And so we come at last to Singapore, the strange city-state that so many of us associate with rattan canes and a tough dictatorship and no mercy for gum chewers.

It’s not quite accurate. In fact, it’s totally wrong. I mean, sure, if you are dumb enough to commit a felony you may face the cane, and chewing gum is prohibited, and the government is in essence a dictatorship. But Singapore is much, much more than these disparate parts, which for most citizens and vistors here are irrelevant. Singapore is in many ways a beautiful little paradise, perhaps the closest thing to utopia on the planet.

So many dictators have tried to create a utopia, and in so doing managed instead to create hell on earth. The Soviet Union was the first attempt of the last century, wherein Stalin managed to liquidate a huge chunk of the population and make the Gulag Archipelago his legacy. China under Mao was another, with the Cultural Revolution and inconceivably dreadful famines the result. Maybe the most awful in terms of sheer horror was Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. All of these social experiments draw striking similarities and you can only wonder why we are so incapable of learning from the past. The very last living example of a utopia imposed from the top down, a living, breathing nightmare, is today’s North Korea.

So how does this relate in any way to Singapore? I’m not yet sure if my argument is valid, but I do see a parallel: As with the above examples, Singapore as it is today is founded on the vision of one man, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He envisioned a city with green trees and green grass everywhere, a city with no crime, where the trains and buses run on time and the people live in harmony with one another. The people would be free, but the wise and benevolent dictatorship would protect its citizens, its children, from obviously dangerous influences — narcotics and stimulants, pornography, dirty words, unsocial beahaviour (like spitting and putting used chewing gum where it doesn’t belong), etc. Crime would be dealt with swiftly and mercilessly.

Being the liberal that I am, aspects of this vision bother me. Everything here is censored by a government that knows more than its citizens. If you bring video tapes into the country, be prepared for the customs agents to take them and watch them and cut out any segments with nudity or foul language. (And they send you a bill for doing this.) I hate censorship, and yet….

There can simply be no denying that Lee Kuan Yew’s vision has materialized and succeeded. Crime is all but unknown here. The city is lush with greenery, perfectly trimmed and manicured; everything about the city has been made to suit Lee’s vision, and, amazingly, I have to admit there is a lot to say for it. Yes, the beauty is entirely man-made, but it works.

The attitude of the Singaporeans toward the imposition of this vision on their nation and on their lives is most interesting. From all I can tell, most of the citizens are thrilled with it. They admit some freedoms are restricted, but they believe that the payoff makes it well worthwhile. They are protected by a loving and paternalistic government that knows better than they do — a government that can indeed be tough when the situation warrants it, but that will in general be their friend.

The media can usually say what they please, but it is understood that they can go only so far when it comes to criticising the government. If they cross that line, foreign media can be threatened with expulsion and on occasion have to pay up hefty fines. (Of course, compared with China it’s a bastion of free speech, where there is never a worry that jotting an essay can land you in a dungeon for a good portion of your life.)

There are many examples of how exquisitely the government has choreographed life here. The public transportation system is immaculate and ingenious. To stem rush hour traffic, every car is equipped with an infra-red detector that automatically “taxes” the owner if the car goes past certain intersections during rush hour. It works. Traffic is minimized. There are also occasional signs along the highway that read, “Report discourteous driving.” Thus, one rarely witnesses discourteous driving.

The net minus is that Singapore is a sterilized, somewhat antiseptic place, at least on its surface. It could sure use some of the earthiness of Hong Kong. But the net plusses are truly awe-inspiring. The no-nonsense approach to SARS, for example, was vintage Singapore: video cameras were installed outside the homes of those in quarantine and stiff sentences imposed for violators, and it worked. (In the case of SARS, the government did much more, including a 24-hours-a-day SARS information TV channel and a massive public education campaign.)

So for the time being I am impressed with Singapore. I’ve only been here a few weeks, and maybe I’ll see some of these illusions shattered. For now it looks pretty good, especially after my last host country.

The Discussion: 6 Comments

Singapore’s impingments on freedoms, gag on the voice of its citizens, and racial equality (oh I forgot the government says there IS racial harmony so it must be true) is sad to see from the free world and painful for free-world citizens to live in. Of course life-long Singaporeans and expats who come from dictatorships think it is great, and I’m happy for them. But if you knew no more then of course you would be satisfied.

For the few life-long Singaporeans who have seen greater freedom and liberty outside of Singapore and try to bring that voice into the city-state, they are going into the teeth of the Merlion.

Singapore deserves the reputation it has created. If it wants to change its perception, well then Singapore itself would need to change.

January 24, 2004 @ 1:23 pm | Comment

I wrote this post many months ago. My perceptions have since changed quite a bit. It’s a pretty little place, but I wouldn’t want to live here.

January 24, 2004 @ 1:29 pm | Comment

As with any policy, it comes with its set of disadvantages & advantages.

I’m a S’porean & yes I believe dictatorship exists here. But then again what’s so good about freedom of speech & democracy?
Workers going on strike & companies start closing down because of unreasonable demands? Also, there are people out there who have have an abandance of energy but lack grey matter & want to challenge a system.

I do feel stifled living here when salaries get cut & expenses never stop inflating, we can only follow orders rather than have a say in what affects us. However, one colleague told me “which is the lesser of the two evils?” Puts me in a thinking mode & I don’t particularly admire certain countires whose policies create more havoc than good. So much action & talk & in the end if polices are made without foresight but due to opposers’ pressure, it will only be a temporary relief or solution.

The truth is whatever policy is passed, not all in a country will be happy. Different groups will have their own needs & objectives so to speak. And if all opinions have to be implemented, can you imagine how disorderly it’ll be?!

I’m not advocating dictatorship. But if it comes with intelligent & compassionate government, it may the the “lesser of the two evils”.

But I hope to have a taste of life in another country, not so much of the presence of dictatorship but the quality of life & excitement that exists in some other countries.

March 10, 2004 @ 12:36 am | Comment

Well I am a Singaporean too and because I love this little island, I want to see changes.

For a long time, my generation had traded in our civil liberties in exchange for economic progress.

We have been going in and out of recessions for the last 7 years and have the dubious honour of being the worst economic performer in the region.

Along the way, this government has lost its plot.

We were told that “external shocks” of Asian currency crisis, gulf war and SARs affected our economy. Like as though our economy was immune to external shocks in the boom years of the 70s, 80s and much of the 90s.

We have young graduates who spent 16 years of their lives being in an education system designed by this same government and then told that they are not good enough.

We have a government who made it official policy to displace local jobs with foreigners. For 30 years of double digit economic growth, no foreigner worth his salt ever had a problem finding a job here. Now it became official policy and as all official policies go, we have quotas to fill. We were told we need foreign talent, but we got large numbers of foreign unemployables. The economy had not grown since the Foreign Talent policy was enforced.

Imagine a Prime Minister saying in 2002, “the reason why France and Italy got knocked out of the World Cup was because they did not employ foreign talent”.

We have a government who saw the birthrate of Singapore and decided that Singaporeans are not having enough sex. ITS THE ECONOMY STUPID!!! Who wants to have kids when there’s job insecurity and negative networth!!! Probably 70% of the population are technically bankrupt with liabilities far exceeding assets.

We have a government who decided to “relieve the population of dismal economic hardship” by lowering personal income taxes but compensated for it by hiking Goods and Services Taxes. Thanks alot Mr Prime Minister, I do not have a job so I am not paying personal income taxes anyway but still have baby milk to buy which now have suddenly become more expensive because of your GST hike.

We have an opposition leader who asked the Prime Minister a perfectly legitimate question of whatever happened to the USD10 billion that was supposed to have been lent to Indonesia and they bankrupted him for defammation. We tax payers have no right to know what happened to our money.

We elected ex-President Ong Teng Cheong who contitutionally holds the key to the country’s reserves. The first day in office he bravely asked for a breakdown of our money and was curtly told it will take 54 years to compile, when a fresh marked to market report is on Lee Kuan Yew’s desk every morning.

We were told that Ong Teng Cheong could not run for re-elections due to health reasons, later denied by his own medical doctors. Thereafter, he mysteriously died.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told us that “he feels our pain” but pays himself $6000 a day, making himself higher paid than George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard COMBINED.

We were told we need to pay our ministers well so they won’t accept bribes. Looks like we have to bribe our ministers so they won’t accept bribes.

We successfully begun our World Cup 2010 dream by being thrashed 4-0 at home to Malaysia.

Now, before another government indoctrinated Singaporean tells me to migrate, let me say. WHY SHOULD I? How about me sticking around and wanting to change this place for the better?

March 22, 2004 @ 1:00 pm | Comment

Indeed, in Singapore, you Pay And Pay.

That’s why I left that stinking PAP-mismanaged hellhole a decade ago, and have not returned.

June 3, 2005 @ 9:55 am | Comment

i am getting out of singapore if possible, even though we are forced to go through the 2 and 1.2 years national service in our teen years and 10 years of yearly up-to-40 days in camp training till you are 40 years old. There is hardly any loyalty among the people.

January 17, 2006 @ 11:57 pm | Comment

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