy agreement and produced Ravi’s employment and my dependent passes (they look like drivers licenses with our FIN (foreign identification number) numbers on the front and a digital copy of our thumbprint on the back.  They are valid for specific dates (two years from issue) and prove that we are here as legal immigrants.

They wanted our passports, too.

So we had to go a third time with our tenancy agreement, our passes, and our passports.

The number of places that want your passport (the bank, the cell phone company) instead of your pass are astounding…it’s almost like we should have them on us at all times (something that makes us both nervous for obvious reasons…we prefer to have them in a safe…and if you lose your passport, as Ravi well knows, the US government can and will make your life hell).

Don’t ask questions

The most frustrating experiences I have had in Singapore, bar none, have been instances where I have asked for something different that the norm or questioned the logic of something.


Can I do it differently?  The answer is NO or you so confuse the person that their head looks like it’s going to explode.

The Paradox

I think the most surprising part of this massive red tape machine is that it (for the most part) functions smoothly and effectively.

For example, when I went to get my Dependent Pass, I made an appointment online.  I went to the building.  Next to the office is a passport photo office (run by the same government agency, not like a CVS or a kodak store).  You stop, get your new passport photos (5 minutes in and out for both E and myself) go to the main office.  You log into the computer to let them know you’re there.  You sit and your name and which counter you’re supposed to go to flashes on a board.  They check your documents, they take what they need, they scan your fingerprint (optional for kids starting at 6, obviously E is far to wiggly and small to do the fingerprint) with a biometric scanner.  One-three days later you go back (or the agent from your employer does) with your passport, go to a different counter and pick up your card.  The office was clean, tastefully decorated, and the process was as faster than my last appointment at the DMV in Watertown.

The level of efficiency definitely varies.  Starhub (our cell provider, also does internet and cable) is always a mob scene and it’s always a long wait once you get past the gatekeeper (the day we got turned away it was a 2 hour wait, the day we made it the wait was about an hour and that was short for them), and it feels a lot like the hurry up and wait experience of flying (minus the security checkpoint).  The pediatrician’s office we went to (a government pedi…I’m looking for one affiliated with the private hospitals) looked like the most utilitarian place in the world…it had generic benches, no toys, and white paint on the walls.  But it still had that number over the door for the next person to enter when it was their turn.  The bank had comfy armchairs and televisions and magazines.  But there was the number board.

I’m not sure if knowing what number they’re on versus your number is meant to soothe the anxiety over not knowing how long the wait will be or to remind you that you’re not the only person in the world who needs to get it done and now or what…but as it ticks slowly closer to yours, you do get a rising bubble of excitement/relief.  It’s like you’re inching closer to the Promised Land.

As it is a big society trying to function in a small space (Singapore is half the size of LA or so I’m told) I suppose it would be chaotic without some big machine trying to organize it all.  It has definitely given me new perspective on all the sides to various disagreements at home over how to make the US function more smoothly, why people have anxiety over those proposed changes, and how unwieldy it might be if anything like this was set in motion there.

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4 Responses to Red tape

  1. cubicalgirl says:

    A few reandom thoughts that your post touched off in my head:

    1) I really take for granted how easy it is for me to move about in the US as a citizen. I can get by with one little driver’s license (or my passport, in a pinch).

    2) Your saga reminds me of the long line of “people” waiting, with numbers in hand, for service in the underworld in “Beetlejuice.”

    3) It also reminds me of going to the CT DMV to get my license switched over from PA to CT. I had to log in at a computer that asked me all sorts of questions, took my photo (not the photo they used on the license, for some reason), and then assigned me a number. The trouble is, they called my number WHILE THE COMPUTER WAS STILL ASKING ME QUESTIONS. I rushed to the window as soon as I could but I was terrified they were going to chuck me to the back of the line (they didn’t and I was thankfully in and out in about an hour).

  2. augustss says:

    Starhub sounds like Comcast in NYC. I don’t know how many hours I’ve waited there to get a box, change a box, return a box.

  3. Daphne says:

    Hi… I happened upon your blog… am Singaporean, and would just like to share that next time you’re in the queue at Starhub and there are tons of people in front of you, you can leave your mobile number with the receptionist and they’ll text you a few queue numbers before yours. I do that all the time… and get my lunch/shopping/etc etc done in that hour or so before my number is up. =)

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