Acrobats on Orchard Road
If there is one thing visitors to Singapore complain about, they say it's boring and that once you've done your shopping you can move on. Certainly, consumers in revolt would find themselves disgusted by the buyer's impulse running the national engine. On Orchard Road alone-- a two-mile boulevard of wide sidewalks and tall fruit trees-- there are dozens of enormous shopping centers including Orchard Central, Ngee Ann City, and Wheelock Place, boutique-rich megalopises catering to a great gamut in tastes. Prominent are the big names and Armani, Gucci and Louis Vuitton enthusiasts with good credit can outfit themselves for the next dozen balls. Ubiquitous is the handsome lady with stooped shoulders, weighed down by designer label bags in both hands. Big spenders and small ones can cool their heels at any of the number of Starbucks cafes en route. And this is only Orchard Road, the grandest shopping district in a city designed for mass consumption and air conditioned pleasures.
It wasn't always this way. Singapore was a fishing village less than 200 years ago when one of the great visionaries of the British empire, Sir Stamford Raffles, declared the island a free trade port. The British, competing with Dutch and Portuguese merchants in the region, consolidated its regional commercial interests on the island. This was not an overnight task. It took years to clear the malarial marshes of the island (as well as hunt the man-eating tigers) and beyond the luxuries of the colonial administrators, much of the Chinese, Tamil and Malay population used for constructing the infrastructure suffered in terrible poverty. The island's darkest years came during the short, bitter Japanese occupation, in which thousands of Chinese were slaughtered as national security risks and survivors starved through rampant food shortages. During the great colonial uprisings of the 1950s and 60s when Asian and African colonies liberated themselves from European rule, Singapore was briefly ruled by Malaysia, finally becoming an independent city state in 1965.
Singapore today is the vision of one man, Lee Kuan Yew, who was the small nation's first prime minister in 1965 and has never relinquished power (his son is the current P.M. and Yew is involved in the government as a quasi regent in the post of Minister Mentor, created specifically for him). Yew is both revered and reviled for creating what Singapore is today: a consumeristic society managed and systemized by a paternalistic control-freak (chewing gum, anyone?) Singapore is not alone among twentieth century nations dictated by a strong personality; Fidel Castro, Ferdinand Marcos, Juan Peron, and Suharto are just a few individuals that having wielded considerable power become individuals indivisible from their nations. Many rightly despise Yew for his record on civil rights: dissidents are punished, polemic presses shut down. Nevertheless, there is something about the society that works.
Visitors (I was there three days) can only glean so much and their impressions will naturally be skewed by a highly selective experience. Yet, I was impressed with Singapore, which feels more first world than the First World itself. It has a solid infrastructure in place: numerous hospitals and a cheap, clean convenient public transportation system. Nearly everyone I met spoke good English, a sign of quality education (a great legacy of the British empire is the city state's multiculturalism and Anglophone communications). People looked fit and well-attired. I did considerable walking yet did not see anyone destitute or pan-handling. My hotel in Little India felt like India, Indians everywhere, but unlike the big cities of the sub-continent, Little India was spotlessly clean. The city was safe to walk at night. The food is of high quality, delicious, and affordable. Tap water is potable.
Singapore may be highly regulated but this is not to say that Japan, the U.S. and Europe are very cooperative involving citizens in the decision-making interests. Rarely in judicial cases does it seem that the citizen has more rights than the corporation. Democracy is often a canard, empty promises for elections. In much of the western world corporate interests finish first. Of course, corporations thrive in Singapore but it seems like the system is well regulated enough that the high taxes trickle down to the general population. Singapore has an enviable quality of life that we would do well to emulate (albeit with regards to civil rights, we should be careful). The island's success seems all the more significant when you consider that it has no natural resources and is so small.
But possibly it is its very size that is its reason for success, its manageability. While visiting I couldn't help thinking what Manhattan would be like if it seceded from the country to become a city state. It would no longer have its revenues plundered by a rapacious government in Albany or wasted by a fiscally irresponsible national government. It wouldn't even have to come to secession (which is pure fantasy as the majority of Americans will always love the concept of America in spite of its brutal realities). Perhaps regions could initiate programs of self-sufficiency in which the majority of taxes were paid to civic or state authorities rather than the bulk going to the national government. Perhaps citizens then would be more involved in the system in a proactive, civil capacity rather than the patriotic and emotional (and let's face it: empty) actions that characterize our participation today.
But what Singapore makes clear is that once we've solved the problems of hunger, homelessness, unemployment, and interracial violence, reaching more or less a Utopian state in which there is no crime or want and people sleep within four walls and eat three square meals, once man has had his comforts and needs satisfied the end journey is the line at the cashier. History, culture, and art becomes kitsch, lovingly assembled and packaged, available in various colors and sets. Some Singaporeans might argue that these conclusions are insultingly reductive, gathered from such a short visit but they are not exceptional. The general impression of Singapore is that of a shopper's paradise, for better or worse.
Singaporean lifestyle was not always so sanitized of course. As late as the mid-twentieth century opium was a legal indulgence within the Chinese community. You can learn that at the Chinese Heritage Museum where the old ways of life-- the opium den, the brothel, and the open street where most everyday people spent their time-- have been reconstructed in diorama settings. Once a lifestyle is memorialized in the museum the raw edges have been completely rubbed clean. The dens and whores are gone but so are the children in the street, involved as they are in video games, TV, virtual realities. Life is undoubtedly better, healthier, easier but the vividness is no longer evident. The streets of Chinatown today are often empty, people removed to their air-conditioned chambers. The peculiar ephemera that made life eclectic is the province of the antique store. Like newer, factory-produced items, it is for sale.
In spite of the gentle comforts of utopian ease, some customs die hard. The Buddhist temples remained crowded with those for whom faith is not a superstition, joss sticks creating a smoky, heady atmosphere. In Little India, a live performance of the Ramayana attracted a huge crowd on the street. A man in drag played Sita, to be rescued by a hunk playing Rama. The spectators giggled and applauded as Rama defeated a clownish Lanka.
On my last day in Singapore I took a bumboat northeast of the island to Pulau Ubin, which is what Singapore looked like a century ago. I rode a bicycle through nationally protected green leaf wetlands, rife with a rich algae, crabs, and large lizards. There were herons fishing in the water and in the sky, but for a moment, a sea eagle gliding over it all. The island was quiet, shaded by mangrove trees and varieties of tropical forest. And I realized that this was not supposed to represent the past but the present, a natural getaway for the mall-weary utopiasts, a day trip on the occasional wistful Sunday, at least until developers find it with their creatively disruptive eyes. Look out for a gift shop selling yesteryear trinkets at the docks. That might be the beginning...
Wetlands in Pulau Ubin