Singapore, Singapore

  • Date
  • 8 April 2001

I’m reading Singapore The Air-conditioned Nation, by Cherian George, who wrote for the Straits Times from 1990-2000. George expands on his original newspaper articles often theorizing on how politics, education and life could be improved in the Nanny State.

Reading George’s book and talking with Singaporeans has me wondering how Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, destined to be prime minister, will face the inevitable problem of lofty expectations of the people coupled with falling, or impossible to maintain, living standards. While in Singapore, I heard from locals and Westerners who were all too willing to offer thoughts on the state of things.

Hushed talk exists over censorship and monitoring of lives, with some speculating places are bugged. Newspapers and television stations, which must be licensed by the government, must tow the government line. Some non-Chinese say the Chinese are favored in Singapore in terms of government appointments, living areas and the focus on Mandarin. Indians and Malays are not actively protesting to change their perceived different status, but a dialog is underway on fairness and equality. Education too is a hot topic with many points of contention, such as an exclusionary Chinese school receiving major government support and some Muslim madrassahs not performing up to par.

But the proverbial safeness of Singapore remains real and enviable. We attended a Singapore Symphony performance in the Botanical Gardens and a few thousand people sipped wine or tea and ate imported food as their designer-clad children ran wild, but with manners, on the immaculate green lawn. No police or security guarded the event. I kept thinking that in Central Park we would have oodles of police monitoring the scene. The words from a man, born in India but now a US citizen, at dinner the other night stay with me, “In Singapore, I don’t have to worry about my child getting shot up at school. No city in America is safe from that horrible threat these days.”

And he is right. America is perceived to be the place of hope and home of the free, but in reality, free lunatics carry arms and kill on wild, unexplainable sprees, making freedom short-lived for victims. Singapore may suppress the voice of its citizens, made content living in a prosperous bubble, but the efficiency, cleanliness and positive mind set of the average person makes the compromise appear livable, at least on the surface. Yes, dissidents have been silenced and papers have been shut down, but students and professionals do not die at the hands of other crazed students or postal workers.

Complaints about Singapore being sterile and soul-less thrive with t-shirts listing the seemingly minor offenses, like chewing gum, jay-walking, and graffiti that can land offenders into trouble including being caned. But Singaporeans say, “Why make mountains out of molehills. Is chewing gum that important? The local train and bus seats are cleaner now”. Plenty of Singaporeans jay-walk, too.

The new country still toys, and sometimes struggles, with defining themselves. One said to me, “Are we a Western Singapore, a Chinese Singapore or a Singaporean Singapore”. Regardless of the strong Asian heritage, the city reflects little Asian influence on the ground with shiny, modern high-rises, often designed by Europeans, dotting the land-scarce island. Yet Mandarin is stressed among the Chinese (87% of Singapore’s population) and doing things the “Asian way” is cited as the best option by Lee and his followers. The economy and country, known as Singapore, Inc., are run better than many profitable businesses, and several ministers earn more than US$1 million annually, keeping corruption almost nil.

The combination of cultures, philosophies, consumerism, economics and such a small landmass makes Singapore a fascinating island nation. The even more interesting times will come when Singapore ceases to offer such a good life.