By Aubrey BelfordApril 6, 2012
Singapore used to be a strange little bubble of wealth, blandness and prurience in Asia. Has it now become a model for the world?
In 1993, the newly launched technology magazine Wired sent the science fiction author and cyberpunk futurist William Gibson to Singapore. The World Wide Web was just beginning its rapid insinuation into our lives and Singapore, the quintessential sparkling, smiling, authoritarian nanny state, had made plans to become a global information technology centre. Gibson's task was "to see whether that clean dystopia represents our techno future".
The metropolis Gibson uncovered was not so much a hell as it was a well-appointed limbo. The city-state built by Lee Kuan Yew and managed under the one-party rule of his People's Action Party, or PAP, was a dull, ultramodern, imagination-free zone ruled by consumerism and a muted, fearful paternalism.
"Singapore is a relentlessly G-rated experience, micromanaged by a state that has the look and feel of a very large corporation," Gibson wrote.
"If IBM had ever bothered to actually possess a physical country, that country might have had a lot in common with Singapore. There's a certain white-shirted constraint, an absolute humorlessness in the way Singapore Ltd. operates; conformity here is the prime directive, and the fuzzier brands of creativity are in extremely short supply.
"Singapore, he memorably put it, was "Disneyland with the death penalty."The article got Wired banned in Singapore.
I write this as I sit in a café in an old colonial era shophouse near Singapore's Arab Street. It's brief breather between two spots of chaos: Jakarta, which I call home, and Yangon, where I have been reporting on Myanmar's political reform process. The city today gleams in alternation between steel, sheer glass and pastels. Coming here is a relief, but it's always a little unsettling.
It's nice here. But a little too nice. When Gibson wrote his piece nearly 20 years ago, he left open the question of whether the Internet would change this place. Would a flood of data, pornography and subversive thought pop Singapore's hermetic bubble? Or would the city pull through intact and prove that the information revolution was no threat to Singapore's compact: that if you give people prosperity, stability, malls and micromanagement, they'll scarcely bother with pesky questions like democracy.
I don't have a full answer for that, but after years of coming here, I think it looks as if a bit of both scenarios have come to pass.
There's no doubt Singapore is much less of a bland nanny state than in the past. But at the same, Singapore Ltd. has gone global. Apathy, air-conditioning and extreme modernity have turned out to be pretty popular in Asia, and beyond.
Authoritarian capitalism is on the march. Today's Singapore is the singular creation of Lee Kuan Yew, the country's first prime minister, who shaped a raucous, poverty-filled British port town into the efficient, first-world nation it is today. Lee took the framework of British law and gave it a distinctly authoritarian twist: parliamentary democracy was rigged in favour of permanent victory for his PAP, and government was removed from the hands of an untrustworthy populace and placed in control of a managerial class of technocrats.
His multi-ethnic population — full of intercommunal strife, agitation and bad public transport etiquette — had to be reshaped into new people, through government meddling in the most minute details of private life.
Ruling Singapore's Asian population wasn't like governing Westerners, Lee argued. With the British populace, who had benefitted from centuries of "cultivation", Lee said at one point in the 1990s, "you don't have to use too much of the stick because they would already have been trained". Not so with his own people.
"It's like with dogs. You train it in a proper way from small. It will know that it's got to leave, go outside to pee and to defecate. No, we are not that kind of society. We had to train adult dogs who even today deliberately urinate in the lifts," he said.
I remember my first visit to Singapore as a 16-year-old more than a decade ago. I stood rooted to the spot on a traffic-free side street near the tree covered mall strip of Orchard Road, terrified of jaywalking, lest some unseen organ of the state spot me and issue an obscenely large fine. The Singapore I knew of was one where chewing gum was verboten, littering was harshly punished, and orderliness was not open to compromise.
But coming back time after time, I've noticed changes, too. Despite all the rules, you seldom see police on the street here. Most Singaporeans, apparently, are pretty well trained already. At the same time, the city is also starting to loosen up, allowing hedonism to flourish - for those who can afford it - as part of efforts to draw in foreign cash and talented foreign labour. In 2003, the government lifted a restriction on dancing on top of bars. In 2010, it opened up two large "integrated resorts" (read: casinos). Electronic music festivals are now part of the yearly calendar. Singapore's small opposition also made ground in elections last year.
Singapore is still boring, but it's growing (or at least buying) a soul. One friend who recently moved here to work in Singapore's burgeoning creative industry told me the city is a place with no shortage of art galleries and buyers - it just has very few actual artists.
When Gibson wrote his article, Singapore was still something of a freak show, an anomaly. China's economic reforms were well underway, but the truly glittering transformation of its cities, including Shanghai's fantastical Pudong (a financial and commerical hub), was just about to happen. Dubai was still a shadow of its future, monstrous self.
In developing cities around the world, from Bangalore to Bangkok, Singapore's cold efficiency has become a model of capsule living for middle classes who want to separate themselves from the squalor around them. Sometimes, the Singapore brand is even specifically used to sell housing estates and malls.
By riding the Singapore model, all of these places thumb their noses at an idea that saw its high tide back in the early 1990s: that markets and democracy went hand in hand, and their joint victory was inevitable.
In an interview this year, Gibson acknowledged as much, calling Singapore "Patient Zero" for smiling, spick-and-span, illiberal capitalism .
Even in the West, Singapore feels closer to home in different ways.
While Singapore has loosened up, many old democracies have become avid police of personal behaviour. My hometown, Sydney, is one of those places. Sometimes, it has been for worthy reasons, such as saving the environment. Sometimes, it has been for reasons of safety or, limiting liability for the stupidity of others. And sometimes, it has been to satisfy the demands of an ageing population that prefers peace, quiet and order over excitement. In school and in work, people never have been more competitive.
A couple of times, I've asked twentysomething Australian expatriate friends in Jakarta (who are, admittedly, the kind of people who are drawn to chaos) in which of the two cities, Singapore or Sydney, do they find themselves chafing more at the rules. Opinion is usually split 50-50.
Singaporeans, often with a little self-deprecation, refer to their national character with two Hokkien words: kiasu and kiasi. Put together and roughly translated they mean "afraid to lose, afraid to die."
And if you're living in a big global city these days, does that not sum life up, just a little?