Singapore Lightens Up

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TERRY McCARTHY with ERIC ELLIS SingaporeSex, disease, controversy. It all came together--in Singapore!--during The Necessary Stage's stunning theater production in May of Completely With/Out Character. In an arresting one-man performance, former airline steward Paddy Chew spoke about his real-life trauma of living with aids in a society that frowns on alternative life-styles like his. At one point in the play, which included a free-form question-and-answer session with the audience, Chew removed his clothes, revealing a disturbingly emaciated body. And as theatergoers grappled with Chew's disquieting story, a live Internet chat-room discussion was projected on the stage backdrop. Online participants openly debated Singaporean issues: politics, race, religion. The audience was shocked and delighted, says Alvin Tan, the theater's artistic director. Most shocking of all: George Yeo, Singapore's Minister of Information and the Arts, says the government never considered banning or even censoring the performance. It didn't even cross my desk, he says.

Can this really be Singapore? The nanny state that has banned the sale of chewing gum and racy women's magazines? The country that liked to regulate how often you flushed the toilet? Without a lot of fanfare, Asia's small corner of conservatism is loosening up, transforming society in ways that until recently seemed impossible. True, the official press remains straightjacketed, and open challenges to the ruling party aren't tolerated. But in many areas the doors have been flung open, and new voices are being heard. In the economic sphere, Singapore responded to the two-year-old Asian financial crisis by improving corporate transparency and tolerating greater foreign control of local companies and banks. Culturally, Singapore is permitting artists to stage a range of socially and politically controversial performances. The club scene is wild and getting wilder. And Singapore is allowing the Internet to function with relatively few controls, prompting an explosion of online debate on formerly taboo topics. Progress has been uneven, but there is no mistaking today's trend toward greater freedom. How can you be hard-line in the era of the Internet? asks Raymond Lim, ABN-AMRO's chief economist in Singapore and co-founder of The Roundtable, a groundbreaking political discussion group. You have a completely different intellectual environment. The bureaucrats have to get used to the idea that soft power is better than harsh control.
The transformation began after former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stepped down in November 1990. In June 1991, George Yeo, who had just been named Minister of Information and the Arts, made a speech on civic society that was to set the tone for much of what was to come. The banyan tree of the state, Yeo said, needed to be judiciously pruned. To the man on the street this would mean, among other things, that from the following month Singaporeans over 18 would be permitted for the first time to see movies with soft-core sexual content. To the film industry it meant that outraged foreign directors would no longer withdraw their movies from Singapore's film festival in protest at the censor's scissors. To the city-state's new generation of leaders it meant arts and culture would be made to flourish as surely as the country's high-tech industries and superefficient infrastructure. Heartware was to follow software, by decree.

Almost immediately, however, the jitters set in. In general elections two months after Yeo's speech, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) saw its share of the vote slip by 2.2%, so that it controlled only 77 of the 81 seats in parliament, compared with the 80 it had held before the vote. A modest decline, for sure, but enough to startle the party's senior figures. Concluding that the electorate was more conservative than had been thought, they decided to tread more cautiously. By September, adult movies were restricted to people over 21, and in May 1992 such films were banned altogether from suburban cinemas, though they could still be shown downtown.

Such has been the awkward process of change in Singapore: contentious, patronizing, coldly pragmatic, prim to the point of parody, rife with conflicting signals and jerky as a novice learning to drive a stick shift. Singaporeans themselves have often been unsure how much the chains have been loosened and still instinctively keep glancing over their shoulders--what's known locally as the cop-in-the-mind syndrome. Cynics see the liberalization as a new, subtler form of control. Certainly officialdom is not giving citizens complete license to say or do as they please. But pragmatism rules in Singapore, and as the government seeks to upgrade for the wired--and wider--world, the old rules of confinement have to give. Says Harish

Pillay, who heads the Singapore chapter of the Internet Society: The world has changed.

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Singapore and the Internet are a natural fit. The technologically advanced city-state has one of the highest rates of Internet connectivity anywhere: up to 40% of its 3.8 million people enjoy direct Net access. Online chat rooms have become forums for discussions as unfettered as those in any liberal democracy. No topic is off limits: participants openly discuss the touchy issues of race, religion and the Lee family's business interests, and many call for political change. For all anyone knows, the state may be monitoring the discussions, but no one seems intimidated. For perhaps the first time, an agenda is being set outside the government, and the government is being forced to respond, says Simon Tay, a member of parliament. That's very rare for Singapore, but it's very positive. Singapore is liberalizing, and the Net is helping. And everyone seems to be getting into the act. I take part in [chat rooms], says Minister Yeo, 44. I thought, if you can't fight it, you should jolly well master it.

Singapore has long been an island unto itself, shorn from Malaysia in 1965 and left to float in an uncertain world between Malays and Indonesians. Paranoid about its drinking water--still supplied by Malaysia--about its future, its people, its lack of people, Singapore ended up becoming paranoid about its own paranoia. Immense energy was expended on state surveillance, and leaders never stopped warning residents of the dangers outside and how much better off Singaporeans were to stay in assigned Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks with regulation windows and color TVs.

Then came Goh Chok Tong. When he was named Prime Minister in November 1990, the PAP politician was only 49--and widely dismissed as a chairwarmer for Lee Kuan Yew's older son, Lee Hsien Loong, then 38. But Goh surprised everybody--not least himself--by becoming hugely popular. A Singaporean Everyman, Goh has a homely, unassuming, slightly gawky style that connects with the masses: here was a leader with whom voters could identify, not an Ubermensch they had to fear. Goh talked a softer language of consultation, even as he set about implementing some policies of his own.

Goh realized they needed to make a paradigm shift from the Lee Kuan Yew era, says Tommy Koh, a former ambassador to the United Nations whom Goh named head of the National Arts Council in 1991. Goh needed some support to promote his awkwardly named heartware, the touchy-feely stuff that Singapore's stoic founders had little time for. It was a calculated decision to build a performing arts center, put more money into libraries, museums, set up the Arts Council, says Koh. More like a calculated risk--with PAP hard-liners constantly reminding Goh that the polls showed voters were cautious on cultural matters. When Koh was put in charge of the censorship committee, he tried lifting the ban on Playboy magazine. Big mistake. An opinion poll he commissioned found nearly three-quarters of Singaporeans were against bringing in the magazine. I can carry the 20% who are Western-educated or influenced, says Koh, who spent 20 years in the U.S. But not the 80% in the heartland. And if you go against them, that is politically unacceptable.

Goh was nonetheless determined to forge ahead. He created the Ministry of Information and the Arts and put PAP intellectual-in-waiting Yeo in charge. The new minister enthused about fostering a global renaissance city, about making Singaporeans more creative, about forging a civic society--the buzzwords flew like hornets among government departments. With no sense of irony he talked of establishing a media hub in a country better known for limiting the circulation of offending foreign publications, and he successfully lobbied the likes of MTV, the Discovery Channel and HBO to set up their Asian headquarters in Singapore. There were limits. Yeo persuaded MTV to drop Beavis and Butt-head (losers, bad role models for Singaporeans). Two performance artists who snipped off their pubic hair at a New Year's Day event in 1994 were banned from further performances. But on the whole Yeo has proven to be a benevolent patron. There must be an instinct that the Medicis in Florence had, he says. If you are an interesting person, a gem, someone will pick you up, burnish you and set you here. If that sounds élitist, it is--and it's driven as much by enlightened mercantilism as by a transcendent commitment to the arts. At the end of May, Yeo was made Minister of Trade and Industry--go figure.

Meanwhile, Lee Hsien Loong has been busy too. Having survived a brush with lymphatic cancer, Lee--known as B.G. Lee, after his brigadier-general's rank in the Singaporean military--became Deputy Prime Minister in 1990. When the Asian financial crisis hit two years ago, he realized that Singapore, with its limited population and few natural resources, could not survive in the global economy without becoming more competitive. So he pushed through financial reforms aimed at lowering the cost of doing business in Singapore, opening the economy to more competition from foreign companies and banks and attracting some futures trading and fund management business away from Hong Kong. The master plan has always been driven by economic expediency: to nurture knowledge workers for the 21st century and to attract the smartest Singaporean graduates back from Silicon Valley and M.I.T. To achieve that, the government has opened up areas that had been out of bounds for decades.

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Singaporeans were wary at first of their government's newly liberal tone. But slowly some of the more adventurous--writers, directors, web-surfers--began to test whether the new boundaries had indeed been moved. Many were surprised how far they could go, and soon Singapore was producing some of its own adult-rated movies, drama companies were staging plays about formerly taboo subjects, political discussion groups were formed without immediately being branded Marxist subversives and, a U.S.-originated Internet site critical of the status quo in Singapore, was permitted to be carried on government-supervised Web servers. The government may not be more liberal, says playwright Haresh Sharma. But it sees the positive effects of being seen to liberalize.

Sharma is resident playwright of The Necessary Stage, an experimental theater that has produced--in addition to the aids play--works dealing with mental illness, interracial relations and rigid educational techniques. Theater is dialogue, he says, and that is what Singapore needs. Sharma, who has had run-ins with the authorities in the past, says Singapore is difficult to explain to outsiders. When I am traveling--all I hear is 'you are fined if you don't flush, jailed if you chew gum,' he says. Well, yes and no--you don't actually get jailed. But the discourse always revolves around the same thing, so nobody overseas wants to talk to us Singaporeans.

Until recently dialogue at home was stifled by controls on the media and the numbing effects of ever-increasing prosperity--in 1997 Singapore's per capita GNP hit $33,000, exceeding that of Germany and the U.S. The government-influenced Straits Times still addresses its readers in the tones of the commissar, reproducing reams of ministerial utterances, no matter how forgettable. But the explosion of the Internet gave Singaporeans a convenient, anonymous forum to vent their views on everything from political figures to school curriculums, and the government--which watches everything--realized this was a medium even it could not control.

Soon the cyber habit of dialogue migrated back into real space. Late last year, The Working Committee (TWC), a discussion group led by professionals and non-governmental-organization workers, began holding forums on issues like feminism, the role of foreigners in Singapore and other subjects just outside the political arena. Given official fears that such societies might be fronts for political movements, TWC has kept each forum discussion closed door, which means it cannot advertise the meetings publicly--though e-mail helps get around that restriction--and the proceedings cannot be reported by journalists. The government wants dialogue to happen but is not sure how, says Tan, the theater art director, who is also part of the TWC. It's very touchy at the moment.

Lim, the economist who set up The Roundtable discussion group in 1994, has been even more forthright. I thought citizens should have a right to talk about politics, he says--a statement that remains iconoclastic in Singapore's context. The Roundtable, with 15 members, mostly lawyers and financiers, has been careful to keep its activities transparent and unthreatening, periodically offering position papers culled from its discussions for publication by the media. It has not avoided tough topics, though, including free speech, political participation and the government's haranguing of popular novelist Catherine Lim for allegedly eroding the authority of the Prime Minister in her newspaper column.

A surer sign of Singapore's renewal is the spread of the humor virus. The East is red, the West is blue, Elvis is dead, Confucius too, writes local poet Damien Sin in his 1998 book Saints, Sinners and Singaporeans. Even such an oblique attack on the once-hallowed Asian values would have been risky before Goh-lasnost, and it certainly would not have been for sale on the Singapore Writers' shelves of Borders Books and Music--which in the two years since it opened has probably become the best-stocked English-language bookshop in Asia. The humor is still cautious, often taking the form of irony or masking--a literature of hedging, as poet and literary critic Kirpal Singh describes it. Russell Lee, an author of ghost stories, goes to public events dressed in a cape and hood to keep his identity concealed, subtly mocking the old surveillance mores.

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Humor is flowing into film too. Eric Khoo's 12 Storeys, the first Singaporean film to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival, is a tragicomic take on life in a standard HDB apartment block. Three households live through their own stories of suburban ennui: a strait-laced bureaucrat driven to distraction by his sister's sexual precocity, a lonely overweight woman who misses the daily scoldings of her dead mother, a buck-toothed hawker-stall owner who cannot understand why his young wife from Beijing no longer wants to sleep with him now that she has gained residence in Singapore. This is Singapore far from the retail palaces of Orchard Road, a place where the daily grind is unalleviated by glitzy sales promotions and where neighbors see the suicide of a 31-year-old man from the 12th floor as an opportunity to buy ticket number 1231 in the lottery.

The growth in drama has even hit the international arena, with Ong Keng Sen, director of TheatreWorks, taking a pan-Asian fusion of Shakespeare's King Lear to stages around the world--and being met by standing ovations. Adapted from the original by Japanese playwright Rio Kishida, Lear contains elements of Japanese Noh, Peking opera and Sumatran martial arts. Recently television has started to get in on the acting with some home-produced soap operas, less remarkable for their scripts than for their use of Singlish, the Singaporean pidgin which, for better or worse, is one of the nation's defining characteristics (-lah). Only in the past few years have we found the confidence to speak and write in our own patois, says Yeo. Discovering your own identity is not easy.

Losing it, however, is no problem at all for the hordes of spaghetti-strapped girls and designer-jeaned boys who flock to the trendy new bars along Mohamed Sultan Road, or go dancing at Zouk, with its big-name DJs flown in from Europe for a single night. The real hard core cross the causeway to Malaysia and go raving in Johor--and return to find the police waiting for them with urine tests. Drugs are still rare in Singapore: the death sentence is mandatory for anyone caught carrying more than 30 grams of cocaine or 500 grams of cannabis. But drunkenness seems to thrive to a remarkable extent, a cheap escape, perhaps, from the island's buttoned-down earnestness. Predictably the evidence is tidily cleaned up--or hosed down--by 3 a.m. when bars have to close.

Not all change in Singapore is so messy. The city-state is as wired as the film The Matrix, so cognoscenti no longer have to wait for a taxi in the long lines on Orchard Road; instead their mobile phones link them by satellite to individual cabs, which can be dispatched within seconds through a screen mounted on the driver's console. Meanwhile elementary-school students design zoos over the Internet with partner schools in Hawaii, negotiating their choices of animals as they get in on the ground floor of the high-tech revolution that Singapore wants to help lead.

To promote more creativity in schools, teachers have been instructed to reduce rote learning and give students more open-ended problems to contemplate, according to Education Minister Teo Chee Hean. The problem: teaching the teachers, who had become used to stuffing facts into their wards' heads with little extra thought required. Meanwhile, a team of Singaporeans has climbed Mount Everest and is now preparing to cross Antarctica in a government-blessed attempt to show how frontiers can be broadened. Censors recently swallowed their objections to a formerly offensive verb and allowed the new film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me to be shown without a title change. Coffee shops have sprung up all over the island--caffeine chic with nicotine optional at the outside tables, even as local newspapers carry graphic anti-smoking ads with color photographs of cancerous lung tissue.

Changing, not changed. The old control instincts are still there, as opposition politician Chee Soon Juan discovered in December. He attempted to speak in public without a license--and was jailed. And an Internet service provider, a unit of the government-controlled telecom company, recently broke into thousands of customers' hard drives, allegedly to look for hackers.

But the more enlightened mandarins realize a soft touch can be just as effective. One look at the brewing chaos in Indonesia and the recent political friction in Malaysia keeps the majority in line, while the minority of creative types are turning out to be more wholesome and less scary than their old dossiers had suggested. In the shadow of Singapore's economic success, a space has opened up, and it is starting to fill with some interesting creations--a black market in ideas and inspirations no longer under government control. An aids patient stripping on stage may not have been precisely what the government thought of when it set out to promote a newly creative Singapore, but Paddy Chew's performance did not precipitate social breakdown. Singapore is becoming a more interesting place, and it is doing so by learning not to be afraid of its own shadow.
How things have loosened up in the past decade1 9 8 91 9 9 9WHERE THEY HANG OUTTiffin Room at the RafflesHootersWHAT THEY'RE READINGOnly state-approved stuff at MPH's bookshopsAlmost anything: it's all there at Border'sWHAT THEY'RE WATCHINGThe Little MermaidAustin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged (not Shioked!) MeWHAT THEY'RE WEARINGClean-cut GiordanoMambo's attitude gearWHAT'S NAUGHTY?Raunchy Bugis Street (under renovation, to be replaced by shopping mall)Transvestites for hire at private parties for $90 an hourWHAT THEY THINK ABOUT COMMUNISMMao's Little Red Book was bannedMao-chic eateries are fashionable  |    |    |  4