On the airplane a young Malay man who looks almost identical to me speaks into a microphone large enough to cover his mouth, so it seems strange when I realize that the British accent over the intercom is actually coming from his lips. A strange disembodiment.
Singapore has been cast as a global “hub,” a gigantic node in a vast global trading network that has aspired to ideals of free trade and development. It began as a fishermen’s village, then was founded as an unapproved trading port by the British East India Company in order to break Dutch trade hegemony in the region. Singapore now resembles a Disney-like utopia, and even the so-called “developing areas” seem far cleaner than almost anywhere in Seattle.
As well-controlled as it may be, for flaneurs, Singapore has a terrible reputation. The beer is very expensive, everyone is dressed nice and has a job, engaging in prostitution or drugs is punishable by lifelong prison sentences, and nobody cares that you’re there, even if you’re white, young and look kind of like a sitcom star. All of these things come as staggering blows, especially to white travelers who are used to travel as a form of social mobility. This feeling has earned Singapore a reputation as “sterile,” “fake” or “boring.” Yet the architectural feats of the city are daunting, the consumer culture seems futuristic, and the food is extremely cheap, ubiquitous, and rumored to be the best in the world.
The food is made up of three main regional influences: Malay, Indian, and Fujian Chinese. In $2 food courts, there is occasionally western influences that sneak in as well, and restaurants of any food type can be found all over the city. In restaurants, this variety results in incredibly large menus, and it is often assumed that no matter what you want to eat, you simply have to ask for it. At the food courts the recipes are entrusted to professionalized, expert cooks, whose fame and worth can be gauged by simply looking at how long their lines are. If the line’s long, they’re famous. If the line reaches down the stairway, through the shopping mall and out into the street, then they’re just recently popular. This variety and cheapness of good food also gives food the reputation as “the great equalizer,” since no matter how famous or popular the food is, the cooks will continue to sell it for about $1-$2 a plate, and everybody gets to stand in line. The food is so cheap that about 1/3 of it is casually left behind at tables, no matter how famous or delicious it is.
If food acts as the “great equalizer” of class, it perhaps lacks the “equalization” capacity based on racial or ethnic differences. In Chinese foodstalls I see only Chinese, and the same in Indian food stalls and Malay stalls–though Malay and Chinese cooking are similar. No, for this a second “equalizer” has been put forth, that of shopping, which is casually named the national sport of Singapore. While it’s not cheap, it’s an activity that everyone seems to be doing all the time, and thanks to harsh regulation laws on just about anything else fun or interesting, shopping is usually the thing to do. At least between meals.
Those harsh regulation laws come in the form of excessive vice taxes, a tradition that goes back to sir Stamford Raffles’ mission to declare Singapore a free port. Historically, these policies have been tragic for Chinese immigrants, who were subtly encouraged to consume vast amounts of opium sold by British ships. Now this tragedy has turned to farce, as locals must save up all week just to visit a bar on a Saturday night to buy a couple drinks (at $10 a bottle) and smoke a couple cigarettes (at $10 a pack). To enter the local casinos, which took $50 billion to erect, Singaporeans must pay $100 at the door. Then there are the numerous fines for chewing bubblegum, spitting on the street, long hair, or carrying durians on the subway.
“History as farce” seems to define a great deal of how Singapore’s museums depict their national narrative. The national museum is not only the most technologically advanced museum I’ve ever been in, but also the most ridiculous. The patron is greeted with a gigantic dome where images of Singapore life are projected onto every wall, while a Russian score plays against a virtual choir chanting “SINGAPORE!” The patron is also given a virtual guide, which displays the artifacts you are looking at as you are looking at them, as if it were trying to insist upon other ways of seeing history: three dimensional, or flat with some increased contrast. On colonial history, there are films where Malays and British actors jokingly struggle for the spotlight, each tricking the other out of telling of the tale. Sometimes the audio is simply told through British drunken bar scenes and scandalous gossip about historical figures. All of this media just to complement some old hats and cigar boxes. The only serious moments in the museum begin with the Japanese invasion and the Singapore government until the present day. Suddenly, the farce turns emotional, patriotic, and censored as hell. The racial riots that broke apart Singapore and Malaysia aren’t even mentioned, nor are the numerous claims that one-party rule has been authoritarian, a claim made in numerous protests by activists who see some of the regulations of political and media activities as an infringement on political rights.
The streets of Chinatown seem like “Main Street” at Disneyland, if Main Street were meant to represent Chinese markets instead of American markets. The street meets some sort of imagined ideal in my head about what Chinese markets might be like, while at the same time, they make me so comfortable and everything so convenient that there is nothing new about it–it is exactly as I visioned it. I walk from there to Little India, which has been proclaimed as a near-replica of an Indian street, yet here too the same strangeness of the place eludes me. Where are the strange smells? The animals and rodents moving about everywhere? The super cheap knock-offs or the odd glances? What happened to the feeling of being in India, or the feeling of being in China? Singapore has been called sterile, and I would have to concur. At 1am on a Friday night I see no one on the street, save some old Chinese playing Chinese checkers. The beer is too expensive to drink, so I stay in my hostel and talk to the white Australian guy who owns a house in the Philippines, and who sits with a Pilippino man about my age who sits on his lap, occasionally stroking his crotch. The Filipino looks like a slightly younger version of me.
All around Singapore there are open sex shops, with no attempt to hide or downplay their role. Yet according to the guide, Singapore rates extremely low on sexual activity. Perhaps, as Jean Baudrillard said of Americans, sex is everywhere except in the bedroom. Then again, whenever I walk back to my hostel after 1am, there are strange women offering “massages” along the Chinatown route. Perhaps the government can’t control everything all the time.
Singapore is a neoliberal wet dream, a nation constantly focused upon a national utopian dream, sold by the Malay national anthem:
ONWARD SINGAPORE(English Translation)
We, the people of Singapore
Together march towards happiness
Our noble aspiration
To make Singapore a success
Let us all unite
In a new spirit
Together we proclaim
Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan’s books litter the bookstores, while statues, parades, museums and overhead fighter jets all seem to announce the triumph of free market capital that has resurrected the city from a fishermen’s swamp into a modern Asian Dragon. The blindspot of course, is the nationalist assumption that Singapore itself is defined solely by its citizens and territory, rather than the overseas factories seeking surplus life, or by the slave-wages that allow “shopping” to operate as the city’s national pastime, and certainly not in the incredible amounts of oil and gas it takes to sustain the gigantic air-conditioned metropolis. Despite these overlooked shortcommings, there is a spirit in Singapore of a “dream” that exists apart from race and ethnicity. The slogan “live our dreams, fly our flag” is posted all over the city. According to the national pledge, it is a dream of happiness, community, and safety from racial oppression.