Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Notes on Singapore

At the risk of sounding condescending, I cannot escape the conclusion that Singapore is the most adorable of any ‘major’ city in the world. Since large human conglomerations are loath to arouse such sentiments, perhaps this is a misnomer. Cities – real ones at least – should not conjure fuzzy feelings, warm afterthoughts or a yielding desire to bend over. Yes Singapore somehow does. Is the media almost entirely state-owned and censored? Yes. Military service obligatory and ethnically discriminatory? Right again. Comically patriarchal? But of course. Political demonstrations of three or more people illegal under pain of immediate arrest? Economic inequality of 22nd century East Asian proportions? Yada. Yada. Yaditsky. All the same, the city strikes the ignorant observer as an epitome of socio-political harmony – a philosopher-king’s dream state, Plato’s Multiethnic Jungle-cum-Golf Course Republic to a T. But how do they pull it off?
I arrived at Changi airport from Jakarta and headed straight for Raffles Place – the epicenter of the city-state’s financial and commercial district – to meet an old acquaintance for dinner. Entering the plaza from the metro, you emerge into a smallish public square of perfectly trimmed grass crisscrossed by cobbled paths and ringed with rocking swings (yes, wooden, love-seats swaying to and fro). Each of said metro exits is a 15-foot, whitewashed Art Deco relic of the colonial era similar in size to those of Paris from the belle époque. What pre-mass transit purpose they may have served under the British remains a mystery, though they’re underhandedly charming all the same.
It was a warm but pleasant evening, nearing the end of rush hour, buzzing with hurried suits and perspiring whites just leaving the gym (not otherwise mutually exclusive). The smallish plaza is flanked by thundering commercial towers on each side; at least two of them jealously advertise the city’s most coveted address, ‘One Raffles Place,’ in staid neon letters somewhere between the pavement and the sky. The ground floors of each building are lined with standard high-end Asian fare: exotic sporting goods, algae-based smoothies, generic soy-based cappuccinos. A muffled ditty from ‘Brunei’s Got Talent’ hums in the background.
Of all the noise pollution, one in particular stood out. Facing the middle of the plaza from its southern end was a massive 12-by-15-foot plasma-screen projector beaming images of the good life down upon the manicured masses. As I looked up, a beautiful 7-foot blond was diving into an Olympic swimming pool somewhere in the tropics, her Patek Philip-toting 5-year old just behind her. Singaporeans were kindly reminded to consider their forthcoming vacation.
All that is good and well – such is the imagery one gets in Hong Kong and elsewhere on the double. What struck me, however, was the byline along the bottom – that ubiquitous ‘second (and third and fourth) chance’ that broadcast media gets these days: “Maoist terrorists attack farmers in vast majority of India. Thousands shot, hundreds killed. Villages razed to the ground to justify antiquarian ideological obsessions. State of national emergency declared in all but three states.” No sound bite – just the smooth, unadulterated catch-phrase flow of any line that flashes across the bottom of your screen. “Nasdaq’s down. Bulls rout Pacers. Couple wins the lottery. Muslims self-immolate. Communist Indians commit collective suicide.”
It was a spectacular sight to behold, especially given the fact that only rarely does any news outfit outside rural India cover the Nexalite movement (call it what you will). Of course, we all engage in selective amnesia: I’d rather spending my Sunday afternoon reading about organic pet spas than forced population transfers – but this was flipping that logic on its Orwellian head (forgive me the latter adjective).
Most of us recoil at the sight of bad or depressing news that the self-righteous constantly try to force upon a hard-working and sated public. Not in Singapore. Rather like their Soviet counterparts at the height of the Cold War, Singapore’s media outlets – draped in a backdrop of pious consumerism – are also there to remind you that the world is a living, breathing, stinking shit-hole beyond the moat of our Platonic realm. (Think Pravda’s portrayals of Americans brutally resisting the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s). Yet after 48-hours there I was ready to agree! As the beaming screens issue reminders of Maoist terror in India, the top-right corner of the morrow’s tabloids shows the gruesome prelude to an elevator malfunction in Mainland China (I will not go into detail but it involves a beheading). The message is very clear: the rest of the world doesn’t know what the fuck they’re doing. Judging from events, perhaps they don’t. But what’s fascinating about Singapore is the extent to which they’re convinced they do.
The first morning in town I decided to go for a stroll. Five minutes out of Little India I stumble upon the striking new campus of Singapore Management University, where said friend of mine had gone to school. There is a cute little cappuccino truck parked in the outdoor quad some 20 meters from the sidewalk. Before I get any closer, a public advertisement catches my attention. A young, good-looking bachelor with a buzz-cut (odd for the affluent and educated though fitting for the weather) is making an apologetic puppy-face, shoulders shrugged and palms turned toward the heavens as if to say, “I’d rather not share a cell with the mustachioed one from Jersey.” It seems he has been caught smoking (outside) on campus. “Bros don’t let bros get caught smoking in unauthorized parts of campus,” reads the six-foot sign in bold. It then urges you to visit their website online,
Ten minutes later I am at Cunningham Fort (or some Englishman’s name I cannot recall), a choice hilltop park with views of the old colonial quarter and financial district just beyond. There are no other tourists but the grounds are immaculately kept and littered with catchy, antiquated cannons (even for the 19th century) and poorly crafted sculptures from local ‘artists’. It is a delightful getaway in the middle of city’s choicest real estate.
As I descend the hill, I cannot help but notice the ‘Muslim Marriage Center’ at the southern end of the park. A public entity, it seemed to have been established in the same fashion as the Parks and Recreation Department or the Bureau of Cryptography. “What an endearing sight! They’ve reserved the choicest public park to for native Malays’ to get married in.” I thought it was merely the marriage license bureau for those of said religious persusion. It was not.
Several feet later one sees the massive poster appealing to the newly wed. “You’ve got the ring and booked rooms for the in-laws. Your mates are flying in from London for the after-party. Now you have do is figure out how to cohabitate for the next half-century – and that’s where we come in.” The message was simple. “Marriage is a nasty bit of work – a grueling, perpetual project of grief and restraint, boredom and anxiety. Don’t think that because you’re fresh today you’ll get booty in five years’ time. But come chat with one of our experts, collect these brochures and we’ll see to it you only beat your wife at Ramadan.”
So I exaggerate. For all I know there are state-run Buddhist and Pentecostal marriage advisory centers scattered about the city, dolling out cooking tips and how to please your man without taking off your bonnet. The point is that the state so magnanimously takes it upon itself to do so. But then again, it’s far more impressive than Bloomberg’s Nanny State. At its worse, the latter tried to wean New Yorkers off the Big Gulp. At its best, it is constantly reminding you to keep an eye out abandoned suitcases in the subway (more to do with 9/11 than the Nanny State though the two are not unrelated). Singapore, on the other hand, the sweetest, safest city on Earth, not only addresses you as ‘bro’ when reminding you not to smoke, but encourages you to alert the authorities or press the emergency button in the metro the moment you see a suspicious character. It’s really quite spectacular – a combination of the Arizona driving law on methamphetamines with the tit-for-tat denunciations that plagued every totalitarian attempt in the 20th century (“Why’d you press the button, young man?” “He was jocking my style.”)
So we’ve reason to be enraged, do we not? Like the Yale faculty that got its panties in a bunch after Yale built a sister campus in Singapore, we must remember that this is a scaremongering, undemocratic regime with little time for freedom of expression or human rights. One that gives public lashes to naughty expat adolescents and forces domestic workers to labor seven days a week. “Capitalism with an Asian Face,” as Zizek has it, the kind that acts with as much alacrity toward slave wages and unfettered markets in the 21st century as it did to reeducation camps in the 1970s. But is this truly the entire story?
In the very short period I was in Singapore I saw zero Officers of the Law. I jaywalked with an elderly man and smoked wherever I saw fit. In Little India, men sat beneath the vaulted archways of crumbling arcades, mashing roti between their fingers and sipping cold Tigers all the night long. Putrid music blasted from various locales. Like the all-too-common marketing admonition to “Work hard and party harder”, Singapore just wants to make sure you’re living well. That they’re living well. That the government’s living well. Setting targets and meeting them. Saving for a dishwasher and buying it. Studying for an exam and passing it. Let us not forget there is a great underlying satisfaction to meeting what are commonly derided as simple bourgeois desires. Personally, I love nothing more than scarfing dirty Swedish meatballs after a grueling afternoon amongst the moneyed plebs at Ikea.
Herein lies the moral of the story. Singapore is very successful. And wealthy. And beautiful and clean. And prosperous and optimistic, law abiding and forward thinking. Multicultural and quadrilingual. Its schools are the best in the world, its food second to none. It has the most striking botanical gardens of any I’ve ever seen. Granted, the beer is rather expensive and ‘culture’ as such is lacking, but who amongst needs galleries to appreciate a good picture? With this here Canon I just close my eyes and shoot. Expats famously claim its staid and boring: these are the illiterate, unimaginative types.
A philosopher once said that the only things that mattered to man were love of soccer and sex. Not partaking in either activity, per se, but thinking about them, watching them, talking about them. This seems a misogynistic portrait; alas, I do not allude to the human condition but rather the aims of most people. To satisfy their (increasingly sophisticated) needs. To prosper. To provide for their children and posterity. To enjoy a nice sandwich from time to time. At the end of the day we are uncomplicated beasts. Not that the village pub will anymore suffice: it won’t – but now we’ve the smart phone to keep us busy. (What did urbanites do with their gaze before this? I cannot recall).
Like all gated communities both literal and metaphorical, I have always wondered what people talk about behind the curtains. Portfolios? New shoes? Shitty new Hollywood releases? The blister on your pinky toe? Probably the same things we do in Peoria. With that in mind, I tip my hat to Singapore, scion of 21st century achievement that you are. Kaleidoscopic Ferris wheel of social wealth and harmony. Place where mandarins go to die.

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