Singapore Swing

Peaceful and prosperous, Southeast Asia’s famously uptight nation has let its hair down

Building on the past is one of Singapore's strengths. Bathers at the Fullerton Hotel—a former British post office—enjoy a view befitting the nation's prosperity. (Justin Guariglia)
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All this social engineering has turned Singapore into something of a nanny state. But the People's Action Party, which has won every election since the end of colonial rule, has a quick rejoinder: check the results. Singapore's crime rate is one of the lowest in the world. There is no litter or graffiti. Everything is orderly, on time, efficient. True to Confucian doctrine, group achievement is celebrated above individual accomplishment, authority is respected and the duty to take care of one's family is so integral to society that elderly parents can sue their grown children for non-support. The "perfect" society. Yet perfection came at a price. Personal freedoms were surrendered, creativity and risk-taking never flourished, the leadership seemed to lurk behind every tree. Singapore was admired but not envied. "Growing the creative industry," as the government refers to its promotion of arts and culture, was a luxury that had to wait until Singapore's survival was assured.

Tommy Koh, the arts patron, remembers that in 1968, when he was Singapore's ambassador to the U.N., the mission in New York City was decorated with cheap posters. He pleaded with then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew for $100 to replace them with some original work by a Singaporean artist.

Lee did not see it as a chance to promote Singaporean culture. "What's wrong with the posters?" he asked. Koh eventually got his money and bought an ink-brush painting by Chen Wen-Hsi, Singapore's most celebrated pioneer artist. It hangs in the Singapore U.N. Mission to this day. From that modest beginning, the Foreign Affairs Ministry has built a significant collection of Singaporean art to display in its far-flung embassies, and the Singapore Art Museum has put together the world's largest public collection of Southeast Asian art.

The time between my first and last visits to Singapore spanned 37 years. The changes had been unimaginable. There was the obvious: the stunning skyline and growing prosperity; the absence of pollution and traffic gridlock, thanks to an exorbitant tax on cars and a system that turned major streets into toll ways during peak hours; the landscaping that gave the entire city a garden-like atmosphere and, like everything else in Singapore, was intended to provide something practical—shade, a deterrent to pollution and a reduction in temperatures of a degree or two.

There was also the abstract: the realization that it is architects and artists who make a city great, not computer engineers and civil servants. In loosening up, the government recognized the convergence of economic progress and cultural and individual innovation. The anxiety with which Singaporeans viewed the future has been replaced by confidence. "In my parents' time, the mind-set was work hard and make a good home for your family," says Choo-sin Nong, a recent university graduate. "For my generation, it's let's get out in the world and see what we can do." The question remains whether Singapore can keep getting the pace and mix right and give birth to a truly vibrant and creative society.

On my way out of town, speeding along a road whose grassy shoulders are as carefully manicured as the fairways at Augusta, I saw an unusual sight ahead. The gardeners had forgotten to mow a little patch where the grass stood a foot high. Ahhh, I thought: even in Singapore people can get lackadaisical. But wait. As we passed the patch, a neatly lettered sign informed me: "This grass has been purposely left long to permit insect life."

David Lamb was the Los Angeles Times' Southeast Asia bureau chief from 1997 to 2001. Justin Guariglia is the author of the recent photo book Shaolin: Temple of Zen.

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