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21 Apr 2004 07:59
Singapore has a reputation as a sterile, high-rise dystopia where even chewing bubblegum is outlawed and shopping is king. Now the government is expending huge quantities of energy and money creating an arts scene out of what many see as a cultural wasteland.
Oppressively hot and syrupy humidity will have you taking detours through the air-conditioned shopping malls on every block — just to find a little respite.
But there is no guarantee of sun. The day I arrived as an invited delegate of the three-day ClickArt Photojournalist Competition was the last time I saw the sun.
Two hundred photographers from around the world were invited to take part in the competition created to document the Singapore arts scene. Having created it, the government was now buying its bit of media hype. We were all quartered in the prestigious and rather phallic Stamford hotel — the highest hotel in the world. As intrepid photographers, we were herded for shootouts, unleashed on to the streets and tourist sights.
Having never left the Third World, coming to this spanking-new first- generation First World country, with its streets so clean you could eat off them was — if you could summon any other emotion besides boredom — a culture shock.
Imagine an entire country that closely resembles every aspect of Sandton’s “Nelson Mandela” Square — where the Sandton housewife rules. Where the primary purpose seems to be to make money — the more, the better. Where “networking” is the only social interaction, and the poor and mentally handicapped are hidden from sight.
Give me Jo’burg any day, littered streets, pavements so congested with hawkers it’s easier to walk on the street than the pavements. Rundown old buildings are rare in Singapore. Those beginning to take on “character” are immediately torn down and replaced by concrete (painted in non-threatening pastel or bright Walt Disney-style colours) and glass.
The father-state government has cosseted its population on a level almost unmatched globally. Sheltered from crime, pollution and unemployment, the residents have left the “thinking” up to their leaders in exchange for security and consistency.
There is no in-your-face poverty. Housing is subsidised by 80% and inflation tightly controlled.
New Internationalist called the system in Singapore “happy-face fascism,” where parental authority is institutionalised in a nation state. The rigid education system is focused not on educating people but on meeting the needs of the economy, says journalist Teh Peijing, writing in the Straits Times: “The Education Ministry sees its main role as a producer of manpower for Singapore’s economy.
“It is still based on the old-style idea of centralised planning, with a ministry taking in all data and making a decision as to what sort of education is necessary for our children, with the belief that this will fit into the kind of economy we have in mind.”
Like South Africa, Singapore is one of the world’s top employers of domestic workers. Thousands of mostly young women are drawn from the poverty of the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other neighbouring nations to Singapore to work as maids. Chatting to two Filipino maids over croissants and coffee while the boss was at work, they told me of dreadful experiences they had with some employers that would make South African madams look generous.
Confined to hovels in expensive households, the maids would have no guaranteed minimum wage, could be required to work all their waking hours and not even be entitled to a day off once a week. Sexual and physical abuse is rife, as are several cases of “maid murder”. Newspapers recently reported an incident where a madam bit off her maid’s nipple.
Maids can be fired without notice, and to cap it off, if, during compulsory regular medical screening, a maid is found to be pregnant, she will be promptly deported.
Despite the daddy state’s imposition of happy values, Singapore has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, especially of young women. According to Chia Boon Hock — psychiatrist or “suicidologist”, as he is known in the newspapers — interviewed in the Straits Sunday Times, 300 to 400 people end their lives each year, mostly by jumping from the high-rise apartment buildings.
A T-shirt popular with tourists, for sale on the streets — emblazoned with the words “Singapore is a fine city” — makes fun of the city state’s preoccupation with control.
The import, sale and possession of chewing-gum is banned. If you are caught doing so, you face a S$1 000 fine. The only gum allowed is nicorette, which can be purchased by certified smokers.
The immaculate subway system, called the MRT, is always packed with residents loaded down with designer-label shopping bags — but beware the person who feels like a small snack on the way to work. If you’re caught eating on the MRT, fines start at $100.
You also better remember to flush public toilets after use, otherwise you face a fine of up to $150 for the first offense, $500 for the second offense, and $1 000 for subsequent offenses â€¦ Other fines include littering ($1 000), dancing in public ($5 000), skateboarding ($500), smoking in most public places ($1 000), hawking without a licence ($500), vandalism ($5 000) and public speaking without a permit ($2 000). Repeat offenders face the possibility of public shaming or jail.
So if you find yourself in Singapore, do as the Singaporeans do — shop. There are great deals on electronic goods, most are for sale at about a third to half of what they are priced at in South Africa.
As for the fledgling arts industry, how could any modern art form — least of all one as cynical as Dadaism — take shape in a society where there is little room for self-expression? Legitimate art wants social strife, guts, seedy underbelly. You can’t have the “child” artist working only for the nodding approval from “Daddy State”. You cannot create an instant arts scene like a just-add-water pudding: Put 200 photographers in room, then just add money â€¦
Getting to Singapore from South Africa is easiest with Singapore Airlines, which flies direct from Johannesburg. For more information on flights and schedules, go to www.singaporeair.com.
For accommodation options, check out www.asia-discovery.com or www.singapore-hotels-travel.net. Most travel agents can advise on specialised tour packages aimed at rand-earners.
Nadine Hutton was hosted by the National Arts Council, Singapore Tourism Board, Contact Singapore and Singapore Economic Development Board, and flew with Singapore Airlines
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