issue 263 - January 1995
It's not Big Brother but the Parent State that presides over official
family values in Singapore, the technocrat's Utopia. Sue Ann Tellman
reports on a place where no-one is supposed to grow up.
The caning for vandalism last year of the American teenager, Michael Fay, by the Singapore Government brought strong protests from the West. The punishment may have been cruel and inappropriate but the protests reeked of hypocrisy – a high-profile diplomatic and media defence of one American teenager accompanied by the usual silence on the numerous world situations where every day millions face death, torture, hunger and forced migration.
The Singapore Government made much of this hypocrisy, helped by individual law-and-order Americans who praised Singapore for its harsh response to teenage vandalism. But the Fay caning represents just one element of a good metaphor for Singapore as a whole: parental authority institutionalized in a nation-state.
The rules sound familiar from childhood and adolescence: flush the toilet (public toilets are monitored and non-flushers fined); no gum allowed (it clogs the subway doors); cross at the stoplight (jaywalkers are resolutely fined); cut your hair (backpackers stay away); no sex (eroticism not encouraged unless it produces marriages between university graduates who will improve the stock); no drugs (mandatory death penalty, non-negotiable); above all, don’t disagree with your parent (a one-party state, a controlled press, import of foreign publications restricted).
The punishments are typical of a dysfunctional family: beatings (the bamboo cane); large fines (for infractions of small rules); isolation (imprisonment of political dissidents); expulsion (for those who won’t live by the rules); and, in extreme situations, death.
However, this is also a very rich parent, one of the richest in Asia. It is a parent whose primary purpose seems to be to make money, the more the better. BMWs and Mercedes Benzes abound. Anything shabby has been torn down and replaced so far upscale that only the wealthy can enter. Economic growth is a matter of national security. In 1993 three economists were put on trial under Singapore’s Official Secrets Act for revealing the country’s economic growth rate in advance of the Government’s official announcement.
Rich families are often not happy families and Singapore is no exception. All the control makes for boredom, cultural sterility and a certain infantilism. Want to see good theatre or go to an exciting rock concert? Want to read incisive political satire or even a good Singapore novel? Want to have a stimulating discussion on culture, politics, economics, psychology or sociology? Forget it – not in Singapore. Quite seriously, conversations are more open and stimulating in Rangoon or Pyongyang – the capitals of notorious dictatorships. In Singapore idle chat could lead towards either of the Government’s two big enemies – ‘communist conspiracy’ or ‘Western liberalism’.
Instead, the Government promotes ‘family values’ to provide the social stability needed for continued economic growth. In the Singaporean context this means complete subservience to the state and its social dictates. And despite all the Government’s preaching of ‘family values’ social alienation and boredom increase with rising rates of divorce, teenage crime, single-parent families and drug abuse. One crucial element in addressing these developments – a recognition of responsible human freedom – is missing, identified as it is with ‘Western liberalism’. Instead, the Government keeps lecturing away on family values while increasing the social control, denying unmarried mothers access to government housing as this would confer ‘respectability’ on them. And, of course, more canings and more executions.
One way the Singapore Government has tried to address its people’s unhappiness has been, in the best fascist tradition, to impose happiness on them. A shiny Disneyland atmosphere abounds – spotless fast-food and entertainment franchises (McDonalds, KFC, Hard Rock Café); theme parks (one of which is in a building that until recently housed a political prisoner for 26 years – surely one of the most creative ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ ever devised); mini-rainforest eco-parks (next to weapons-testing ranges); controlled areas for stalls of traditional Chinese, Malay and Indian food; and shops, boutiques and shopping malls galore. Happiness is making money, spending it and helping Singapore flourish.
CHRIS STOWERS / PANOS PICTURES
But the Disneyland atmosphere with its money and its happiness-message does not seem to produce very happy people. While family life continues to flourish among the poorer, less-educated minorities (the Indians and Malays who are not really a part of ‘the official family’), the next generation of leaders – the money-making young Chinese professionals – show remarkably little interest in sex, marriage and family life. With the best parental concern the Government has developed its own dating service for unmarried university graduates, the Social Development Unit, housed in the Ministry of Finance. State television has gone on a family-life-is-fun campaign with commercials showing a happy family playing together and singing ‘Fun, fun, fun, fun... Families are fun, fun, fun, fun.’
Part of the problem is that with all this attention to money, many people do not know much about sex. Any public expression of it is commonly connected with demonic ‘Western liberalism’. Singapore gynaecologists routinely report women coming to them complaining of barrenness only to be told they are virgins. Reports one doctor: ‘So many just don’t know where to put what.’ For many men masturbation by a masseuse at the health centre in the shopping mall or a visit to the sex clubs of Bangkok is enough to keep the moneymaking juices flowing.
The growth of Christianity in Singapore, especially among Chinese professionals, can be seen as another sign of people’s unhappiness. Unhappy with simply making money, many Singaporeans seek transcendent meaning. The Christianity that develops is evangelical, charismatic or fundamentalist, providing ecstatic experience but also sanctifying the making of money. The names of a few of the churches give a sense of the otherworldly spirituality of Christianity in Singapore: Glory Joy Christian Church, Pearly Gates Christian Fellowship, Singapore Charismatic Church, World Revival Prayer Fellowship, Harvester Baptist Church, Praise Evangelical Church – the list goes on and on. The gospel of prosperity is common – if you are a faithful Christian, God will reward you with prosperity. The Government is uncomfortable with the notion that there may be a higher power than itself and has instituted a Religious Harmony Act which prohibits any preaching on social or political issues.
The patriarch of this large dysfunctional family, where free and autonomous adulthood is so elusive, is Lee Kuan Yew, leader of the People’s Action Party. Lee was Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990 and is now Senior Minister advising Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Interviews with Lee portray an authoritarian, eccentric and, at times, quite angry Confucian patriarch – laying down in minute detail family stability for the whole nation.
Singapore is keen to spread its brand of happiness elsewhere. In dealing with regimes in the region even more repressive than itself – like Burma – Singapore is an advocate of ‘constructive engagement’. Singapore companies continue to invest and make money while governments support one another. Recently a group of Singapore companies including Singapore Airlines set up the Singapore-Myanmar International Leisure Enterprise (SMILE – an appropriate Singapore acronym), a consortium to develop tourism in Burma. Singapore, loaded with capital and management expertise but short on natural resources, is a prime candidate for the role of economic colonizer in the region.
It is easy enough from the outside to argue that people should be braver and openly criticize Singapore’s repressive policies. But the fear is all-pervasive. Even one political joke told in the wrong place can ruin a career. One Singaporean’s comments explain much: ‘Boundaries have been drawn on our lives, governing everything from how to live our private lives to how extensively we can participate in the political arena. Through local newspapers, radio, television, the community centres, resident committees, People’s Association and the People’s Action Party itself, we have been told to have unquestioning faith in our leaders. Even if we don’t, many of us will not dare to say so publicly. Those who have challenged the Government have faced imprisonment, torture, loss of all political rights or exile.’
Singapore faces a clear choice of futures: continued control by an authoritarian parent producing citizens lacking autonomy and freedom but materially richer and richer – or, if everything collapses, poorer and poorer. Or, in the context of continued economic planning and development, a new liberation in which free expression of human reason, faith and imagination becomes possible.
A day in Utopia
What does a day in Singapore feel like? Earlier this year I spent a couple of days there. The first hurdle is Immigration. Does the computer have any record of my dealings with friends who have been expelled for their ‘subversive political activities’? Am I dressed smartly enough? The airport, probably the finest in Asia, is perfectly clean and organized. I try to engage the taxi driver, an Indian, about what it feels like to live in Singapore, as he navigates the perfectly clean taxi through the orderly computer-controlled traffic. He is very cautious, repeating constantly only two sentences: ‘It is very expensive here’, and ‘You have to work hard in Singapore’. Finally the conversation settles on the impossibility of owning a car in Singapore. The cost of a ‘certificate of entitlement’ now runs to about the same as the cost of the car itself, allowing only the very rich to afford them. At night there is little to do and – unlike Seoul or Bangkok – the streets are empty.
The next morning, not wanting a MacMuffin for breakfast, I set out to find a local restaurant or coffee shop. I walk, block after block, beneath cement-and-steel high-rises – very few people and not a restaurant to be found. Finally, in an old Victorian shophouse, spared from the wrecker’s ball and as yet unrenovated, I find a large old Chinese-noodle shop with dirt-stained floors and tables – a bit of the old Singapore. The welcome is warm, the noodles excellent and I feel a bit of liberation – but also some sadness, as I doubt that this shop will survive Singapore’s terminal desire for control and gentrification.
I walk on through the high-rises and mansions to my first destination. On an isolated side-street I see a local woman jaywalk and I’m reminded that this is a revolutionary act in Singapore. I meet friends throughout the day. We talk about everything except Singapore. It’s just not done – if you are polite and you want to stay. Indeed, one colleague has refused to see me. I suspect it has something to do with my politics and my view of Singapore.
The day’s newspaper tells of a new development in Singapore’s cultural life – a bit of nudity in a new play. However, the producers, fearing the Government censors, have devised a precaution. Just before the nudity appears a red light flashes on the proscenium so that those who wish may avert their eyes. Do I take this development as a sign of hope? Or of yet more control?
I end the day with a huge Chinese dinner (good food and fascism are not incompatible) with Singaporean and expatriate friends. We talk freely about political situations around Asia but avoid Singapore. I do not want to get my Singaporean friends into trouble. The expatriate friends are looking forward to moving to a country in Indochina where life will be more free and stimulating. So much for a day in Singapore. Boring!
Sue Ann Tellman is the pseudonym for a writer who would still like to be able to get through Singapore immigration.