Singapore: Notes on a Fine City

Screenhunter_08_may_14_0005Three weeks ago I was in a taxi cab in Singapore on my way to Changi Airport to catch a plane back to London. It was 2 a.m. and in an early morning daze, watching the trees lining the road slip past me at regular five meter intervals – only in Singapore – the cab guy and I were having a lazy, and typically, Asian conversation. What we liked to eat, how many siblings we each had, why I wasn’t married yet and how it was clearly time for me to get hitched as soon as possible. He then asked me the loaded question I seem to keep thinking about recently “why are you going off to London when we are doing so well here, why don’t you just come home?”

I explained I wasn’t really Singaporean, that I had just grown up there – although as a good friend of mine, Dan, keeps telling me, I am clearly in denial. I then unthinkingly explained that I was a lawyer and that my interests lay in Public law and Human Rights. While Singapore had a fantastically developed jurisprudence in some – mainly commercial – areas of law, this wasn’t really a country in which I could exercise my interests.

I had, of course, blindly ventured into a minefield. “So you are saying we have no human rights?” he said, suddenly belligerent. I back pedalled furiously, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable. After all Singaporean cabs are traditionally bastions of anti-government sentiment. Surprised that he would take such offence, I chose to reason to myself that, since the cab driver was Malay, he was just cautiously pinning his colours to the mast. After all, being Malay and Muslim in Singapore, like in so many other countries nowadays, was increasingly becoming an uncomfortable thing.

The truth if I am being honest with myself, is really that I resented how he had so suddenly made me feel so Western somehow, like such a tourist mouthing clichés in the country I had grown up in. The way Singapore is viewed in the outside world used to madden me in the past. It used to move me to wild and often illogical defences of the censorship and suppression of free speech that Singapore is so well known for. But despite the patriotism of my youth, I had somehow grown into this westernised Asian woman sitting in the back of a cab, self righteously telling my Singaporean driver that he did not enjoy any human rights. All this on my way to flying back to someone else’s country.

The Economist recently criticised Amnesty International for deciding to follow “intellectual fashion” and diluting “a traditional focus on political rights by mixing in a new category of what people now call social and economic rights”. If this is a fashion, Singapore’s leaders can be credited with setting the trend. The author argued that only political rights, defined as free speech, due process, and protection from arbitrary punishment, would provide people with social and economic necessities. But what of the obverse: a people whose social and economic needs are well provided for, but who are denied (all but a measure of) free speech. Will they be provoked into agitation for political rights? If they have been rescued from recent historical poverty – if there is enough room to satisfy not just social and economic needs, but social and economic wants – will they even care?

In my high minded and increasingly anglicised conception of human rights, I had somehow forgotten that Singaporeans enjoy a number of social and economic rights. They live in a nation that provides its people with a cheap affordable housing, clean water, a world class, and practically free education, and affordable public health. It is also a nation that provides enough room for the ambitious. There is, undeniably, a hidden class of poor, but for an Asian nation, a nation that had none of these things when it became independent forty-two years ago, the pace of its progress, the widespread availability of the freedom from want, is a marvellous thing. It is something that is so obvious, it is often missed in liberal high mindedness.

The difference in people’s reactions to Singapore has often struck me. A Nigerian friend who recently visited Singapore commented on what a wonderful country it was. How well equipped the schools were, how public facilities were decorated in brightly coloured paints – no urban squalor here. He appreciated its well planned streets, its well stocked shopping centres, and despite its bustling street life, its pleasing cleanliness. To him it was a country that exemplified the way forward, the way from third world to first.

On the other hand, in the United Kingdom, there is a general view of Singapore as a strait-jacketed, sanitised version of Asia. Not a place one goes to see the real Asia – almost as if the real Asia is a place that needs picturesque poverty and disorder to make the experience authentic. It is the “fine” city – where there are fines, for spitting, for littering, even for forgetting to flush the toilet. Singapore, in its earnestness to maintain order, even of the most intimate kind, often lends itself to being the butt of a fair few jokes. But more seriously, it is also the city of authoritarianism and suppression, where critical journalists are slapped with defamation suits, and where a man was recently hung for storing six pounds of marijuana in his home on suspicion of drug trafficking.

Singapore’s rejoinder, as posed in the Asian values debate Mahathir Mohamed and Lee Kuan Yew began in the eighties, was that economic rights sometimes justified political suppression – that when times were bad, the community’s rights needed to be lifted above those of the individual. There was no balancing act between two competing interests, as required in the West. In Asia the family, the community, the nation came first.

These two conflicting views of Singapore are difficult to reconcile because its origins have become obscured. Singapore has become proficient at destroying the signs of its own history, despite its careful attempts to renovate and restore. Anything that is more than a decade old is torn down and rebuilt again, building cranes dot the sky, and the landscape of a few years ago is often unrecognisable, in the this years new crop of shopping centres and condominiums. Unlike in London, where the twists and turns the streets take feel ancient, Singapore’s roads are widened and narrowed, converged and separated in a heartbeat. Amongst rapid change, Singapore’s great achievement, its march towards the new, towards the best, is easily forgotten. Its present is criticised without any understanding of where this nation has come from. Its visitors have lost any reference point against which to judge it.

Walking through London, one knows the topography of its history, 150 years later, even the view Monet painted from Westminster Bridge is still the same – right down to the colours of the smog laden sunset. But how would anyone be able to conceive Singapore’s origins while walking its perfectly paved, rigorously signposted streets? Singapore is the sleepy collection of Malay fishing villages Sir Stamford Raffles bought from the Sultan of Johor for the price of a pension in 1824. Unlike India, or Malaysia, nations that had pre-existing structures of government before colonisation, Singapore was a creation of Britannia, a playground for the British in the South East, full of opium dens, Armenian pawnbrokers, and ladies of easy virtue. A colony that was milked for its money, and well known for its whores, it had no obvious model to return to once it had been liberated. But importantly for its future, it was the dense port city where the entrepreneurial poor of Asia rubbed shoulders; the Malay farmers, the Chinese samsui women, and the Indian chain gangs. Where tower blocks of public housing rise today, forty years ago Kampungs dotted the land, where chickens ran free below houses on stilts, and women collected water from wells.

It is often forgotten is that Singapore is a country that never expected to exist. Its leaders were certain that its future lay with Malaya, that the economic and historical ties between the two nations were too strong for them to lead separate existences. In 1962, 70% of the inhabitants of Singapore voted in a referendum for unification with Malaya, and in 1963 the Federation of Malaysia was established with Singapore. Malays were concerned, however, that Singapore’s predominantly Chinese population would shift both economic and political power away from Kuala Lumpur, and numerous racial riots ensued resulting in fatalities. Amidst the building pressure, Singapore was expelled from the Federation in 1965, and it was left to a tearful Lee Kuan Yew to tell the new citizens of an independent Singapore that they would have to go it alone.

It is this sense of aloneness, the awareness of being a tiny Chinese country immersed in the Malay, Muslim world that I think has fuelled Singapore’s twin sense of purpose and insecurity ever since. In its first decades, Singapore not only needed to construct itself as a nation, but navigate a place for itself amidst hostile neighbours, and the shifting tides of relations between America and China. With so many preoccupations, Lee Kuan Yew’s party, the People’s Action Party, decided that in a time of nation building, there was no time for internal dissent. It has a decision that has been forgiven, if not celebrated.

And so, economic development has been used to justify political suppression. Has this worked? Singapore’s GNP per capita, the skills of its citizens, its gleaming skyscrapers, and its place as a showcase in textbooks on urban planning seem to say so. But this premise only works because the People’s Action Party, the party of government and Lee Kuan Yew, is, despite its critics, a principled one. It did aim for progress and it has lifted the majority of its citizens out of poverty.

Over the past four decades, the PAP has created a goldmine of public policy aided by Singapore’s diminutiveness –a country that came laboratory sized. It was the first government that figured out how to efficiently institute electronic road pricing. It avoided the ghettoes that stud the urban landscape of most western cities by introducing a limit on the proportion of races in public housing. It has even thought of a way to get more people to marry each other and (in a thinly veiled stab at eugenics) how to get them to marry to people of an equivalent level of IQ. There is a state sponsored dating agency – named the Social Development Unit that organises treasure hunts, pub quizzes and parties for the educated, but lonely hearted. And this is not the only example of public policy filtering into the private lives of Singaporeans. Campaigns on the right values abound in Singapore. Posters in the public transit system remind you not to allow the romance in your marriage die, to spend time with your parents, to be nice to your neighbours. It would be maddening if it wasn’t sometimes so funny. And I often wonder how many people signed up to match.com would find the SDU a useful presence in their lives.

But it is still right to point out that its policies towards the media are still less than benign. All local newspapers are owned or influenced by the government in some way, and the government have trained Singaporean journalists to practice a measure of self censorship that must be maddening to anyone with a modicum of talent. The justification being that criticism of government will spread dissent, instability, and make Singapore a less attractive country in which to invest.

The price of suppression has not been high overall, but disproportionately paid by some. They are brave opposition politicians, bankrupted by defamation suits, playwrights and writers whose work has been censored, and hedonists who have been jailed and even hung for narcotic habits that would not be out of place in any investment bank in London or New York. Each have, in their own ways, attempted to push the boundaries in an increasingly apathetic, unadventurous and overly satiated society.

But the highest cost in this increasingly educated nation, is that ironically, despite the fact that one has now been equipped with the words, one is still unable to articulate what one wants to say, or write what one wishes to express without fear of censure.

This may have been justifiable in the long march to succeed. But is this state of affairs supportable in a nation that for all intents and purposes has – and quite singularly amongst formerly colonised nations – has reached its goal of first world nation status?

No, is the clear answer. Singaporeans are educated up to the hilt. They are taught to discuss, argue, encouraged to read widely. Three generations of Singapore have travelled to study in the West and returned with a taste for liberal values, and, because of this, some have chosen not to return. Perhaps it is this that shows where social and economic rights exist, political rights must follow.

It is true that changes are afoot in a nation that – after the Asian Financial Crisis, and the terror caused by the spread of SARs – realised its government could never offer it complete protection. The bargain for freedom from want in return for silent cooperation was not legitimately struck. It was based on the false notion that Singapore was a nation in charge of its own destiny rather than a small sliver of land, smaller than the dot that represents it on the global map.

The blogsphere in Singapore has burgeoned over the last three years with bloggers expressing serious criticism of government, while playing a hide and seek game with government censors. The arts scene has taken first steps in recognising social exclusion in Singapore, and even, albeit tentatively, the suppression of opposition figures. Recognising a need to change, and a shift in public attitudes, Singapore’s elections last year actually featured media coverage of opposition speeches and rallies – an unprecedented event, and justified by the PAP on the patronising basis that the opposition had finally “come of age”. But while this is change, it is agonisingly slow.

There can be no doubt that certain human rights exist in Singapore, and to its government’s great credit. But I should not have been embarrassed to tell my cab driver that it is a nation that now needs, and deserves more. And one that will not attract back the people it has lost until it does so. Because if its people with their hard won knowledge and skills do not feel the need to articulate their expectations for their country’s future and a greater place for their rights in it – now that there is the time and space for the individual, now that the battle has been won – the great Singapore experiment would have failed. And the past sacrifices made for its present, rendered meaningless.

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