Stories of Singapore

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Photo by Ava Kofman.

A Pragmatic Balance

By Tapley Stephenson

In Singapore, the older generations remember a time before dazzling skyscrapers and glamorous shopping malls.

“When I was young this was just a fishing port,” one elderly Singaporean cab driver tells me as we weave between the giant office buildings of Singapore’s financial district. “People my age, we appreciate what Mr. Lee Kwan Yew did for us,” he says of the country’s founding prime minister.

The cab drops me off at a shopping district called Orchard Road, where the malls are looming towers called “cities” and where enormous crowds of citizens, tourists, and expats alike swarm the manicured sidewalks each weekend. Depending on the “city” you’re in, shops might market temporary calling cards to the city’s many migrant workers to hawk the newest Gucci suits to the 15 percent of Singaporeans who are millionaires.

Much of the Singaporean success story can be credited to Lee Kwan Yew, but his policies remain controversial. “One could argue about Lee Kwan Yew’s method of doing this because he did it with an iron fist,” says George Bishop, an American professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singaporean resident of 20 years. “But he did turn [the country] around, and they went from chaos to a well-ordered society.”

In Orchard Row’s basements, food stalls display large sheets of paper with government-issued letter grades — most receive a B, though they look immaculately clean. The food courts offer an enormous variety, from traditional Singaporean prata to Chinese fragrant chicken to sushi, curry, and hamburgers. The food is as diverse as the country itself, but with every sign and menu set in the same font and format, the restaurants feel like part of a giant template.

Walking past a career fair promoting jobs in firefighting, policing, and civil defense, I stop to watch a police recruiting video in which a group of officers tackle a fictional drug dealer in a dramatically lit alleyway. In real life, I realize, the criminal would be executed under Singapore’s mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers, but thoughts of that unpleasantness fade by the time I reach the next flashy storefront.

It wasn’t always like this. Orchard Road, like many other parts of Singapore, was originally a swamp, and in the mid-1960s, the poverty level in Singapore was, says Bishop, “legendary.” But under the “paternalistic” control of Lee and the People’s Action Party (PAP) — the ruling party in Singapore since 1959 — Singapore stabilized and eventually underwent an economic boom. Tan Tai Yong, vice provost for student life at the National University of Singapore, says that his children’s generation “never experienced this hardship.” The country is now a financial hub and major trading port, with the third-highest GDP per capita in the world according to the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment is at two percent and homelessness is almost nonexistent.

As Shawn Tan ’01, vice president of the Yale Club of Singapore, explains, “People will vote based on whether their needs have been met.”

On Orchard Road, I walk by sparking letters on a storefront that reads, “Shoes make me happy. I’m materialistic. Whatever.”

It’s 3 a.m. on a Saturday night, and I’ve just finished exploring Singapore’s downtown with a group of NUS students. They’ve promised to take me to a building that is home to some of Singapore’s best Thai food and, as I soon learn, to its unregistered brothels. The mall’s official name is Orchard Towers, but it’s colloquially known as “four floors of whores.” We sit down with our pad thai at a booth next to a group of scantily clad transvestites; prostitutes converse with their clients in the fluorescent hallways nearby.

In many countries, a hub of illegal prostitution would have felt dangerous, or at least chaotic, but in Singapore, there’s a strong sense of order — even though police are almost never seen. “It’s the safest place I’ve ever been to,” says Etkin Tekin ’12, who studied at NUS for a semester. “I never once felt uncomfortable at any part of town, at any hour, and that’s something you don’t even have here [in New Haven]. There’s a perception that you’re protected.”

In comparison to today, Singapore’s past was utter chaos. The city was expelled from Malaysia in 1965 — becoming the only country in modern history to gain independence against its own will — and it soon faced high crime rates and racial tensions between its Chinese, Indian, and Malay populations, which led to violent race riots in the 1960s. Many in the older generation, Tan said, still vividly remember those riots.

Order was created through the occasionally repressive policies of the PAP — such as barring any speech that could be construed as racist or critical of a religion, which helped quell racial tension — and with no Eighth Amendment barring excessive fines or punishment, the Singaporean government can be incredibly strict. Gum-chewing or littering can lead to hundreds of dollars in fines or even arrest, so most city streets are spotless. Vandals are often caned — beaten with a wooden rod — so graffiti is incredibly rare. For more serious offenses, punishments escalate: kidnapping, illegal possession of firearms, and murder are all capital crimes.

Bishop says this compromise — harsh policies in exchange for an ordered society — is a fair deal in the eyes of many Singaporeans. “Americans are afraid of someone telling you what to do, of tyranny; Singaporeans are afraid of chaos,” Bishop says. “There may be some price to pay, but we have an ordered society, we have peace.”

Outside Orchard Towers after dinner, waiting for a taxi back towards Yale-NUS’s eventual campus, I feel safer than I do walking down High Street near Yale’s campus at 2 a.m.

I step off the bus and walk towards a building called AS3, an open-air classroom building at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Sciences. There’s a nice breeze in the hallway when I turn into a bright orange, green, and yellow room to find 17 students sitting in desks arranged in a circle.

Rajpal Singh, an NUS student, invited me to his discussion section for the NUS lecture “Government and Politics of Singapore.” We had spent the night discussing academic freedom in the country, and he said he wanted to show me a political discussion at his school. Twenty minutes into today’s class, the conversation turns towards Singaporean restrictions on free speech.

“You just get a sense that the government distrusts you and that they treat you like children,” says a girl sitting across the room in black, thick-rimmed glasses, clearly frustrated. “What we have are petty ways to show that we are angry, since deep down, we cannot stand there and say something.” Since the newspapers are commonly censored and protest is illegal, she explains, most Singaporeans complain via Facebook or blogs — the equivalent of “slamming the door of your room when you’re angry with your parents.” The girl’s comments stir a heated debate over whether Singapore is a free country. Would they trade some of their society’s order, the students ask each other, in exchange for fewer government restrictions?

The teaching assistant cuts in after some time, but he’s smiling and laughing. His lightheartedness seems genuine, though it’s unclear to me what his motivations are — on the one hand, the students are getting worked up about a lack of civil rights, but the class has also strayed from the course material.

“We’ll save this revolutionary talk for the next session. I’m not teaching a class on how to bring down the state,” he says, laughing. Then he turns to me and adds, with a self-mocking smile, “Make sure that’s written.”

The students echo his laughter, and the conversation turns back to the day’s proscribed topic.

It’s hard to say where the line is drawn in Singapore between government censorship and peer censorship, says Wang Yufei, a student at an elite junior college called Raffles Institution that sends students to both Yale and NUS. When the government declares a topic “out of bounds,” she says, the effect can “trickle down” to the population, and eventually the people censor each other and themselves.

Alex Au — whose blog, Yawning Bread, is widely read throughout Singapore — says he sometimes finds himself self-censoring his work in an attempt to avoid the defamation lawsuits the Singaporean government has used against those journalists and bloggers who criticize Singaporean officials. “In Singapore, our judiciary has adopted the view that the more public you are, the more watchful the law shall be to protect your reputation,” he says.

At a Yale-NUS information session, recent Yale graduates — now working for the Yale- NUS admissions office — and two Yale seniors who work for Yale admissions answer questions about the new college in an auditorium in NUS’s University Hall, the flashy new campus administration building. A group of about 30 students pose questions about applications, the liberal arts, and residential colleges. After 15 minutes of light discussion and questions, Melissa Tsang, a prospective student, asks if she would be able to start a queer advocacy group at Yale-NUS, even though sex between two men is illegal under Singaporean law. The admissions officer remarks that this is a good question, and that Yale-NUS will help her, so long as the group is lawful.

“Yale-NUS is in Singapore, and our organizations will abide by Singaporean law. It will be lawful,” the Yale-NUS admissions officer responds. “If you want to start an organization, we will help you start that organization, lawfully. So that’s a balance we will have to strike.” Though Yale-NUS wishes to help its students in any way possible, it seems the school’s values may come in conflict with the laws of the Singaporean government.

Just like Singaporean society, Yale- NUS will have to weigh concerns over freedom of expression and the comforts that the government provides. University President Richard Levin, Tan, and Bishop note the advantages that the country provides the University, many of which are directly related to the government’s policies. The island offers a safe climate to start a school; it embraces both Chinese and Indian influences; it is willing to pay for the entire venture, down to the salaries of Yale professors who visit the Yale- NUS campus.

But these benefits can come at a cost, says Mark Oppenheimer, a Yale lecturer of political science and head of the Yale Journalism Initiative. “[Yale administrators] will not speak circumspectly about human rights abuses and unfree practices about Singaporean government because they don’t want to offend their partners,” Oppenheimer says.

In response to the New York Police Department’s monitoring of Yale’s Muslim Student Association, Levin declared in February, “Police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale.” After returning from Singapore, I ask Levin if he thinks the Singaporean government’s monitoring of the press and political blogs constitutes an analogous situation. He declines to comment. I ask if he thinks Yale-NUS will help to liberalize the country. No comment again.

Despite the People’s Action Party’s often restrictive policies — such as censoring the press or curtailing freedom of speech — Shawn Tan, the Yale Club of Singapore’s president, says that the majority of Singaporeans choose to be “pragmatic” rather than idealistic about the costs and benefits of a growing economy under the Party. When Yale-NUS finally opens, it will have a similar decision to make. Yale- NUS can help liberalize the country and government that supports it. Or it can remain pragmatic.

An Uncertain Coastline

By Ava Kofman

Some say they’re just playing Sim City. That Singapore’s hands-on approach extends to the ground it builds on.

“We have a running joke here about the funeral parlor business,” says Richard Wan, editor of the Singaporean blog TR Emeritus. “The punchline is that it’s the only sector where the Singaporean government isn’t involved since there’s no money to be made.”

The Singapore City Gallery in downtown Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority Center gives an idea, though downscaled, of the government’s monumental ambition to make the tiny island nation into a global crossroads — from its plans to build a midnight Formula One racetrack to its construction of a skyline of Vegas excess.

At the gallery, city planners lay out the entire country’s past and future development — in thousands of two -inch-high plastic buildings, colored pins, and tan wooden replicas — to virtually eliminate inefficiency and waste. As the government’s Housing Development Board (HDB) owns 80 percent of the country’s housing, sprawl is obsolete.

After scaling the statistics to size, Singapore is one of the world’s fastest growing economies — low tax-rates, stellar healthcare, clean streets, the most efficient trains, and so on. Singapore conducts the crescendo of economic growth with a light touch; it administers criminal justice with heavier blows.

But the hands of government censorship are less clear, orchestrating affairs that are somewhere in between the unseen workings of self-regulation and explicit judiciary intervention.

In recent years, the government has taken a subtler approach: making calls to publications before they cover sensitive issues; asking stores not to stock books rather than ban them outright.

Yet this year, two lawyer letters were sent to publications asking them to remove content. Whereas the defamation laws involved in this case are codified, the mechanisms government authorities use to regulate other forms of expression are less clear. Imposed at the state’s discretion, the exact boundaries of the out of bounds (OB) markers — the term used to denote areas of unacceptable speech — are ambiguous beyond the general sense that they limit discussion of race, religion, and politics. Their reach extends past political discourse into education, media, activism, and creative endeavors. “We often see censorship in binary terms, yes?” National University of Singapore (NUS) student Bay Ming Ching writes over email. “However in many cases, censorship usually takes place on a variety of levels. [...] Why not see censorship as a continuum or a spectrum?”

Many NUS students say Americans’ biggest misconception about Singapore is that it’s a police state, where chewing gum leads to imprisonment and security guards menace passersby in streets and in the endless shopping malls. Sitting in a mall, across from a mall, in front of a different mall, Kirsten Han, a prominent blogger, anti-death penalty activist, and documentarian, explains that security guards may be nosy sometimes but only because they don’t have anything better to do. “Maybe it’s too boring to say that people in Singapore live like normal people do and aren’t disappearing off the streets,” she says. But, she adds, it’s not useful to stereotype Singapore as “either a shiny Asian tiger or like North Korea.”

In March, a member of Singapore’s parliament (MP) considered suing the popular blog The Online Citizen (TOC) for defamatory statements they had allegedly made. Siew Kum Hong, a member of the core team for TOC, thinks that public attempts to restrict speech like defamation lawsuits “just don’t work” because the removal of content paradoxically draws more attention to the content itself. But almost anyone who receives a threat to sue will immediately take down the offending content, says Ravi Philemon, TOC’s interim editor. The cost of fighting a lawsuit with a full-blown trial would start at upwards of 200,000 ($SGD), Siew estimates.

And in the long term, these explicit examples of censorship may shape the sphere of public discourse in subtler ways. When higher-ranking MPs threaten to take legal action or follow through with filing a suit, they set an example by “encouraging other [MPs] to do the same,” Philemon says, which can create a “culture of fear” in citizens. “The result is that the default approach in Singapore is to reserve discretion when speaking about ministers,” he says.

But Raashi Mukherji, a Political Science graduate student at NUS, does not think these restrictions limit debate, as shifting the conversation to “question[ing] the system of power is no less effective than questioning the person.”

With limited space for social protest, theater in Singapore has often been a space for airing the political as well as the personal. Alvin Tan, founder and artistic director of Singaporean theater company The Necessary Stage, negotiates the restrictions on sensitive speech to stage original works about marijuana, pedophilia, political detention, homosexuality, and censorship. He says people always ask him “how in the world did the government let you do this?”

Tan’s secret lies in the way he arranges his iPhone, glasses, water bottle, and notepad into the cardinal points of a compass on a cafe table in the NUS Performing Arts Center. As the four points of a compass, the objects represent the director’s idea of incorporating multiple perspectives, as opposed to polemicizing a single viewpoint when writing a play. Tan doesn’t think a play is successful if it allows its audience to simply applaud anti-establishment criticism and exit the theater with its hands and consciences clean. Instead, Tan believes his productions should “disturb” all citizens — both inside the government and out — to question their own policies, affiliations, and assumptions to take responsibility for social issues and problematic stigmas.

But the barriers to staging performances — about a thousand people fit into Tan’s privately owned venue, and funding from the government varies by production — guarantee that some attempts to develop a culture of public interest may only reach a limited audience. “The mechanisms of control have become more sophisticated,” Tan explains. Whereas government authorities used to ban films or censor scripts only to attract international attention, they now ask venues in advance not to stage works or they give movies restrictive ratings. When political art translates into political action, that niche audience transforms into a self- selecting crowd.

Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park is the only place in Singapore where public assembly — after registration with the park — is allowed. It’s also where one of the more specific descriptions of the OB markers is spelled out on a sign: “The speech should not be religious in nature, and should not have the potential to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different racial or religious groups.”

At the Pink Dot parade in 2009, an LGBT awareness event that activist Kirsten Han attended, attendees had to stand in a circle cordoned off in Speakers’ Corner. Although the purpose of the parade was to raise awareness and visibility for LGBT issues in Singapore, its organizers had no other choice of venue, and foreigners could not participate. The stage in the park is for park-sponsored events only, and protestors must supply their own generators. “There’s only so much you can do when it’s the same group of people preaching to choir,” Han says.

With these heavy restrictions on peaceful assembly, political associations, and the press, activism is a constant balancing act. Social progress comes slowly because advocates have to justify the concept of social progress before they even begin to campaign for specific issues, says Indu Rajeswari, co-founder of Sayoni, a non-governmental organization that advocates for queer women.

Melissa Tsang, an intern for Sayoni and prospective Yale-NUS applicant, calls the tension in balancing these boundaries the “Kumbaya Effect”: “The government pretends we’re one big, happy family,” she says, “but that’s just not true.” Tsang says when the government speaks about “social harmony” and “balance,” they are using euphemisms that do citizens a disservice by making real discussion taboo.

Until recently advocates in Singapore, by definition, were those who explained their issues to policy makers behind closed doors, where there’s less chance of creating a public outcry.

“The government prioritizes economic development because they don’t want society to get too divisive,” Rajeswari says. “That is the framework we come from so whatever advocacy we do has to work within framework.”

Singapore’s speech codes cannot be understood outside of the contextual framework of the

country’s history, size, financial success, and cultural sensitivities. In the last four decades, the PAP transformed the nation from a colonial opium den in a jungle swamp into a prosperous, clean metropolis.

Singapore’s economic growth rate since gaining independence in 1965 is, by all accounts, exceptional: 4.9 percent in 2011, and counting. Vice President of the Yale Club of Singapore Shawn Tan GRD ’01 says he is unsure a booming economy could have been achieved “without proper sanctions to maintain social harmony and order in place.”

Though Singapore’s racial riots of the 1960s seem distant to younger generations, Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, remembers watching his neighbor, an Indian, beating his other neighbor, a Malay. Singapore has come a long way, he explains, towards peaceful multiculturalism and modernization. He remembers growing up without telephones, washing machines, or flushing toilets. Mahbubani explains that Singapore’s trend is towards even greater liberalization and openness, but in its own way and on its own time: “There is a gray area, but the boundaries keep opening up.”

Since Speakers’ Corner may not be big enough for everyone, the Internet has also opened up a venue for Singaporean citizens and residents to voice opinions, debate politics, vent complaints, and organize for human rights. Bloggers, including those at The Online Citizen, say they started writing to push back against the lack of discussion about social issues, like race and discriminatory policies, in the mainstream media.

Though the OB-markers still apply online, NUS Professor of Law Michael Hor says that, until last year, the government didn’t allow persistently political websites to exist without registering before elections.

“The group of people willing to be vocal is growing much more than it used to be,” he says. “There’s just no way other way to go. Being repressive is just not cool anymore — it passed its time in Singapore long ago, but nobody cared to change anything.” Plus, illiberal policies, he adds, might also scare away investors. And votes, suggests TR Emeritus editor Richard Wan. Many of those interviewed by the News in Singapore says that the growing plurality of voices represented in Singapore’s online public sphere has translated into political representation and results. But a lawyer by training as Hor’s former student at NUS Law, Rajeswari is more cautious about citing the election as a momentous mark of change “after 40 years of quietness.”

The extent of Singapore’s liberalization depends on how you measure time. “Singapore has liberalized if you take a longer view,” says Ravi Philemon, who is also a social activist. “Yes, there’s internet and social media. Yes, Singapore has given us space, but it’s a controlled space. There’s more to come, but it comes with a lot of strings.”

Depending on who you ask, Singapore is the world’s fastest-growing island nation — in terms of landmass. Over the last half-century, Singapore’s government has shipped in billions of barrels of sand from Indonesia so that it could “reclaim” — that is to say, build — land out of sea. And there’s not even a volcano, they’ll tell you. Yet even without the constructive excess of ash, the country will soon grow to be as large as New York City.

Looking at a built-to-scale version of a newly modeled city, it’s easy to wonder about the Real and hard to tell what’s what, really. The iconic skyline is no accident. Later, from the plane, shiny selfsame skyscrapers appear in Hong Kong, New York. There, where there was once the lawless walled city of Kowloon in Hong Kong, and the green of the New World in Dutch sailors’ eyes. There too, in time, palimpsest blueprints and hollow wooden models eventually settled into substance and took on their own authenticity. For now, Singapore is an hourglass city — either the glass runs empty or the sands are still shifting.

Correction: April 22

A previous version of “An Uncertain Coastline” misstated that Pink Dot was banned from Singapore as well as the date of the event described. The Pink Dot event described took place in 2009 and Pink Dot will take place again this year.

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