Thursday, April 14, 2011

Can the Singapore Tiger Purr?

On our second night in Singapore, jet lag be damned, we went to the modern Esplanade concert hall downtown to hear works by Wagner, Elgar and R. Strauss played by the student orchestra of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. The hall was packed with the players' families, friends and fellow students, who gave the fine performances an enthusiastic reception.

None of this would be particularly noteworthy, except that it represents the Singapore government's recognition, after decades of single-minded preoccupation with becoming Southeast Asia's most ferocious economic Tiger, that the arts and culture are central to a nation's image and need encouragement. To help launch the conservatory eight years ago, the government matched a $100 million private gift, and thanks to another private gift, of $50 million, all 200 students are on scholarship. (All amounts in this post are in Singapore dollars.)

Singapore's Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music

A couple of days later, Alan Shadrake was back in the city. He's the 76-year-old British author of Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore's Justice in the Dock. When he arrived in the country last July to promote the book, the police woke him at dawn, ransacked his hotel room and arrested him. He was released on bail, but eventually held in contempt of court for impugning the integrity, impartiality and independence of the judiciary, and sentenced to six weeks in jail and fined $20,000.

What irritates the bench is the book's criticism of its propensity, in Shadrake's judgment, for applying the death penalty unevenly: letting the well-connected escape the hangman, but not those with no influence. Shadrake appealed his sentence and the Court of Appeal, before which he and his lawyer appeared on April 11, reserved judgment on the case. Meanwhile, the authorities let retailers know that if they stocked the book they, too, risked contempt of court.

Alan Shadrake, left, and his lawyer, M.Ravi,
entering the Singapore Court of Appeal on April 11.
Photo: AFP

Many Western visitors view the Singapore government's much mocked ban on gum-chewing as a kind of eccentric finger-wag. I don't think it's particularly wicked myself, coming as I do from a city where constant and widespread expectoration pocks the streets and subway platforms with acne. But as Alan Shadrake's experience shows, the paranoid style and commitment to censorship of the People's Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since its independence in 1965, goes well beyond mandible control.

On one of our first excursions, Diane and I climbed the many steps to the top of Ft. Canning Park in the city's center.  Some kind of renovation appeared to be taking place inside an area cordoned off by fencing, atop which ran three strands of barbed wire. In English, Malay and Mandarin, a sign read: "Protected Place." To clear up any ambiguity, it also displayed a silhouette of a man pointing a rifle at a man with his hands up.

Draconian laws range from a $1,000 fine for failing to walk your bicycle through a short underpass to the automatic death penalty for dealing drugs. Caning is the punishment of choice for pubic vandalism like graffiti, and for smoking, fighting or cheating in high school. In 2007, more than 6,000 people were caned, despite the punishment's definition by the United Nations as torture.

The SMRT, the city's spotless subway system, is a marvel of efficiency, but would-be litterers are reminded in every car and on the platforms that the CCTV is operating.  One morning, as our clothes tumbled in the laundromat dryer, a grinning yellow face on the wall urged us to "Smile! You're on CCTV."

Despite these and many other Big Brother policies, Singapore is a seductive place. Lee Kuan Yew, who, with his family and political loyalists, has controlled the PAP from the outset, seems to have sat at the feet of Juvenal, the Roman satirist who famously observed two millennia ago that the best way to lull the plebes into docility was to offer them bread and circuses, i.e., enough to eat and lots of distracting games. 

The government has made shopping the biggest game in town. The directory of the Raffles City shopping center downtown lists, under the heading of Fashion alone, no fewer than 32 stores, from Allure to Womb, where "colors represent emotion, prints speak of sophistication, textures suggest a lover's touch and layers return a woman back to the enveloping protection of birth."

While pondering how eager she is to revisit her accouchement, said woman may explore the manifold offerings on the upper floors that surround the complex's hanger-size atrium. She may also tarry at Awfully Chocolate or the several other sustenance stations in the basement Vitality Court (read: food), or at Subway, Burger King or Dunkin' Donuts (read: food, more or less).

If Raffles City fails to satisfy her, she may stroll over to the Raffles Hotel, where the Raj still echoes through the courtyard palm trees and off its whitewashed walls, and the columned promenade on its periphery now features the goods of Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and other high-end merchants. If still not sated, she may try the Marina Square mall just a few steps away, or sample any of the other 90 or so gleaming shopping centers in Singapore, most of them easily accessible by car, bus or subway.

Unofficial motto of Singapore. Photo: Diane
I concede that there are a good number of shopping centers in the United States, too, though I try to avoid them, and am lucky enough to live in Manhattan, where so far we have managed to keep them in their place, the suburbs. Still, 90 of these consumer temples seems like a lot for a city-state of fewer than 5 million inhabitants, a good number of whom have yet to reach plastic-bearing age.

Watching Singaporeans thread the aisles of abundance, it is easy to understand why most of them are not inclined to dwell on the darker aspects of their society. And the establishment of gleaming cultural institutions like the Yong Siew Toh Music Conservatory could well be dismissed as yet more Juvenal distractions. More optimistically, maybe they indicate that the considerable economic security Singapore has achieved and the coming generation of new leadership presage a less authoritarian future.   


Blog wizards I have consulted about increasing traffic here at Y.O.O.O. have all advised me to sign up at Facebook.  So far, I haven't mustered the courage to do so, suspecting that I'd probably make a fool of myself in such a youthful playpen. That said, I'm grateful to the people at Road Scholar for displaying my post, about our late March experience in Monterey, on their Facebook page. I urge readers interested in trying a Road Scholar adventure of their own to check out the organization's extensive and tantalizing menu here.