Prized Singapore

Recently, I flew to Singapore to participate in its Writers’ Festival. The Lufthansa captain bade us goodbye, “We wish you a successful stay in Singapore.”

Heading downtown, I became reacquainted with the lush rain trees amply shading the highway for many miles. “Lee Kuan Yew picked these himself,” the cheerful cabbie explained. “They aren’t native. I think they’re from Africa.”

“So much landscaping!” I marveled. “It must be so expensive to maintain.”

Plucking an unsightly pebble from the sea, Lee Kuan Yew blew his fragrant breath on it second by second, day by day and, wa lau!, it became not just a gleaming metropolis, but the world’s most efficient, orderly and peaceful. Yew muscled Singapore into being, it is often sung. He turned a ramshackle, resourceless piece of real of estate into one of the most admired.

By the time of its independence in 1965, Singapore had long been a leading seaport, however, thanks to its strategic location and the stewardship of Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. Its GDP ranked third in Asia, behind only Japan and Hong Kong and five times greater than South Korea. No fetid fishing village, Singapore was the gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It’s baffling that the Malaysians let it go. Maybe they thought they could snatch it back later?

Anticipating this likelihood, Lee Kuan Yew got surreptitious help from the Israelis to build up his army. Since British troops didn’t leave town until 1971, it’s not too farfetched to speculate that the UK had a hand in this Jewish wedding. It needed to maintain a friendly government at this most crucial spot. The US has also trained Singaporean soldiers and, today, 374 GIs are based here.

Browbeating Malaysia, Singapore showed off newly bought tanks during its 1969 National Day Parade. Remembering this in 2015, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Yew’s son, remarked, “In the mobile column, we had 18 AMX-13 tanks, which were appearing in public for the first time [ . . . ] Singaporeans cheered. Everyone understood what it meant, and it wasn’t just Singaporeans who took note.”

China’s expanding encroachment into the South China Sea is often explained only in terms of oil, natural gas and fishing rights, but it’s the sea lane next to Singapore that’s most at stake. Without its navy nearby to contest that choke point, China is most vulnerable to disruption of oil deliveries from the Middle East. Trying to bypass, partially at least, the Strait of Malacca, China arranged to build energy pipelines through Myanmar but, guess what, Uncle Sam has managed to cozy up to the Burmese, so it’s no coincidence that the Chinese oil pipeline, though completed, is still not functional.

Though often touting itself as a multicultural and multi-lingual society, Singapore had been essentially Chinese long before independence. The Chinese on the Malay Pennisula needed their own nation. It’s perfectly understandable, for under the guise of anti-Communism, thousands of Chinese were rounded up and shot in Indonesia in 1965, and in 1969, nearly 600 Chinese were killed during a Kuala Lumpur riot. As recently as 1998, Indonesian mobs slaughtered thousands of Chinese and raped hundreds of Chinese women.

In his 1926 short story, “P. and O.,” Somerset Maugham wrote, “Singapore is the meeting place of many races. The Malays, though natives of the soil, dwell uneasily in towns, and are few; and it is the Chinese, supple, alert and industrious, who throng the streets; the dark-skinned Tamils walk on their silent, naked feet, as though they were but brief sojourners in a strange land, but the Bengalis, sleek and prosperous, are easy in their surroundings, and self-assured; the sly and obsequious Japanese seem busy with pressing and secret affairs; and the English in their topees and white ducks, speeding past in motor-cars or at leisure in their rickshaws, wear a nonchalant and careless air. The rulers of these teeming peoples take their authority with a smiling unconcern.”

In present-day Singapore, the whites you see on its streets are generally a cut above. Smartly dressed, relaxed and attractive, they are mostly moneyed vacationers or business executives. You won’t find among them Honey Boo Boo with Mama June. Some bars are patronized almost exclusively by whites, and they carouse deep into the night. As for the Japanese, they’re certainly not obsequious but confident and at ease, as befitting their long-earned First World status.

The aftertaste of conquest lingers forever. Since a British or Japanese tourist is aware his people subjugated Singaporeans and humiliated them, his steps have an extra bounce and his smile, in whatever context, betrays a reservoir of deep satisfaction. We kicked your asses! Though the Brits raised the white flag to the Japanese, who in turn had to bow down to the Americans, Brits and Japanese remember they had once punched their hosts in the face, and the punchees also remember. If an American peace activist, say, journeys to Hiroshima, he’s still the representative and embodiment of the Bomb. His very appearance on Hondori Street is a victory parade.

Zooming by the gleaming towers, trucks and pickup trucks transport Bangladeshi, Tamil, Filipino and Burmese workers. Plopped on the darkened flat beds, these tired men occupy the lowest rung of Singaporean society. Foreigners are needed to do the lowliest tasks, and 38% of the people here don’t have citizenship. To maintain Singapore’s ethnic balance, however, immigration from the Indian subcontinent must be kept in check, and that’s why the government is welcoming Chinese immigrants. In fact, many Singaporean Indian restaurants have been forced to hire mainland Chinese to staff their kitchens.

For me, the greatest pleasure of Singapore is its many food courts, for here you can have an excellent Chinese, Indian or Malay dish for a small price. Since their communal setting must be offputting to many of them, whites rarely enter one of these hawker centers. The offerings can also confound if not disgust. As you slurp your turtle soup, a stranger sharing your table is enjoying pig intestine rice gruel, while a third merely a plate of beef chow fun.

The busboys are often old, wizened men. I saw one stuff something into his mouth as he cleaned up a table. Chewing, he continued working. Like just about every other population save post-Depression era Americans, Chinese understand hunger. In the US, even our destitute casually toss away food. Once, I bought a homeless guy a beer, only to see him chug just over half of it, then pour the rest into a trash can.

Hectored and coached for several decades by Lee Kuan Yew, Singaporean Chinese are markedly different from all of their kin, for nowhere else will you find Chinese so considerate and civil. A Singapore Chinese in her twenties confided, “I’m most annoyed by the PRC Chinese. Although they look more or less like us, I can always tell them apart by their behaviors. They can be so crude, yet so arrogant. Once I heard a PRC say in a Two Dollar Store, ‘This is where the poor Singaporeans go to shop!’ Arghhh! Lots of people shop there. I shop there. The Vietnamese here don’t stand out so much, so people don’t mind them, but lots of people complain about the PRC Chinese.”

Serious about national defense, she informed me that Singaporeans have managed to make an excellent assault rifle, the SAR 21, and they use German tanks and Russian jet fighters, the absolute best. Becoming excited, she thrust her hand horizontally, vertically then horizontally again, all very abruptly, “The Russian Sukhoi can maneuver like a cobra.” Speechless, I simply nodded.

With innumerable signs telling its residents how to do just about everything, Singapore can resemble a vast instruction manual, “Courtesy, Try a Little Kindness,” “Be Responsible. Love Your Environment. NO MORE LITTERING,” “Practise good toilet etiquette,” “Theft Is A Crime,” “Bag Down For A Better Ride,” “Don’t ‘Play, Play,’ Let Me Come Out First,” “Value Life. Act Responsibly.” With cartoon characters barking out a warning or command, it can also feel like kindergarten.

At a hawker center, I saw, “Better Food / Better People / Better Life.” Singapore is all about saying the right things and feeling great. Having traveled to twenty countries, I have never seen one so goofily earnest. There are no shadows here, for they have all been photoshopped away.

There are statues of inspirational figures such as Plato, Einstein, Lincoln, Sun Yat-Sen, Confucius, Florence Nightingale, Disney and Churchill, etc. Singapore’s most famous public monument, though, is its Fountain of Wealth, a gargantuan brown halo festively pissing arcs of water—wealth in the Chinese cosmology—into the center. Though most Singaporeans are quite trim, I saw more walrus-sized Chinese there than I’d seen all my life. Wealth has begotten gluttony.

Lee Kuan Yew, “You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools.” On that score, Singapore has provided better than most.

Zayan, a native-born Singaporean, emails me, “The country has a lot of issues, but after being in the US for a while, I think I’m starting to appreciate what Singapore has. I mean, it has excellent healthcare for its citizens. Most people live in government housing and for the poor, they do a lot to give them affordable housing. A one-room flat can be as ridiculously cheap as $26 a month.

It also has great education facilities. No one incurs soul-crushing debts to study. Even foreigners are eligible for government funding to get relatively cheap tuition.

Many Singaporeans want to get the hell out, and I did too, but I’m not sure how many know how good they have it.”

Trekking for miles through Singapore at all hours, I spotted only two homeless guys and no beggars. In every American downtown, you can’t walk a couple blocks without seeing beggars.

At the Writers’ Festival, an American woman said to me, “I’ve been living in Australia for 28 years. I rarely go home. Americans don’t know how far they’ve fallen behind.”

On my last evening, I went to the supermarket at Raffles City to get rid of my few remaining Singaporean Dollars. There, I saw a young man doing something quite disgusting. He was opening one sushi tray after another to more closely examine its contents. He even used his fingers to pluck out a piece here and there. Neatly dressed in off white and plugged to earbuds, he had a smooth, marmoreal and expressionless face. Though he was obviously Chinese, I had no idea if he was PRC or a local lout. Finally, he switched a few sushi rolls from one tray to another. Happy with the saving, he ambled to the cashier.

On the ride to the airport, I told the Chinese cabbie that I had gone over to Batam and Johor Bahru to find a “funkier Asia,” only to discover that those nearby cities had razed entire neighborhoods to build huge and ugly modern buildings, “Johor Bahru wasn’t too bad, but Batam was awful. I think they’re both trying to become Singapore.”

“But you can’t just build. You must have a plan!”

“Many of the new buildings in Batam are already empty and falling apart, and there was no life on the streets. It was sad.”

“Many people are trying to be like us, but they don’t look, think, see or even smell like us. They will never be Singapore!”

I laughed. The cabbie reflected, “We’re lucky to be living here, now. We’re allowed to make money. Nobody bothers us.”

“But where will Singapore be in five, ten years?”

“Who knows.”

“If there’s a war between the US and China, Singapore will be in trouble.”

“You may be right. The Chinese are smart. They’ve been around for thousands of years. They’ve had their ups and downs. For many years under Communism, they were down, but they’re getting stronger now. They will do what they need to go to be on top again.”

He sounded more like a Chinese nationalist than a Singaporean. The woman who complained about mainland Chinese also said the US should get out of the Western Pacific.

Two days after I left, there was a surprise announcement that Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou would meet in Singapore. This was the first ever encounter between the leaders of China and Taiwan, and they shook hand for 80 seconds, the press was careful to point out. Xi had lunch with Singapore’s Loong, then dinner with Ying-jeou at a Cantonese restaurant, with each picking up his own tab to avoid any big brother, little brother implication. At an earlier speech, Xi praised Lee Kuan Yew as a great stateman. (In 2007, Yew said of Xi, “I would put him in Nelson Mandela’s class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgment. In other words, he is impressive.”) The day came off as one big Chinese family reunion.

Though internally safe, Singapore is situated at the most dangerous spot geopolitically. On top of that, it is threatened by a global trade slowdown, an imminent banking implosion and the rising sea. Will it become a Chinese outpost or be obliterated? Will it overcome all obstacles to celebrate a centenary?

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.

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