Daan Taat 4:
A Nanny State’s True Colors
magine yourself in a country where citizens live in spotless towers built by the government, surrounded by perfect hedges and grass. Cars whisk past the blocks on smooth, black expressways, and if a taxi driver violates the country’s maximum speed, a buzzer goes off in the car.
Criticism of the government effectively is illegal. When an election is held, the opposition concedes most of its legislative seats before the votes are in, just to reassure voters it isn’t out to replace the ruling party. The population is mixed, but dominated by two groups: Heartlanders and Cosmopolitans.
This is Singapore, late of sailors’ mischief and piracy on the Straits of Molucca, now infamous as the Nanny State, ruled by reams of intrusive laws and the infamous threat of the cane. Yet it was those two terms, used to describe Chinese whose first language is Mandarin or English, respectively, that most struck me as suggesting something out of fiction.
“Those names sound kind of Orwellian,” I said to my friend Chinkiong, a young policy genius.
“Yeah, they do, don’t they?” Chinkiong said. He is a Heartlander, but U.S.-educated and very cosmopolitan.
Groupthink Singapore bore a big surprise: A sense of humor about itself. There were others, too: a flourishing religious life, whole sections of the city’s center sensitively restored, and a remarkably casual way of eating out.
Singapore, just off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, came to life over a few hundred years as a key port city, ruled nominally by the British government and populated mostly by Chinese merchants, but home to people from all over. In addition to the Chinese and British, there were large minorities of South Asians and of Muslim Malays from just a skip across the water. Shortly after it gained independence from Britain in the late 1950s, Singapore linked up with Malaysia to form the Malaysian Federation. But conflicts over how to govern in this volatile setting split up the pair after just a few years. tretinoin cream
The new island nation’s ideal, partly inspired by the example of the “civil” service once deployed by the British East India Company, was rule by the best and the brightest. The Malays and South Asians, the theory went, would rise up through an equal-opportunity education system to join the mostly Chinese elite.
That goal is still far from being met, Chinkiong told me with a disappointment that, as an American looking back on 135 years of history since the Civil War, I well understand. Nevertheless, ethnic tensions have been eased by a social contract in which the government keeps a tight lid on dissent and in turn delivers benefits -- including good education, health care and subsidized housing – on a roughly equal basis. The attacks on ethnic Chinese in Malaysia and nearby Indonesia during the recent Asian financial crisis were worlds away from Singapore’s experience.
Though it doesn’t make the headlines, there is a strong feeling in Singapore of cultures living peacefully side by side and even blending. In perfect contrast to its bland politics, for example, Singapore’s food is diverse in its sources and deliciously hot. It’s easy to find a selection of food spanning Indian, Malay, and several Chinese styles, served from vendor stands clustered beneath corrugated roofs. Whatever isn’t smothered in a robust curry usually is cooked with plenty of red chilies. On a warm Friday evening in summer, as local people streamed in and out and shared tables, one such pavilion felt timeless, like a tropical village in the middle of an immaculate California-style suburb.
The mingling of cultures is also evident on Waterloo Street, near the city center, where Hindu and Chinese temples sit side by side on a long street now closed to cars. On a Sunday afternoon, while the Hindu holy place burst with brightly painted statues and worshippers stopped to pay their respects as they passed by, the Chinese Kuan Yin temple was exploding with activity, packed with worshipers lighting incense, prostrating themselves on a large square set off in the middle of the floor, and loudly shaking jars full of some kind of prayer sticks. Around the temples, vendors were hawking images for both religions and selling offering for offerings.
Christianity thrives here, too. Church parking lots on that Sunday were packed with Mercedes and BMWs. Numerous large mall stores selling Christian books, cards and home decorations are an odd sight to visitors from Hong Kong – or from San Francisco, for that matter.
Also near the city center, in the middle of a well-preserved old Chinatown, sits another freshly painted Hindu temple, and less than a block away is a small mosque. On a blazing Sunday afternoon, Malay worshippers napped in the dim hall, an odd oasis in hard-driving urban Asia.
The low-rise scale of that candy-colored Chinatown has charm even in midday for temporary escapees from Hong Kong, and at night this area and several restored bar-and-restaurant districts are evocative of the colonial past. Whereas in Hong Kong, dog-eat-dog development demands each building be razed for a more imposing structure every twenty years, Singapore’s central planning in this case has worked miracles that even American tourist towns have found elusive. It may look like Disneyland, but it’s hard to fault slick preservation when you’ve seen the alternative.
Singapore is the butt of jokes both at home and around the world, like the one circulating on the Internet, sent to me by a Singaporean, about two men being stranded on a desert island with a woman. (In Singapore’s case, the men would wait for instructions from the government on how to proceed.) But amid the political upheavals, cultural crises and hideous overdevelopment in Asia, Singapore in some ways comes out smelling like a rose. The government makes a point of it, in fact: Large signs at subway stations show the spiky image of Southeast Asia’s favorite pungent fruit, with a warning below in large block letters: NO DURIANS ALLOWED.
Copyright © 2000 Stephen Lawson