Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Singapore Introduction

It is hard to condense Singapore, or to introduce it. Singapore is a singularity and Singapore is a familar concept. If we have not been there, we have seen it on TV and probably know a little about it. In simplest terms, Singapore might be called the orderly and gentler counterpart to Hong Kong. Colonized by Britain, cut off from the mainland, and functioning as something very seperate from its host nation, Singapore has distinguished itself as one of the big Asian economic guns, the place to go to make a buck, spend those bucks on food and clothes and real estate, and merrily gamble away aforementioned bucks if you're feeling risky.

Singapore is Asia Light.

Singapore is immense. There's skyscrapers everywhere and all of them are more then equal to what you'll see in US and European cities. Everything is glitzy and flashes with hyper futuristic lights and electronic effects - infinity pools and gigantic glass fronted elevators are everywhere you look. There's no such thing as a standard Singaporean, mind you, and no real conception of what a Singaporean looks like. Indians in dress both traditional and not-so, sun burnt and nervous looking Europeans, Chinese businesswomen in designerwear, Muslim Malays and African tech students and Saudi media moguls, you've got it all and all of it has got you. There are five million people in Singapore and 42% of them are foreigners (if there is such a thing in Singapore). It is the second most densely colonized country on the planet, and is generally considered by most to be the most intensively globalized. The fourth wealthiest country in the world by GDP, Singapore is stringently urban planned and (most remarkably) seems to have achieved almost all of the lofty goals of former P.M Goh Keng Swee. It has the highest quality of life in Asia, and is 11th in the world: it doubtless aspires to be number one.

But Singapore doesn't have the driving, ferocious intensity of Hong Kong, not entirely. Hong Kong is positioned on the side of a hill and has been forced to build up: it is positioned right against (and is now entirely interwined with) the fate of its even more gigantic parent - Hong Kong is on the move and Hong Kong drags you along with it. Singapore is reassuringly flat and can be surprisingly relaxed - you can find yourself in the middle of a warren of skyscrapers and 7-11s and Hainan chicken/rice shops and still see no one much around.

The American financed Sands Casino. A helluva lot bigger then it appears.

Singapore is a chronic case when it comes to over-consumption, be that food or clothes or consumer electronic goods -you name it, they got it, and they got it in spades. But food especially is the primary interest and crown jewel of the city, at least for me. No one seems to cook here. Why the hell would they? There's food stalls satisfying literally every cuisine need on the planet on almost every corner: Mexican and Thai and Hokkien and Keralan, all of it served up on convenient trays in equally convenient (and clean) locations. People are devouring weird shit 25 hours a day here with effusive slurping sounds: you can get anything you want and at any time, according to your particular needs and proclivities. Gigantic mall-sized food courts spring up like mushrooms on every corner: you never see a grocery store, but you see everything else. Fine wine, liquor, and beer are another national obsession: when your nation hosts some of the richest human beings on earth, it pays to invest in fine dining.

Singapore is Asia Light, the Switzerland of Asia - an analogy its leaders freely use and encourage. Singapore takes a lot of what is good about Asia and gives it the Disney treatment, defangs and deodorizes it. Little India is just like India (down to minor details like crumpled coffee cups on the roads and nervous looking and tailless cats), but it is just a little cleaner, just a little more orderly. So too is the rest of Singapore: the scent of dried fish and incense and the every so occasional waft of street side piss reaches you, but vaguely, as if half-remembered. Chewing gum must be purchased at pharmacies as it can create messes. Everyone, radically and insanely in Asia, uses the crosswalk and waits patiently and calmly for the light to change. There's a fine, you see. There are a lot of fines in Singapore.

ISingapore claims to be a parliamentary republic but is actually a benevolent dictatorship: everyone says that and knows it too, and you can just sort of see it in the fabric of Singapore if you squint a little and catch it in the correct light. One political party rules (with 94 congressmen to the opposition's paltry 2), and residents are politely "encouraged" not to associate with opposition party organizers or top brass. But infuriatingly to many Western observers, Singapore's dictatorship seems to be working remarkably well. As previously mentioned, GDP is high, almost everyone has plenty of money, and most residents agree that Singapore has introduced its rules and regulations for good reasons. Certainly Singapore's 200 dollar plus fines for sins such as jay-walking, littering, and tossing away gum has created a remarkably clean and orderly city-state.

But there is a downside and a darkside to all the shiny functionality of Singapore, too. Caning is dished out for a variety of sins (including, in one entirely too famous case, an American ex-pat boy for graffiti). Nearby Malyasia's dual track legal system still allows Muslim women to be whipped for the crime of drinking alcohol or having premarital sex, as examplified by a recent case where a Malyasian Singapore resident and pop star was sentenced to lashes for indulging in a post-show beer. Amnesty International has determined that Singapore has the highest rate of executions in relation to population in the world: drug dealing (a bit loosely defined) and first degree murder attract a mandatory death penalty. (I told this to a guy at my hostel, who had casually been discussing smoking pot the night before. His eyes, I can assure you, got real big).

Singapore is all of these things and is condensed into one immense and addictive city. Singapore really is a bit like a drug: I found myself walking for literally ten hours straight, in a crazed and perhaps poorly advised attempt to see it All in just two full days. Part of my stop off in Singapore was an effort to see if I could, in fact, manage to live there: I think the question has been answered. Of course I could. Singapore, like many big and ever-expanding (like the universe) Asian cities is kinetic, entrancing - you feel like anything is possible and that you can (maybe) have anything you want there if you exert the required effort and skill. This is probably a fallacy: Singapore is not actually a fair place (like the rest of the world) and just being there already indicates that you may, perhaps, have already had a more-then-fair shake at the universe. It has brushed its problems under the table, and so incredibly successfully that you do not notice they are there. Going along with Singapore is not just required: it is eminently pleasant.

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