We come now, as promised, to examples—extant, possible, or claimed—of Singapore’s technocracy overdoing its management missions, with path-dependent, mostly Chinese but also residual Anglophone characteristics. Most fall well short of serious. Some are liable to strike Americans as downright funny, the way un-self-aware anal-retentive human behavior often is (so long as it describes someone else). Some register short of amusing. We start with the few that Americans tend to have heard about and augment from there. The essence we sum in conclusion.
Gum and Caning
So what’s with the chewing gum? Except for specialized nicotine-weening medications, it’s banned. It’s banned, the story goes, because years ago some juvenile delinquents used well-masticated gum to clog MRT train doors. But if that can’t explain a ban continuing on long after said juvenile delinquents reached middle age, what does explain it?
The likeliest explanation is, as usual, the simplest one: Lee Kwan Yew just thought gum chewing was a gross habit, he possessed the power to proscribe it, and so, as with the answer to that eternal question about why dogs lick their genitals, he did it because he could. One can only imagine what he would think of the tattooed, pierced Singaporean youth riding the MRT today, or of the many young women who ape the Western “style” of wearing jeans and jean shorts ripped hither and yon to horizontal shreds from the waist down.
To typical Americans of a certain age, people with orders-of-magnitude greater tolerance for disorder, dissent, and bad taste than typical Singaporeans, the chewing gum ban brings to mind the iconic scene from Woody Allen’s 1971 movie “Bananas,” in which the new dictator of the fictional Republic of San Marcos orders everyone to wear their underwear on the outside—something, in other words, so arbitrary as to seem slightly mad.
But as John Dryden wrote, “Geniuses and madmen are near allied/And thin partitions do their bounds divide.” The ban isn’t madness at all, just a manifestation of the Confucian-inflected penchant for orderliness, and its tacit assumption that the social psychology of orderliness is seamless. It’s not just a Confucian conclusion either: The ban makes sense as Singapore’s version of James Q. Wilson’s famous “broken windows” insight.
Then there is caning. Most Americans reject corporeal punishment as part of any civilized legal system, but, Dr. Spock’s legacy notwithstanding, plenty of us privately have potched our kids from time to time—not to hurt them of course, just to get their wandering attention at certain tender pre-linguistic-fluency ages. And that’s exactly the issue here: A government spanking miscreants comes across as way over-the-top paternalistic, and that rankles those wedded to a Western social contract-based relationship between citizens and government.
The infamous 1994 caning case, involving then-18-year old Michael Fay, is all that most Americans know about caning in Singapore. They don’t know that Singaporeans didn’t introduce caning here; the British did. They don’t know that, beyond stealing more than a few road signs and squirreling them away in his room for no particular good reason, Fay said “Fuck you” to the judge during his trial. Had he done that in, say, Texas or Arkansas, he’d have begged for a mere four switch swats on his stupid teenage ass. They also probably don’t know that graffiti and petty vandalism in Singapore pretty much don’t exist.
I’m uncomfortable with caning’s implied paternalism, but not with its results. But it’s really none of my business (or yours, fellow American) since I’m not a Singaporean national. As a general rule, Americans should think twice (or as many times as necessary) before tendering judgments about matters in which they are not vested and probably can’t fully understand for lack of metis. A former Singaporean ambassador to the United States complained to me, recently and in the main justifiably, that Americans often just don’t listen to others, especially others from small countries. She was too polite to add that this rarely stops us from speaking out about the supposed moral deficiencies of said others, whether we know what we’re talking about or not. It’s not one of our more endearing traits.
Drugs, Hookers, and Drunken Dancing
Recreational drugs, which Mr. Fay reportedly took up as a hobby once back stateside, are scarce in Singapore. Marijuana, hashish, uppers, opiates, and other banned intoxicants are rare, but not non-existent. As is well known, the government’s attitude toward them is severe. The death penalty imposed over the years, though much less often recently, has been invoked overwhelmingly for just two offenses: murder and commercial-scale drug dealing. But before Western liberals and other dyed-in-the-wool hedonists rush to judgment, there’s something they need to know.
Part of the prison system in Singapore—the SPS, Singapore Prison Service—involves a drug rehab center (the DRC, the Drug Rehabilitation Center), which is part jail but also part hospital and social engineering program involving addicts’ families, skills trainers, and employers as support systems to minimize drug-related criminal recidivism. Increasingly, the system prefers rehab to plain incarceration: 2019 registered a 65 percent increase in DRC use following changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Out of concern to avoid stigmatizing and humiliating the vulnerable, the government publishes no data on the proportions of the country’s ethnic hearth communities that end up in jail and rehab. It’s a sensitive matter, as are all matters intercommunal, and the reason is that the Malay community, which occupies the statistical bottom of the mean income and education scales, also occupies the top of the incarceration, broken families, delinquent youth, and drug-dependency scales.
For this reason, some American observers jump fast to the analogy that Malays are to Singapore what African-Americans are to the United States. Well, don’t jump; the analogy falls flat on its face even before the first step has landed. Malays were not dragged to Singapore as slaves, their families torn apart and their men systematically emasculated over centuries. And not that it should matter but it does anyway, Malays are not the major hearth community here with the darkest skin tones, so binary “white”/“black” racist tropes one might suppose apply just don’t.
That said, as with the vulnerability of certain human allele-distribution clusters to intoxicating substances—think Native Americans and alcohol, for example—Malays as a group in Singapore seem to be at greater risk of substance abuse than others. If the drug laws here were as “soft” as those of western Europe or the United States, a cultural holocaust among the Malay population might ensue, with dire implications for Singapore’s entire social order. So is the legal regime for substance abuse here best described as retrograde paternalism or as a form of “tough love” intercommunal management? You work it out.
The urge to manage everything that can conceivably be managed is also apparent along a stretch of the Orchard Road shopping district. Singapore truly gleams, except when and where it doesn’t. A modernized remnant of the old days before World War II, when Singapore was infamous for unregulated gambling, prostitution, and opium, still exists as a tiny seedier side of Red Dot life.
Cuppage Plaza, for example, features several floors of small commercial establishments, all wrapped around an unadorned, warehouse-chic atrium, devoted to Japanese subculture—narrowly defined. Some excellent restaurants may be found, though to locate the ones with no signs you need a knowledgeable guide. But there are also several “KTV gentlemen’s clubs.”
KTV stands for karaoke and television, but these places are mainly brothels. Either that or the sequin-bedecked young Filipina, Indonesian, and mainland Chinese women clotted around the door of every single one of them is some sort of weird coincidence. (Women from Vietnam and Thailand, I’m told, grace the nearby Far East Plaza, while for expats “four floors of whores” await at Orchard Tower across the street.) Just walking out the door of a Cuppage Plaza restaurant to the elevator past one of these KTV places can cause a midnight sunburn.
Singapore isn’t Reno, Nevada, but as a concession to human nature, all this is managed as though it were: Informal but strict zoning and regular medical checks keep matters in bounds. Singaporeans and visitors who aren’t interested are advised, should they wax indignant, “Well, no one is making you go there.”
As for the rowdier bars, a British journalist resident here named Nicholas Walton tells a story in his recent book Singapore, Singapura of the authorities deciding after the 2003 SARS epidemic to reconsider the ban on table-dancing. The idea, apparently, was to lighten the mood a bit by allowing at least some kinds of fun. But instead of just legalizing table dancing, the authorities decided to first study its manifestations in surrounding countries. So they sent bureaucrats—presumably from the prospective Ministry of Table Dancing—to observe. The investigators concluded that table dancing could be dangerous, since drunken people occasionally toppled from tables onto other people en route to the floor. So the authorities ordered relevant establishments to install poles on tables and bar tops to reduce ER visits and other embarrassments.
Fines, Flora, and Food
That’s right: Table dancing was once explicitly banned, along with fireworks, porn, outdoor spitting and urinating, strutting around one’s apartment in the nude, and the list goes on. Just as at Haw Par Villa’s Ten Courts of Hell, there is a punishment in the form of a fine for nearly every non-violent transgression imaginable. Years ago some wag dubbed Singapore “The Fine City,” a double entendre aimed at capturing its star quality and its penchant for legal pedantry all in one phrase. Nice job, whoever came up with it, and nice going whoever slapped it on t-shirts to make some money.
Then there is the excessive but excusable. Lee Kwan Yew envisioned Singapore as a city in a garden, so he spared no available expense—a telltale sign of technocratic excess—to bring plants to the Red Dot from tropical climes the world over. At the time folks here, and not only here, of course, knew little about invasive species and ecological rectitude. The overstory is that Singapore’s imported plant life has damaged native ecosystems. African tulip trees, for example, are beautiful, but they’ve spread at the expense of other trees and the ancient diverse ecosystems dependent on them.
Similar excesses have concerned land use. When Singapore became independent in 1965, local agriculture supplied about 60 percent of basic food needs. But the effort, beginning in earnest in the 1970s, to industrialize Singapore to raise living standards and provide maximum full employment for a growing population drove that number down all the way to about 3 percent. (One eastern island, Tekong, that had been an agricultural area was turned into a military training preserve, its population evicted. Eminent domain is no joke here.)
The resulting food security anxiety has led, for example, to a megadeal with China wherein a chunk of Chinese land is being developed with Singaporean capital for the main purpose of providing foodstuffs to Singapore. The Jilin Project involves 1,450 square miles of land; all of Singapore is only 751.5 square miles. Perhaps sensing belatedly that putting so much leverage in Chinese hands might be unwise, the government subsequently announced the 30/30 challenge, by which Singapore will produce 30 percent of its own food by 2030, largely through advanced vertical hydroponic methods.
Planning and Pressing
If any government can turn on a dime to rectify past misjudgments, Singapore’s is the one. The 30/30 project has an excellent chance of succeeding, and in typical Singaporean fashion, the effort—a government-Temasek-university undertaking—is launching in the form of corporate spinoffs using patents and licensing protocols to also market the state-of-the-art techniques globally.
So deep is the sense of vulnerability that the elite excels at bold planning and taking creative risks. But that puts a premium on the planning being both efficient and prescient. When you trust human artifice to save your posterior, you resign yourself to living on a knife’s edge; one really big goof and you’re kaya toast, no meh? (Pardon my Singlish.) The folks who run the place know that. They just don’t see much choice, and who’s to say they’re mistaken?
One manifestation of the elite’s future-shock anxiety is its “big project” mentality. To insure stability going forward, the government aims to hitch its globe-spanning hub-rentier, service-heavy economy to the big boys on the Asian block. So beyond the Jilin project is the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI). On September 11, Singapore and China signed 27 memoranda of understanding linking an array of government-owned and operated infrastructure elements—for example, data tie-ups between Singapore’s Singtel and China’s three big telecom companies. Common technological platforms and interoperability will enable Singapore to get a piece of the enormous Chinese market. Other agreements cover media holdings, financial services, aviation, and logistics.
Not all the big-game planning works out. In July a consortium of Temasek companies—which means the government, in essence—signed a deal with the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to build a new gleaming capital city called Amaravati (“abode of the gods”). No one from Andhra Pradesh who sees “smart city” Singapore, especially the showpiece urban marvels of Marina Bay—the Sands mega-hotel, the Flower Dome, the Cloud Forest, the Supertree Grove, and so on—can not want something similar for their own. But in November the Indian side canceled the project, leaving a lot of effort and no trivial planning investment orphaned.
Singapore also engages in demographic planning, mostly quietly. The Chinese elite has believed that for Singapore to be economically successful for the long haul, the ethnic Chinese percentage of the citizenry must remain above 70 percent. Prooftext: In 1989, Lee Kwan Yew said that Singaporean Chinese must maintain a lopsided majority “or there will be a shift in the economy, both the economic performance and the political backdrop which makes that economic performance possible.” Did he mean that for complex historical and cultural reasons Chinese excelled at creating and sustaining wealth, or did he mean that Chinese were smarter and hence “better” in some intrinsic way than South Asians and Malays? Was he speaking as a sociological realist or a garden-variety racist, or perhaps as an indistinguishable mash-up of both?
It’s too late to ask him, but a faint undercurrent of Chinese chauvinism is a fact of life. It’s illustrated in a searing Singaporean noir film called “A Land Imagined” and in the fact that some older Chinese will not take an open seat on the MRT or a bus next to a dark-skinned Tamil.
As far as policy goes, Singapore accepts naturalized citizens, averaging about 20,000 per annum in recent years—the great majority being Chinese, presumably to compensate for the fact that Chinese Singaporeans have the lowest fertility rates, less than half of the standard replacement rate—of the three main hearth communities. But no numbers breaking down new immigrants’ points of origin are published. At the same time, low-skilled foreign contract workers lack most standard labor rights, in part at least because the government wants to quash any ideas some may develop of staying on and applying for citizenship.
Leaving aside what went wrong with the Amaravati project, the failure barely showed up in the local press, any more than immigration policy or contract labor rights attract much open debate. The Straits Times, the main daily newspaper, contains decent political coverage of other countries and doesn’t shy away from their public controversies. But not so much concerning Singapore, where “local” political news reminds one more of press culture in Todor Zhivkov’s Bulgaria than it does of, say, the Washington Post.
A recent book by former Straits Times editor P.N. Balji, entitled Reluctant Editor, tells of Lew Kwan Yew’s efforts to get the press to censor itself so that the government wouldn’t need to. In the main, Yew got his way. Subtle enduring case in point: There’s a terrific magazine stand, with fare from all over the world, in the Holland Village area—a high-rent neighborhood that houses lots of expats. It’s the only one of its kind in the country, for a reason: The government doesn’t censor or ban foreign press sources that might contain copy critical of Singapore1; it merely limits the number of copies that may be imported and displays them in places where few typical citizens are likely to cast their eyes. Why use a ball-peen hammer when a nail clipper will do?
So there is no totalitarian “thought control” in Singapore, just a seamless effort to gently minimize potential spikes of pandaemonic irrationality. As ought to be obvious as of late, no society is wholly immune to such spikes, but different societies have different buffering capacities for surviving them. The elite here has judged Singapore’s buffer to be rather thin, so has chosen to err on the side of safety by defining incitement broadly, yet treating it as deftly as they think they can afford. What is not necessary and would never be tolerated in the United States is not a universal formula. What passes for reasonable is context-specific.
Alas, one group’s “reasonable” may seem unreasonable to other groups. In that light consider the adventures of Gilbert Goh.
Mr. Goh, an ethnic Chinese, runs a small business helping the unemployed find new jobs. One of the biggest gripes among those most affected by Singapore’s middle-class squeeze (of which more next time) is that the government allows too many immigrants and foreign workers. That, it is averred, raises unemployment among citizens and exerts downward pressure on wages for less well-off Singaporeans. It also increases the overall demand for housing and hence helps push real estate prices up beyond the comfortable grasp of many citizens. (This should sound familiar to Americans who follow the immigration debate in the United States.)
For some reason, Mr. Goh took it upon himself to organize this anti-immigrant sentiment, which seems mainly focused against South Asians. So on November 3 he presided over a protest, reportedly some 300-400 strong, against a proposed Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) at the Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park. (The Speaker’s Corner is an official “soapbox”, as Americans would call it, from which any citizen can hold forth about pretty much anything, so long as it doesn’t threaten or impugn intercommunal and multi-sectarian harmony.)
As it happens, most complaints can be creatively roped into no-no categories if the elite wishes to fling a lasso. More, non-citizens may not hold forth at the Speaker’s Corner unless the program sponsor obtains a license from the police. So the police arrested Mr. Goh on November 3, claiming that one of the rally’s presenters was a non-citizen who spoke in the absence of a license. (Turns out the guy was married to a Singaporean and so was a naturalized citizen. A member of the audience, an Israeli tourist, asked a question after the speeches had concluded; it’s unclear if the moderator’s allowing his question was illegal.) After his arrest the police began asking Goh questions, the answer to one of which apparently implicated him in another law breakage. All this occurred before Goh was allowed to speak to a lawyer.
Now, the government and the ruling party, sensitive to criticism about immigration and foreign labor since the 2011 election elevated the issue to the first rank, have been ratcheting down levels of foreign labor anyway. The basic motive for the aforementioned management of Singapore’s demography aligns with Goh’s concerns, too. But the elite cares more about the prospect of potentially metastasizing dissent than it does about specific arguments, or whether, as it claims, Goh got some of his facts about CECA wrong.
Note in this regard that back in September Ho Ching, the prime minister’s spouse, and Temasek head, shared a Facebook post praising the Hong Kong police for their restraint against unruly protestors. A few days before, a planned Yale-NUS program on dissent in Singapore was canceled just before its opening. So the Gilbert Goh episode, you will understand, is no one-off.
The authorities will probably neutralize Mr. Goh the same way they have neutralized other pesky individuals who were too insistent or charismatic for their circumscribed comfort zone. They don’t throw people in jail. They don’t beat anyone up. They don’t send cops to knock on, let alone knock down, doors at 2 o’clock in the morning. They don’t get a target’s relatives fired from their jobs. They just threaten to fine and sue until the uppity critic is flat-assed broke. The initial fine for what Mr. Goh did? $10,000.
That’s likely just the start. Police claim to have photos of Mr. Goh placing a Singaporean flag on the ground while moving some chairs and props around at the November 3 event. That’s another fine. Even more expensive could be the bill for what Goh said to the press, in this case Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post:
I felt vulnerable giving my statement [to the police] which can implicate me in the future—I told the inspector I feel like a sitting duck providing a statement which I don’t know whether it will legally backfire on me. We need to be read our basic rights before providing sworn police statements so that it is a fair system for everybody. Right now the system weighs heavily in favor of the police and by the time we can have access to a lawyer the case has already passed through the AGC [Attorney-General’s Chambers] and we have to defend ourselves in court.
Had Goh shut up at that point he might still have had a prospect of lunch money. But he added that he might raise the matter before the European Union Representative in Singapore and the UN Human Rights Commission. Oh, poor, poor Gilbert.
Defense and Counterterrorism
So we come last to the military, a domain where press discretion generally is widely accepted as making good, or good enough, sense. Again, you won’t see much grousing in the local press, but some here believe that Singapore overdoes its military activity. Its army of about 300,000 out of citizenry of about 3.4 million—staffed in large part from mandatory 24-month male conscription and augmented by a robust reserve system modeled on that of Israel—is, well, big.
Conscription serves a sociological melding function in Singapore as it has in Israel, so it cannot be judged solely on the basis of narrow defense criteria. But Singapore also spends a lot on high-end procurement items. It has the money, which helps. Yet the country is intrinsically vulnerable. Even short of kinetics, just two or three smallish armed ships from a hostile state, strategically placed to the east and west off Sentosa, could blockade Singapore, preventing commercial freighters and tankers from either coming or going. Just the skyrocketing of the Lloyds of London maritime insurance rates would probably do the trick. For the world’s largest transshipment port that’s an obvious existential threat.
Singapore’s military operates submarines—the most recent four purchased from Sweden—against such contingencies, but sinking enemy ships, if they cannot be deterred from showing up in the first place, would start a war. Absent an aggressive pre-emption strategy for dealing with crazy-state neighbors, which is not Singapore’s declaratory strategy for very good reasons, the best its efforts could probably achieve would be to scorch someone else’s earth en route to defeat. So why, then, the disproportionately large military force? A national Napoleonic complex, the ferocious optic an over-compensation for very small size? A reaction to the trauma of February 1942, when the Japanese inflicted the British Empire’s greatest and most humiliating military defeat? Hard to parse the possibilities.
The elite is particularly terrified of terrorism. It’s easy to see why: Singapore is a densely populated target-rich environment in a Muslim Malayospheric sea within which neo-fundamentalism is still rising. Worse, to get back to basic geography, authorities here know that for an even halfway-competent terrorist group to shoot a missile from Batam Island in Indonesia, 32 kilometers away, through the wicket of the Marina Bay Sands, is not nearly as difficult as they wish it were. (Note: I did not need to imagine this scenario on my own.)
So the problem is real, but at least one aspect of the approach the authorities have taken to counterterrorism is arguable. It makes sense to inculcate resiliency in first-responders, in the hospital/medical structures, and so forth, and the government does that well. Neither is there anything necessarily overwrought about the messaged assumption that it’s not a matter of if but when a major terrorist attack will occur. That assumption, designed to create social-psychological resilience, is justifiably taught in schools at an appropriate age level. But it achieves the reverse effect when pounded incessantly into the heads of the general public.
And it is pounded. The MRT announcements about reporting suspicious persons and packages, just as on the Washington metro, long ago turned into insidious white noise. Instead of building vigilance it more likely inculcates fatalism by reminding people repeatedly, if pre-consciously, that they might at any time become an incidental victim of a mass slaughter. That helps terrorists achieve their key aim of undermining social normalcy and trust in government.
Singapore is all too American in its over-the-top bureaucratized paranoia. A more stoical approach, as deployed in both Israel and the United Kingdom, would be a wiser way for both countries—and stoicism is not something culturally alien to Singaporeans whether of Chinese, South Asian, or Malay culture.
Finally on this score is the ongoing effort by the government to manage the coronavirus pandemic. In my view, the government’s response so far has been professional, measured, efficient, and prudent. But so deep is the ambient sense of vulnerability here that some people have become a bit overwrought. There’s been a lot of panic buying at food stores, which makes Singapore special not one whit. Here on campus at NTU, university authorities have mandated that all students, staff, and employees provide travel-report declarations with regard to travel to mainland China, which again makes perfect sense. But they are also insisting that everyone take and report their temperatures twice a day to the university’s mega-computer system; for those without thermometers, half a dozen points of measure have been established around the campus for the purpose. This is overdoing things; this is, it seems to me, counterproductive.
The uppermost values that guide Singapore’s People’s Action Party elite are social order, communal equipoise, and material progress to support the management of both. And what’s wrong with that? Singapore used to be “the world’s largest slum” for good reason, and social equipoise has never been an easy assumption given the multiethnic, multi-sectarian makeup of its people. What’s wrong with wanting to alleviate poverty and advance social harmony? If anyone can suggest more benign and liberal objectives under the circumstances, go ahead and try.
Ah, but remember the Greeks, as once rendered by Samuel Huntington: “A value that is normally good is not necessarily optimized when it is maximized.” Or as Mae West once put it: “Too much of a good thing can be taxing.” One can overdo things.
The will to order overdone tends to swamp critical thinking along with liberty and dissent. It can degenerate into conformity and soullessness as Henry Adams’s “killing of sympathies” trickles down.
Social harmony methodically over-managed can exaggerate public political correctness norms that can blowback in the form of exacerbated social tensions beneath the surface. It could seed passive-aggressive attitudes waiting for an unpropitious moment to boil over.
Excessive emphasis on material progress can warp educational philosophies, wreaking havoc on childhood innocence and creative imagination. It can also deplete social trust by generating nouveau riche complexes offensive even to the lightest moral sensibilities.
Nothing fails like success. Singapore has been spectacularly successful over the past half-century in achieving the goals its government set out and that the people overwhelmingly endorsed. But having crossed the finish line for victory at high speed, the place doesn’t seem to know what to do next except to keep on driving, pedal to the metal—which amounts to overdoing it on a higher level. Individual and social life both are pocked with unannounced tipping points, after which a productive course becomes counterproductive. Centralizing government management functions, for example, is a great idea until it isn’t, until increased transactional costs more than offset incremental efficiency gains.
So Singapore now faces a classic “Point B” problem. The scene in the rearview mirror is deeply satisfying, but it can’t tell the driver where to head next. The problem with a stiffened corporate-technocratic mentality, especially one vindicated by a stellar record at achieving pre-defined objectives, is that it’s not usually at its best when it comes to designing a new Point B. Don’t get me wrong: This is not so much a criticism as an observation, and Singapore is hardly the only place where the observation fits.
Oh, and one more thing. In Singapore, manhole covers are too abundant and, worse, they’re rectangular rather than round. That’s just wrong.
1. Such copy continues to be produced. A particularly egregious example may be found in a January 31 Foreign Affairs article, specifically the fourth paragraph. The author here uses the phrase “Singapore-on-the-Thames,” a meme that has been misused by both “stay” and “leave” advocates for years now, to suggest that the UK may adopt beggar-thy-neighbor policies. That’s not the problem; it might. The problem is that the use of this phrase suggests explicitly that Singapore’s environmental, labor, and food safety standards are lower than those of its neighbors. Singapore’s labor standards, at least for citizens, lower than Thailand’s? Singapore’s environmental standards lower than Indonesia’s? Singapore’s food safety standards lower than Malaysia’s? This is fatuous nonsense.