It has been my misfortune to arrive in various places around the world only to be engulfed in local crisis. I am no stranger to war, rumours of war, coups d’etat and various natural disasters. But never before had I stepped off a plane to be confronted with cultural homicide.
Changi Airport is globalization run riot, an impersonal consumerist cornucopia of designer labels. It is also dedicated to being the world’s premier transport hub. From here you can go anywhere, ushered along by the ubiquitous Singapore Girl. Whenever I arrive in the building, I leave as rapidly as possible, hoping for a talkative ride into Singapore city centre, courtesy of a local taxi driver.
And that is how the full scale of the culture crisis overwhelmed me. I was spared the usual inquisition that introduces conversation– where are you from, how’s the economy there, how long are you staying, what do you think of Singapore. Enough to say I was down from Kuala Lumpur for the weekend to invoke a deluge of angst. ‘Ah, no need sorry for my Singlish lah. You boleh Singlish, ah? Very bad, ah. Prime Minister say Singlish cannot, ah. So now what, ayoh?’ A few rapid-fire inquiries on my part and the full enormity hit me, as surely as if I’d been in Delhi the fateful day the British took over. Phua Chu Kang was to take English lessons! The End.
In Singapore it’s easier to find out who is dating whom in Hollywood than anywhere in the world, except perhaps Hollywood
Let me elaborate. Phua Chu Kang is the highest-rated show on Singapore television. It is a locally produced sitcom about a lovable, rascally private building contractor, the said Phua Chu Kang. In the rich mix that is Singapore, Phua Chu Kang is played by local superstar Gurmit Singh, a born-again Christian Sikh who is married to a Chinese. His greatest comedy creation is a know-all operator who knows nothing and botches everything. The comedy emerges from the delicious observation of everyday, indigenous life expressed in the full tropical profusion of the native dialect. Phua Chu Kang, like most Singaporeans, speaks only Singlish. Singlish is the exotic lingua franca nurtured from English by way of Chinese, Malay and various Indian Subcontinental accretions. It is as rich, encrusted and lush a dialect as the road bridges across the highway from Changi Airport. These concrete structures are completely enveloped by green vines intermingled with brightly flowering bougainvillea. They look like natural phenomenon, outgrowths of the earth.
Singlish is authentic local repossession. It is an indigenous cultural form that has dug its roots deep into the fabric of imperialism, the force that created the artificial nation-state of Singapore and its ethnic mix. But, Singapore now has globalized visions of future riches. The most successful of the Asian tiger economies, it is the Switzerland of the region. It is an attainment-oriented, high-achieving paternalist autocracy. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong always strikes me as man at home with Singlish. But that is not the kind of place his Singapore is destined to be. To globalize one must Americanize and Singapore is Americanizing with a vengeance.
Prior to my arrival, Goh made a speech denouncing Phua Chu Kang for polluting the airways with his native patois. Singlish was diverting the youth of the nation from their mission to succeed. It was no random outburst. Nothing in Singapore is random. In precise terms this attack on Phua Chu Kang defines the meaning of globalization. Globalization is cultural homicide writ large, and television is the mirror wherein the future is displayed.
In the service of global yuppiedom
Success means inculcating globalized manners, mores and values, as seen on TV. Consequently, internalizing global identity means eradicating what comes naturally. Singapore culture must be ersatz, like all the renovated shop houses around the downtown marina. These elegant buildings, in colonial fusion style, have been lovingly renovated to service global yuppiedom. They house French, Spanish, Mexican, Mediterranean, any nationality except Asian, franchise restaurants. Here tourists and upwardly mobile local entrepreneurs indulge in fine wining and dining to the strains of the latest pop classics. Local architecture is just a quaint backdrop.
When you globalize everything what you get is Singapore. When you want to know what Singapore is about you watch SBC, the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, local purveyor of television. Once upon a time SBC was modelled on the BBC, which even seconded staff to train Singaporeans in public-service broadcasting. But that is not the kind of animal globalization is. SBC has become a multi-channelled hydra; its main outlet provides 24-hour entertainment-driven programming, mainly consisting of imported American series. It also runs its own CNN clone news channel. In Singapore it is easier to find out who is dating whom in Hollywood than anywhere in the world, except perhaps Hollywood.
Being Singapore, the change of direction is deliberate, planned and purposeful. The objective: to be a regional broadcasting hub, a production centre selling regionally, thinking and looking globally; synergistically intermeshing the entire communications revolution experience, IT savvy, hot wired into mass global popular culture. And that is why Phua Chu Kang must learn to talk proper English, or at least a mid-Pacific variant.
The moral of this tale is rather simple. If the richest, most highly educated, nationalist country in the developing world will willingly sacrifice its cultural identity, the last, best bastion of its individuality, to globalization – we can be sure the pandemic has already happened.
Globalization is now sold as the best chance for economic uplift of the excluded masses of the world’s poor. It marches forward by stripping them of all that civilizes them in their own tradition, history and cultural expression. Imperialism produced mongrelization. Given independence and time, mongrelization could and does generate indigenous creativity and revitalization, the Phua Chu Kang effect. But to be successful globalized economic empowerment requires something quite different. It needs naked entry into mass popular culture manufactured in America, recycled and parodied by pale imitation everywhere. Indeed, The End – of civilization as the peoples of the world have known it, lived it and cherished its richness and diversity.
Like a scavenger seeking nourishment, I ingested Singaporean television in the hope of finding a glimmer of a cure, only to get larger doses of disease. I found the locally made documentaries on ‘disappearing Asia’, designed in imitation for sale to such outlets as Discovery Channel. They had recruited Lea Silonga, Filipina star of the hit musical Saigon, to front disparaging, patronizing looks at quaint exotica. The programmes out-did classic Victorian lady travellers. Indeed, the commentary sounded as if it could have been written by a Victorian lady traveller, titillated but less than amused at what old Asia once was, and should not be allowed to remain. The victims have become the perpetrators. That is what globalization means.
Britney, Brad and Mel, Ronan and Michael
Globalization is about information. The lifeblood of the future economy is instant access, instant comprehension of global information. What this flood of information says is money makes the world go around. To get money requires hooking on to trade, identifying markets. Simply put, it means replicating as swiftly as possible the places where money is centred, derived from, value added to: those G7 giants.
The port of entry into the new global dispensation is the media. Television is IT, the acme of information technology. Television shows the market what is marketable. It disseminates the style, generates and popularizes by constant repetition the merchandising opportunities. It makes global popular culture the only reality. Every home has a TV, every home becomes a portal on the superhighway to a globalized, homogenized world full of Singapores. Literally, one teleports direct to the new dispensation. The youth of the world are the sacrificial lambs offered up in this slaughter of cultural identity.
When you globalize everything what you get is Singapore
The civilizations of China, India and Islam support young populations with average ages between 20 and 25, and their increasing spending power is the lodestar of globalized marketing techniques and multinational merchandising concerns. An advertisement for the Hong Kong Bank says it all: ‘There are 3 billion people in Asia. Half of them are under 25. Consider it a growing market.’
This ‘growing market’ is being targeted in a specific way. Through television, advertising, movies and pop music they are force-fed a total lifestyle package. What matters is the look, the affectation, the cool; and each of these abstractions can be translated into a merchandising equivalent available at a nearby shopping mall. What in the West operates as a culture of narcissism finds embodiment in Asia as hero worship. The heroes are the pop stars, the movie stars, the TV stars, the sports stars, who rule the global stage mirrored on your TV screen. The audience is positively brainwashed to talk, act, think and live as their heroes do.
Star power is not Asian. It is Madonna, Britney, Brad and Mel, Ronan and Michael, Manchester United and Agassi. The stars and the world view marketed with and by them are hyped and hyper-ventilated. They are the tools of the global economics of TV.
The Hollywood television factories make their money in the American market. The content of their programmes is driven by the internal dictates of Americana and its predilections. From its beginning American television has been a marketing device pure and simple. It is organized and operated to serve the tastes and interests of commercial sponsors and advertisers.
What Hollywood makes in the global marketplace is profit. It sells costly, high-production value, glossy programmes for discounted prices to the television networks of the world. If it costs Singapore, or Malaysia $100,000 to buy an episode of X Files, they are getting a product that cost $5 million to make. The cost of bought-in programming is internationally regulated – the poorer the country the less they pay. So it is impossible for Third World countries to produce local programmes with such production values. Locally produced programmes look poor in comparison to imports and seldom attract advertising.
‘Best in Singapore’
While the global economics of TV are compelling, they are not the full story. What is seen on TV takes on an educational meaning; it is the substance of which global success is made. So the children of the élite in newly emerging economies in Asia buy into and act out the lifestyle of the rich and dominant in the West. The studied disaffection of urban youth culture in the West produces the epidemic of lepak in Malaysia. Lepak are young people who spend their days hanging out in shopping malls, affecting the style and perhaps being bored out of their skulls.
But acquiring the look, the clothes, even the video and cassettes that comprise global popular culture is not a straightforward transmission of purchasing power into the pocket of multinationals. Asia is counterfeit country, home of the genuine imitation 100-per-cent fake. The street markets in every city and town are awash with clothes, bags, sun glasses, watches, electrical and electronic goods, music tapes, videos and computer software cloned, pirated and all locally reproduced. For a pittance, young Asians can emulate their heroes while simultaneously stimulating local enterprise. The WTO hates it, Asian governments must promise to exterminate it – but the black economy is proof positive that resistance is not futile.
Globalization is a disease. But it just may be the kind of virus that requires the patient to get worse before they can recover. However much television pushes the youth of Asia to venerate global icons, super megastars, one fact remains. The biggest audience is always for local shows. Cheap and cheerful Singaporean, or Malaysian, or Indonesian, or Thai programmes may be. Friends, ER or Star Trek they are not. But Hollywood stars don’t speak Singlish, or Malay or Urdu. No matter how young people try, such icons do not and cannot look or know or experience what makes young Asians tick. Eventually, we all want to look in a mirror and see ourselves.
Maybe Phua Chu Kang is right after all. His catchphrase, ‘best in Singapore’, is proved by the ratings war – he is the king of comedy. So beyond the global noise of the information super highway, perhaps we should be listening for the siren song of local heroes calling us to a new departure. Perhaps local routes in developing countries can lead us back to the place we belong: a self-made world, rich and various. Prime Minister Goh, please take note.
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