For over three decades, the writer and his growing family passed through Singapore on numerous occasions, giving us an opportunity to observe the Singapore shaped by its founder president, the late Lee Kuan Yew. In that period, it grew increasingly prosperous and stable, but, in the course of its evolution, did it somehow lose its soul – or gain a new one?
The writer first flew into Singapore in 1973, en route to his first overseas assignment: the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. While Lee Kuan Yew had already been president of an independent Singapore for almost a decade after its acrimonious split from Malaysia, the island nation still had a bit of the old Singapore described in novelist Paul Theroux’s picaresque tragedy, Saint Jack, the tale of Jack Flowers, the pimp who had prospered on the entertainment of US and British military personnel on R and R from tougher duties elsewhere.
Some perverse travel agent had made a reservation for this writer in a hotel in the city’s old Arab Quarter and Bugis Street. That area had very little in common with the new Singapore then being forged in the image of Lee Kuan Yew’s vision for a brand-spanking new first world nation in Southeast Asia. Instead, that neighbourhood had a lot more in common with Jack Flower’s world, complete with its flamboyant coterie of magnificently attired, male transvestite prostitutes, amidst the night markets, street vendors offering mysterious cooked foods, and much, much more. A stroll through that Bugis Street neighborhood was a mesmerizing, nearly hallucinogenic introduction to the older, knowing world of Southeast Asia – complete with warnings from hotel personnel to take care of one’s wallet, one’s camera, one’s person – and pretty much everything else. But the new Singapore was already encroaching on this universe, and, by the 1980s, the untrammelled Bugis Street would be gone entirely, replaced by still more boutiques and shopping malls.
A few years later, the writer and his spouse were back in Singapore, this time on the way to Surabaya, Indonesia for a second assignment in that country. Before it was torn down for another shopping mall or office block, we booked a room in the historic Raffles Hotel. Built in the old colonial style, with its wide verandas, well-worn teak and cane furniture, spacious rooms with their slowly circling overhead fans, we were given the Joseph Conrad Suite. This suite was a sprawling collection of bedrooms and sitting rooms – as well as several bathrooms – one of which had an ancient claw-footed bathtub, easily as big as a small sailboat. The building was a creaky old pile with lots of wood fittings and staircases that felt like it was the set for a period film about the Raj.
On the entry door to our suite was an inconspicuous sign that read, “In the event of a fire, occupants are requested to step into the hall and exclaim in a loud but calm voice, ‘Fire, fire, there is a fire in Room 103.’ ” Really. Down on the main floor there was the famous Long Bar, where the Singapore Sling (a rather noxious-tasting cocktail) was first invented, as well as the Palm Court. Here was a marble floored, potted palm bedecked dining room where one could partake of the lunchtime tiffin curry, and be half convinced that somewhere, at another table, the ghost of Noel Coward was singing a chorus of “Mad dogs and Englishmen…” while Somerset Maugham was writing one more of those Malaysian Stories.
In fact, there really were ghosts in the building, or so everyone said. During World War II, Japanese military intelligence units, the Kempeitai, had apparently used the basement of the Raffles to torture British military personnel for their secrets. As a result, the night sounds in the hotel were presumed to be the sounds of the tortured rattling their chains or crying out from the pain of those bamboo slivers being worked into the space between fingernails and flesh in order to encourage cooperation.
And who was Raffles? Sir Stamford Raffles was a bit like an earlier Cecil Rhodes – although he had the scientist and explorer’s sympathetic eye and heart for the peoples, flora and fauna of his various domains. He first conquered the Dutch East Indian island of Java during the Napoleonic Wars for England from the Netherlands and then, when that was returned in the post-war settlement at the Treaty of Vienna, Raffles was tasked with setting up a new British colony in the East and so the port of Singapore was created on a virtually unpopulated bit of swamp and sand.
Raffles’ creation eventually grew into the colony that was, by the time of the Second World War, termed Britain’s “Fortress Singapore”, the East Asian anchor of the UK’s defense chain that stretched from Hong Kong to the Suez Canal. (It was too bad, however, that Singapore’s naval guns faced towards the open sea rather than northwards. As a result, the Japanese Imperial Army largely arrived in Singapore by land over the causeway from the Malay province of Johor – moving on foot or on bicycles, of all things.)
But beyond its infamy in World War II, Singapore was a relatively calm, peaceable colony, serving primarily an entrepot for the many export products of Malaya and the rest of the region – the tin, rubber, sugar, timber, spices, and rice exported all around the world. In the early 1960s, of course, it also had a period of major labour unrest, this at a time when an increasingly influential politician was a certain young lawyer, one Harry KY Lee.
In addition to a Malay population from the region, South Asians and others came to Singapore. Mostly they were Chinese who made it their new home as part of the growing Chinese diaspora that spread out over the past two centuries. When Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore’s leader, he proselytized heavily for his fellow Singaporeans to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese – a version of the language actually used by very few Chinese in the country (they spoke the Cantonese, Hakka, Fujianese and other dialects), and by virtually none of the rest of the population. Lee did this as a way of creating a sense of national cohesion and the new Singaporean out of a disparate population.
This time in Singapore, from our base in the Raffles Hotel, we met up with Singaporean civil servant acquaintances and other Asian journalists now based there to be able to report on the now-accelerating economic group of the country. Visiting homes, it was clear that the middle to senior civil servant class was living rather well in their new, nicely appointed apartments – but, critically, they were also working rather hard at their respective jobs, and coming home late. In fact, one of President Lee’s basic guiding principles, such as he consciously had them, was that a civil servant class should be paid well enough to keep them scrupulously honest and ruthlessly selected to be able to deliver efficient public services to the population.
A year later, we were back in Singapore again so that my wife could give birth to our first child. It had turned out that Eastern Indonesia was not a viable option for that purpose because of her AB Rh- blood type (important to know in case there was the need for a transfusion). That blood type was literally not part of the genetic makeup of virtually all Indonesians in the country. As a result, a friendly local doctor wrote a note saying she was only six months pregnant (to circumvent airline rules about late term mothers boarding planes) and so she moved into a friend’s home to wait out the last month and a half of her pregnancy.
While she was waiting, her doctor told her to walk and walk and walk to keep fit while waiting for the moment so, once the author joined up for the final two weeks, despite Singapore’s astounding tropical heat and humidity, we constantly toured the city-state, largely on foot. We trouped through its exemplary botanical gardens, the natural park-like zoo, the world-famous bird park – and all those shopping malls selling pretty much everything one could hope to buy from pretty much everywhere in the world where goods were created.
The second week the author was there, McDonalds opened its first outlet in Southeast Asia, located on the ground floor of a major department store on Singapore’s main drag, Orchard Road. There were crowds and queues that formed up around the block, eager for a Big Mac. As we stood in line like the tourists we were, we watched as a smiling elderly Malay woman, wearing the traditional clothing outfit of a sarong kain kebaya, swept past us, bearing a huge carry-out bag containing what must have been an extended family’s worth of Mickey D’s finest cuisine. This, right here, was the global cultural collision; sailing on at full steam ahead, early intimations of what Benjamin Barber would come to call Jihad vs. McWorld, in his influential magazine article and book-length treatment.
Amazingly, it turned out that the author’s wife’s ob/gyn doctor in Singapore was originally from Johannesburg. He had graduated from the U. of the Witwatersrand medical school years before, but had moved away to escape the daily grind of coping with Apartheid’s indignities. The hospital was an admirably managed facility and the food was so good, the writer sometimes ate there as well.
But, after our daughter was born, the writer received an interesting taste of Singaporean bureaucracy. To get the appropriate, formal birth certificate needed for a new passport, the writer took a form from the US Embassy certifying the new-born was the child of US citizens and diplomats, a copy of the birth declaration from the hospital, and after about an hour of form filling, the birth certificate, suitably encased in its waterproof sleeve, was dutifully issued. It did, however, carry the cautionary notation: “Not a Citizen of Singapore by Birth”. Singapore was – and remains – wary of allowing heavily pregnant women slipping into the island, giving birth to their babies, and thereby establishing a right of residence for the whole family. Birth certificate in hand, the new-born daughter could now get her own passport as well.
Of course, Singaporean bureaucracy had subtler insanities as well to offer. Attempting to leave Singapore to return to Indonesia once everything was taken care of, some shopping was done and it was time to return to work, our now larger family was stopped in its tracks by the immigration control officer at the airport. The problem? The baby didn’t have an entry permit in her newly issued passport. Efforts to explain that passports weren’t usually issued to unborn children produced a bureaucratic standoff – no entry permit, no legal exit. A lifetime as Terminal Man beckoned.
Finally, just as the plane was due to depart, a solution was reached, one that was certainly not part of the Singaporean legal code; but, since the same immigration officer was also an entry control officer when the wicket gates were going the other way for incoming flights, as our flight was just about to be closed, the immigration guy was finally prevailed upon to reach across his desk, pick up an entry stamp, stamp the baby into Singapore legally and then, ten seconds later, stamp her out. Just perhaps there was the tiniest hint of a wink on his otherwise totally impassive face. Laws can be bent, ever so slightly, sometimes. The old Asia was still there somewhere, perhaps.
By the time the writer last visited Singapore in the mid-1990s, the texture of an older, more raucous city was nearly impossible to find. Most of the old Southeast Asian-style shop houses – those with a small business on the ground floor and one or two floors for a family to live in – were gone or had been converted into trendy restaurants, expensive fashionable boutiques or, increasingly, small technologically-based, start-up companies. Even the venerable institution of dining on street food, a long-time Singapore staple for inexpensive, tasty, clean and inspected eating, was dying out.
By the time the writer’s younger daughter visited the country at the beginning of the 21st century, Singapore had managed to take yet another swampy wasteland of an outer island and turn it into a massive amusement park and recreation area. The country had become home to a vast and still-growing international financial services industry, the shopping was still amazing, and the place continued to be one where a group of young women could travel safely pretty much anywhere – without fear of their being harassed by prowling young men. But you still had to think twice before breaking out a pack of chewing gum.
Observing the effect of today’s Singapore on the rest of Southeast and East Asia, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, writing the other day from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam could say of Singapore, “The Vietnamese, like many Asians, flock to Singapore to shop. They hit those cool, fragrant malls on Orchard Road. A few among the affluent go there to see a dentist or a doctor or have a baby. They are drawn, also, by something less tangible, the sense of prosperity and purring efficiency, as if by some miracle the Alpine order and cleanliness of Switzerland had been conjured up in the Tropics. They exhale, freed from the raucous agitation of modern Asian life, and are rocked in a Singaporean cradle of convenience where, it seems, nothing can go wrong.”
But while Lee Kuan Yew’s government made it really hard (and sometimes even dangerous) to get elected to the country’s national assembly if one was not a member in good standing of the PAP – the People’s Action Party – the place ran like that proverbial Swiss watch, and its per capita income was now among the highest in the world. Just as Roger Cohen had written, people from all over Asia wanted to visit and to work there, and leaders from such places as the formerly socialist China and Vietnam, in addition to the rest of the region and beyond, continued to visit the place to marvel at its success.
And if they were in national political, economic or media leadership, they came in droves to try to prise out the miraculous way Lee had brought into balance his natural authoritarianism, along with a belief in governmental efficiency, honesty and guided development – together with an enthusiasm for a particularly wide-ranging, free enterprise climate. And not incidentally, they also paused to contemplate how he had largely managed to bring together three very different cultures into an increasingly coherent whole; people who saw themselves as Singaporean – rather than Indian, Malay, or one of a half dozen different variations of the Chinese ethnicity.
With Lee Kuan Yew’s passing after being the key player in Singapore for half a century, his legacy will also contain a contested space where one must puzzle over whether Asian authoritarianism (coupled with efficiency and honesty) may yet be the optimum model for economic growth for the rest of the emerging market nations – and the dozens more nations behind those countries.
This article first appeared in Daily Maverick, a leading South African publication. Click here to go to the original.