Understanding The Lion City
The enigma of Singapore astonishes me. It is an ordered hubbub. I am able to streak through the airport in record time, find a machine that spews what to me seems an arbitrary amount of money – the amount, I discover later, is more than I would withdraw at any North American ATM.
No one interacts with me until I reach the long taxi queue. Even then it scurries along at a pace that discourages human interaction – a Chaplinesque assembly line. Humans are bits and bytes, pluses and minuses, bodies and space as they progress forward in one of the most efficient transit systems on earth.
I offer a wry grin when the man at the door sweeps me into a whirlwind pocket of passengers as the third of three. The three taxis careen with practiced precision, slide into their allocated spots long enough to receive us and our luggage. Then we are off at subway speed on a straight track, whizzing along with taxis and motorcycles that whip past us.
The CB radio in the cab spurts a repeated pattern of static-voice-static, a staccato mix of English, Malay and Mandarin. It is the perfect rhythm to the soundtrack of the brightly lit high rises that blur past the windows. Then an irksome silence creeps in, disconcerting, like the cocoon of freefall or zero gravity. The CB erupts again and things get back on track. The Suntec City building, whose name and reputation bring to mind Hollywood’s Century City (think Die Hard), stands out in the center outdoing all other high rises by outlining itself with lights.
More than the city, it is the Singaporeans who astonish me. Singapore is the only place I know where the locals walk faster than the expatriates.
How did this country develop such cleanliness, efficiency, order, speed and discipline in a hot, humid and geographically sparse place? It is a civilization run by money, by business. Surrounded by Malaysia and Indonesia, it is an anomaly amidst poverty stricken and mismanaged governments. Chinese influence perhaps? Most of the economy is run and owned by Chinese immigrants. Is this what cities in China would have been like if communism had been replaced by the freedom of enterprise?
This is what I gathered from the hotel info channel. Despite what seems a Chinese monopoly, the city is only 17% Chinese. Its exotic history began in 1819 when Sir Raffles “founded” the city. Before then it served as a strategic base for England in southeast Asia during Britain’s expansion of its empire. During W.W.II it was a bastion of strength in the area. Later it became a hub for travel and trade. It made independence in 1965, and is now home to Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Indonesians and others. I do not know what constitutes a true Singaporean. The culture is an amalgamation of each of its groups of immigrants which covers 5000 years of history.
Inarguably, Singapore is a gem in that part of the world. It is an economic giant – clean, safe and prosperous. It offers state-of-the-art medical facilities that I have experienced on many occasions, including the birth of my first child. It is also seen as a dictatorship, or as someone once called it, the “Cuba of Asia,” albeit more economically sound.
No doubt Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership of over 40 years has made a difference in the region. But there is a conflict that simmers beneath the surface, that appears in teens who struggle for an identity in an arena of conformity, who have the wisdom to bemoan their super consumerism and strive for more meaningful relationships. It appears in unhappy citizens who hand out flyers in the market that criticize the government, who risk punishment for dissent and defamation.
The disharmony appears in a tenuous attempt at a “Speaker’s Corner” – a joke as it is hard to obtain permits that are monitored by police who can use the information expressed against its citizens at the whim of the government.
At what cost is Singapore successful? I believe it is a soulless place. It functions the way it does because everyone thinks they must work harder, faster, more efficiently for the machine to run well oiled. Like a shark, if it stops, it will die. And so this artificially created culture feeds on itself, cannibalistic if you will.
To stop and reflect means to fall behind, to see the emptiness. This is observed in the teenagers who gather en masse in the streets Saturday night, on the internet, on MTV Asia interactive. The Teenage Textbook Movie – a clever but barely audible motion picture made in Singapore that was a hit last year – and MTV Asia tell us the youth of Singapore endure the same heartaches and social upbringing as any cosmopolitan city. On their minds are identity, money, friendship, possessions, grades.
Last year as the MTV hostess was asking for New Year’s resolutions, teens who responded mentioned wanting to be less materialistic, less stressed by grades, more in the moment, enjoying life and their friends. Perhaps I’m wrong but I know I can take it for two days and no more. It is overwhelmingly modern and breathtaking – then I need to get out.
It is a mere 35 days till Christmas. The main artery of the city is the focus for celebration, particularly this year. Red, white and blue is the theme. Lights and decorations lather each of the buildings. It is an odd dichotomy of images, not only in the tropical surroundings, but in a country where only a small percentage is Christian. It smacks of economic exploitation that makes me uncomfortable – but only after soaking in the carols piped into the department stores and sipping a Starbuck’s cappuccino.