The south-east Asian city-state has been hailed for its urban policies – and condemned for the authoritarianism that underpins them. So what do Singapore’s residents make of life there?
Imagine you could remove all the daily irritations from the city in which you live. No one pushing or talking loudly on the efficiently run public transport system; no rubbish or sticky gum to be trodden underfoot on the well-kept, clean streets. And virtually no crime.
Such a city would, probably, resemble Singapore, one of the wealthiest per capita metropolises on the planet – a city-state that gleams with abundant material goods. “Nothing goes wrong here,” says Eric, a German expat. “Which sort of means that nothing really happens here.”
Singapore, once swampland, is now a multicultural hub of commerce. The old colonial facades remain – such as Raffles, the hotel where you gulp Singapore Slings in a nutshell-strewn bar among superannuated cruise ship tourists – but it’s the glitz that catches the eye.
The huge Prada store on Orchard Road is capitalism in steel and electric form, while the Marina Bay Sands hotel dominates the skyline, looking like a boat has been carefully dropped upon it. There is colour and bustle in Chinatown, with its handsome temples and excellent food, but otherwise Singapore feels like it’s been scrubbed to within an inch of its life.
Day-to-day life is famously governed by a series of rules that maintain this clean, well-ordered city. The import of chewing gum is banned, therefore globs of the stuff aren’t found on the street. There are fines for irritating people with a musical instrument or your own drunkenness. Uttering an obscene song lyric or obstructing someone as they walk carries the threat of jail.
The result is a low-crime, scrupulously run city – with none of the incomprehensible, exciting chaos of cities found in neighbouring Indonesia or Malaysia. Aspects such as Singapore’s “intelligent” congestion charge system are held up as triumphs of urban thinking – but such achievements are made altogether easier by the authoritarianism that is evident as soon as you scratch the surface of life here.
“If you grow up in a first world country, you make the automatic assumption that economic development and basic freedoms go together,” says Alex Au, a Singapore-based writer. “But as you can also see in China, they are two separate things. Singapore likes to pull the wool over people’s eyes. It likes to say, ‘Oh, don’t we look like the west, with our glass and our skyscrapers, how developed we are.’ But it just serves as a mask.”
Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, launched legal action against Au last year for comments made about the government’s integrity on Au’s blog, called Yawning Bread. Despite making a retraction, Au is still being pursued through the courts.
“I wouldn’t criticise all the rules in Singapore,” Au says. “If you step on dog poo on the pavement, you’d appreciate a rule against that. If anything, we should ignore the little things and talk about the censorship of the media and the arts. That creates a climate of self-censorship that wouldn’t be obvious to a tourist.”
There are other rules that may surprise the outsider. It’s forbidden to buy property in Singapore unless you’re married, which presents a further barrier on top of the high cost of dwellings in the city. Car ownership is also banned, unless you purchase one of a set number of expensive permits first.
“You can’t buy a flat if you’re single, which my generation isn’t too happy about,” says Samantha de Silva, a 31-year-old entrepreneur. “You feel you have to get married to get a flat, which is a strange economic transaction.”
De Silva said she felt quite oppressed when growing up, never quite sure how far she could push seemingly arbitrary authority before it pushed back. Things are changing now, however.
“Social media has changed a lot; it’s changed everything really,” she says. “Kids now see things differently; they don’t have the fear of the older generations. They are used to expressing themselves – there are quite a few poets and fiction writers now. People have a real passion for creative things.
“A friend of mine teaches in a polytechnic and he said these kids dream big. He asked them what they want to be when they grow up and they say ‘a Korean pop star’. The other kids don’t laugh at that. They don’t feel any limitations.”
Some do feel the heavy weight of state sanction, however. Chew, the Demon-cratic cartoonist who was charged with sedition, had his computers seized, his passport frozen and spent three months in detention.
“I have long suspected that the ruling party was a bunch of power-abusing hypocrites, and that encounter merely confirms the notion,” Chew says. He likens the control of the media as similar to that of North Korea. The wealth gap is getting worse, Chew says, fuelled by an “open door” approach to immigration.
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