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Placing the poor in Singapore

September 9, 2012

The latest whistle-stop Singapore bullshit from the Torygraph can be summed up in five words: chewing gum, cleanliness and authoritarianism. The journalist might as well have saved himself the other 1,506.

“Whoever heard of Asia without car horns and dementedly weaving traffic?” he asks. But a  Facebook friend who posted the article quite rightly suggests that the reality is a lot more nuanced. Why do Asian countries always have to be dirty and anarchic? Does Singapore’s order and cleanliness make it less authentic than, say, Phnom Penh?

I don’t know. There’s something weird about the place that seems to slip through the fingers. Singapore is like one of those blue screens they use for special effects in action movies, or maybe those magic eye pictures that were cool in the 1990s. A foreigner like me sees gum and the Rotan cane. Supporters of the government: infallible technocrats on an glorious march to prosperity. Most ordinary locals: not Indonesia and not amok.

Like anywhere the place can be understood on lots of different levels, and those levels rarely seem to come across in the international (or the national) media. When I lived there I often used to wonder in particular what the builders of Singapore thought; the Indians and Bangladeshis on short-term visas who lived in container towns sprawled anonymously near the airport. The Torygraph journalist notices that they “flood in from their workers’ dormitories in the west of the island to let off steam. Most head for Little India because they’re mostly from the Indian subcontinent.” But he doesn’t think to interview any.

I was never sure the voices of the majority of the population who live in government Housing Development Board estates were really heard, either. The national narrative was all discipline and dollars; shiny office blocks and hedonism.

Poor people are silenced in lots of places, but the degree to which they are muffled varies enormously. At least in Bangkok, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and Paris gatherings of more than four people are legal. Even in Hong Kong, protesters last week managed to overturn the requirement for mandatory Chinese propaganda on the school curriculum. Often the most precious social gains in the wealthy world have been driven from below.

Singapore is somewhat unique, and I think, fascinating, for being so rich — the third wealthiest in the world per capita — and yet having a medieval justice system and a democracy with so many vital organs missing. When countries get rich they often develop things like an independent press, trial by jury and a minimum wage. Yet none of these exist in the lion city, whose ruling People’s Action Party hounded the handful of opposition politicians out of office, bankrupting one and jailing another.

It’s a country founded on supposedly egalitarian principles, where in the early days leaders would harp on the need for everyone to have a decent flat and go to school. First finance minister Goh Keng Swee’s book Socialism That Works: The Singapore Way was a great example of post-colonial nose-thumbing at the laissez-faire ways of former masters. Most of the lefty stuff’s long since been ditched, but the government has always said that it’ll stick its nose into people’s lives for the good of the country. The social contract was that in return for unfreedom people at the bottom of the pile would get a job on a decent wage.

Singapore’s architect Lee Kuan Yew said at the 1986 National Day Rally: “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yet, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think. That’s another problem” (quoted in the Straits Times, 20 April 1987).

Of course most people would rather be a poor Singaporean than a poor Bangladeshi, but relative poverty matters. It’s morally unacceptable to say that someone from the subcontinent should be grateful for his windowless shipping-container abode because he’s getting $2 per hour instead of a dollar. People measure their well being against what they see around them, and $2 in Singapore probably isn’t, subjectively, worth as much as a dollar in Dakha (although most of the money gets sent home). When they get their faces rubbed in the dirt so much and so often, people at the bottom of the pile also tend to revolt.

I don’t mean to diss Singapore too much, and certainly the contempt shown for the poor in the likes of Dubai is far more abhorrent, but I do think Singapore’s an interesting story, and possibly an anomaly, and i’m not quite sure why.

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