Singapore Mandates Soul

The Seattle Times
June 16, 2002
By Alex Tizon

SINGAPORE – When last America took serious interest in this tiny island republic, it was over the 1994 caning of a pimply teenager named Michael Fay, from Dayton, Ohio. In the media frenzy, Singapore was depicted as an authoritarian state where one should not expect to vandalize cars without accepting the punishment — three whacks with a rattan cane — as Fay eventually did. But Singapore is trying to loosen up, and the government has appointed a task force to figure out how to do it.

The “Remaking Singapore” committee, ceremoniously unveiled this year and made up of the country’s brightest minds, takes social engineering to a new level. Its assigned goal: to create a more soulful society.

“We’ve been very rigid, very robotic in the way we approach life,” said Mohd Haris Manaf, of the Singapore International Foundation, a government-sponsored organization similar in function to the Peace Corps. The foundation itself, some point out, is a sign of a changing ethos. “We’re trying to open up more, to get beyond the five C’s (career, condo, club, credit card and car), to loosen up as a people and smell the roses.”

Rarely has an authoritarian state attempted a squishier project. If it can be done, however, Singapore may be the republic to do it. The quest would be no more a leap in consciousness than it took to transform this swampy isle at the edge of the South China Sea into one of the most prosperous nations in the world.

The long boom

Measuring only 248 square miles, roughly three times the size of Seattle, this city-state sits just off the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula, like the dot on an exclamation point. Four million people live here, making it one of the densest islands on Earth. It is a flat, mostly deforested island where tigers once roamed, replaced by ubiquitous yellow taxis that weave between apartment buildings and ultra-modern skyscrapers. A walk through the city feels like a stroll through a designer garden, and the city is exactly that: meticulously designed to the last tropical shrub. On a clear day, looking north, you can see Malaysia.

The two countries are separated by a narrow strip of sea called the Johore Strait. Both were once British colonies, and later part of the same Malaysian republic until Singapore got the boot. Malaysia, ruled by politically dominant Malays, expelled predominantly Chinese Singapore in 1965.

“We were the only state that didn’t want independence, but we got it,” said Bilahari Kausikan, a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Under the autocratic leadership of founding father Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore took an authoritarian, and, he would argue, Confucian route to capitalist success. That is, Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party (PAP) unabashedly put the needs of the state before individual rights. The Cambridge-educated Lee Kuan Yew broke up labor unions, appealed to foreign companies to set up shop — some would say sweatshops — and created a system of laws that regulated nearly every aspect of Singaporean life.

The government cracked down on all forms of corruption, censored the media and the arts, and Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP stifled political rivals, either by impoverishing them through court judgments or imprisoning them without trial. Such controls created stability and a labor peace that allowed Singapore’s long boom. They also earned Lee Kuan Yew the moniker of “dictator” among his critics. The 78-year-old patriarch officially stepped down in 1990 but is still considered the ruling voice of the country. His defenders call him an autocrat, and a benevolent one who did what he had to do to stabilize a nation.

“It isn’t like people are not free to leave if they don’t like it,” said Mary Li, a department-store clerk on the island’s legendary Orchard Road, a dense strip of flowering, multitiered shopping malls that makes up the heart of the country. “You notice people aren’t leaving. They’re coming here.”

A quarter of the island’s 4 million residents are foreigners who have come for work.

Lee Kuan Yew and his party have earned what Singaporeans like to call “performance legitimacy,” which at street-level translates into something like, “The government delivers.”

The citizenry is wealthy, increasingly sophisticated and, for the most part, contented. In less than four decades, the ousted city-state — mainly by exporting electronics, chemicals and financial services — has risen up from squalor to boast the fifth-highest per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in the world. But at what price?

There’s a joke about Singapore: Two swimming dogs cross each other in the middle of the Singapore Strait. One is a Singaporean dog swimming to Indonesia, the other is an Indonesian dog swimming to Singapore. The first dog asks the second: “Why are you going to Singapore?” The other replies, “I want to live in a place where there are jobs and opportunities, and where it’s safe and clean and there’s medical care for everyone. How about you? Why are you going to Indonesia?”

The first dog replies, “I just want to bark.”

‘Aim well’

A main component in Singapore’s spectacular rise has been its tightly controlled populace. It is one of the most micromanaged societies in modern history. Voting is required. Military service for males is mandatory. Selling chewing gum, spitting, and not flushing are prohibited. Posted above urinals are official signs that read, “Aim well.” Speeding is monitored by photoelectronic sensors. Pornography is banned. Selling drugs or possessing a gun are punishable by death.

Spray-painting graffiti on parked cars can net a six-whack caning, but 18-year-old Fay from Ohio — with the intervention of no less than the president of the United States and 34 senators — got the number reduced to three. The overall result of Singaporean justice speaks for itself: an efficient, orderly, squeaky clean city with a stunningly low crime rate. There were 31 homicides last year. Los Angeles, with a comparable population, recorded 584 homicides; Chicago, with a million fewer people, had 667 murders.

“Women can walk anywhere day or night,” said Li, the department-store clerk. “Can you do that in America?”

In addition to the “don’ts,” the government has pushed a bewildering array of “do’s” that, to many Americans, might smack of Orwellian social engineering. There was the Smile Singapore campaign intended to make tourists feel loved and therefore boost tourist dollars. Immigration officers were given government-issue mirrors to periodically check their grinning quality.

Currently there’s the Singapore Kindness campaign, the Speak Good English movement, and the Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents, requiring people to support their parents in old age. Alarmed by its declining birth rate, the government formed the Working Committee on Marriage and Procreation, which exhorts Singaporeans, especially those with college degrees, to marry and have sex as often as possible. Toward that end, the government runs an online matchmaking service for college graduates.

A pamphlet on how to date successfully, distributed by the government’s Social Development Unit, advises that you “obtain a repository of information” from the Internet and newspapers so that “you will not be caught in a situation where you run out of conversation topics.” The pamphlet also says “oral hygiene cannot be ignored because there’s no bigger turn-off than a foul mouth reeking with leftovers from lunch.”

The government-controlled press, in unison, recently ran stories on the best places in the city to park and smooch, going as far as suggesting ways to ensure privacy, for example, by covering the car windows with newspapers.

Poking fun at the government’s long reach, Asad Latif, a journalist for The Straits Times, announced mockingly at a meeting of the Remaking Singapore committee: “The Singapore government has decided that the people shall be more spontaneous.” Singaporeans in the room laughed knowingly.

That’s exactly the rub on the Remaking Singapore project. In asking what lies beyond the Five C’s, isn’t the government entering into a realm beyond bureaucratic reach? Aren’t heart and soul supposed to arise organically from the daily mishmash of society? Is it possible for a government to create soul without quashing it in the attempt?

Singapore takes its committees very seriously, but even members acknowledge the project’s inherent irony. The edict, though, has been handed down, and the committee slogs forward, collecting input from the citizenry, and planning to announce a list of recommendations later in the year. Already, some things have become clear: As Singaporeans become wealthier and more comfortable, more will seek to actualize in areas other than career.

What has been a singular national drive for economic success must be diversified to encourage the arts, literature and sports, said Manaf, of the Singapore International Foundation.

In encouraging the development of those “soft areas,” says arts advocate Eleanor Wong, the government must pull back. Wong, a committee member, said the government must allow more freedom of expression, more organic growth of artistic communities. “More mess,” Wong added. That’s where creativity comes from.

The government having “a finger in every pie,” says architect Richard Ho, “stifles the very creativity it says Singaporeans lack.”

For the first time in Singapore’s short history, the government has shown a willingness to accommodate such freedoms.

Recently, the government allowed the start of a “Speaker’s Corner” in one of the city’s main parks as a sort of experiment in free speech. Citizens can go to the park any day between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and rail against the government or anything or anyone else — as long as they preregister with the police and stand on a box.

The government also is reviewing its censorship policies. Censorship has already loosened in recent years, allowing for more risqué movies and books, and more daring ads. Adorning the side of a red city bus on a recent afternoon was an advertisement for a local women’s magazine, Her World. The main story headline, in big, bold letters: “The 4.4 Minute O-O-O-Orgasm.”

This may not be soul, but it is a symptom of the mishmash, or “the mess,” as Wong put it. Out of this nascent pile, a buzz may arise, and from the buzz, perhaps some art. It’s a beginning. It took 37 years for Singapore to become a world economic player; it might take that long for Bohemia to gain a foothold here. For now, though, the government isn’t ready to give up its rattan cane.