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December 20, 2014

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The irony-free Singapore sting

Excuse me, waiter, but I didn’t order this slice of comeuppance for breakfast.

But there it was, staring me in the face, flanked on the left by dry cereal and on the right by some strange, indigenous fruit that should have come with peeling instructions: this warm-morning, cold serving of smarm and scold from the Singapore newspaper.

“The West Must Learn to Manage Decline,” proclaimed the column’s headline, and the rest of it, like the first of it, didn’t leave much to interpretation. According to the writer — a dean of public policy at the local university — the Western Hemisphere in general and the U.S. in particular has run out of gas and is about to be lapped by the Chinese and Russians in world influence and importance.

Yikes. Talk about a Singapore mudsling.

One side effect of traveling overseas is you find out what other countries think of yours. Maybe you’d think people would hesitate to say where you’re from, you know, sucks, but in fact they don’t. It’s like opening your U.S. passport emits a mist of sodium pentothal and everyone, everywhere wants to give you his unsolicited and unabridged opinion. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an elevator (“Not going well for you guys in Afghanistan, huh?”), a taxi (“The CIA hijacked MH 370 so they could blame it on the Muslims”) or a hotel bar full of Aussie ex-pats (“Americans are dumb, fat and lazy”).

Now hold it right there, mate. We’re not all fat.

But this side effect turns out to have a side effect of its own. You start looking around and taking inventory, comparing and contrasting what’s there with what’s here. And admittedly in some cases, and ashamedly in others, these detractors do have a point. Take for example, Los Angeles International Airport.

Yes, take it. Please.

Up until about six months ago, there was a direct flight from LAX to Singapore. The bad news was it took 18 hours. The good news was you arrived 25 years into the future.

Or so it seemed. You took off from the crumbling and chaotic Bradley Terminal in L.A. and landed at Changi International, which is to airports what Lifetime Fitness is to gyms and Bellagio is to casinos. It’s beautiful, it’s clean, and it’s easy to navigate. You could, as they say, eat off the floor, but then of course you’d worry about the floor getting dirty.

And the rest of the country, or city-state as they call it, doesn’t disappoint. It’s famously pristine and orderly, replete with new-world amenities and old-world charm. And for a place the size of San Francisco with 6.5 million people, there’s hardly any traffic to speak of. Of course, part of that is because the cost of an average new car, for example a Toyota Camry, is $150,000. And that doesn’t include the 10-year certificate of entitlement from the government that will set you back another $80,000.

The restaurants are great, the nightlife is better, and in between the times they’re telling you America is destined for the dustbin of history, the people are absolutely delightful.

But are they right? Is our country on the back nine of its geopolitical pre-eminence, playing out the final few holes in long shadows, the sun setting on us while rising on another? Are we all just victims of dramatic irony, where everyone in the audience knows what’s going to happen to us before we figure it out ourselves? Is this decline inevitable and irrevocable, leaving as the only recourse its mitigation and “management?”

Meh, probably not. We still possess the largest economy, the strongest military, the best alliances, and the widest streak of innovation, initiative and generosity on the planet. And if you really, truly, honestly believe Russia or China would make a more benevolent, less intrusive superpower, then I’ve got a $230,000 used Camry I’d like to sell you.

Besides, no matter the arrows that coming slinging our way, even our toughest critic would agree that when you’re in a jam, the one you’re going to call is Uncle Sam.

To wit: When asked what would happen if foreign aggressors ever invaded Singapore, the taxi driver — he of the CIA hijacking conspiracy theory — shook his head and said with complete absence of irony, “That’s not a worry. Not at all. America has so many business interests here, they would have to protect us.”

Ah yes, good sir. We’ve got your back, even when you’re stabbing us in ours.

Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Bally Technologies.

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