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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"I remember when the government decided we needed a biotech industry and one sprung up overnight," says Adrian Tan, a 29-year-old theater director and orchestra conductor. "But arts and culture and moral norms are not things you can put $10 million or $100 million into and just make happen."

Glen Goei, who spent 20 years in theater and film in New York and London and starred with Anthony Hopkins in the play M. Butterfly, is one of the artists who has returned to test his homeland's new frontiers. His adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors was to open three nights after I met him at the Victoria Theater, a handsome Victorian Revival building that once served as the British town hall and was the site of war-crimes trials that followed Japan's World War II occupation of Singapore. Goei runs the Wild Rice Theater; wearing flip-flops, shorts and a polo shirt, he sat alone among a sea of empty red velvet seats while workmen with hammers and paintbrushes put finishing touches on the set. Advance sales had been brisk. Goei looked at his watch. It was nearly midnight.

"Have things changed in Singapore?" he asked, then answered his own question. "Yes. Fifteen years ago we didn't have a single actor surviving full-time as an actor. Today, we've got 60, 70, 80, and a bunch of theater companies. But having said that, we've still got censorship on a lot of levels. We're still not allowed to talk about politics, race, religion, which is really what good theater is all about—an examination of social issues and values. But I can understand our paranoia and insecurity." It comes, he said, from being surrounded by Muslim countries, from being small and vulnerable and not wanting to do anything that threatens stability and ethnic consonance.

I left Goei to hail a cab for the hotel, but got sidetracked outside the theater by a towering bronze statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, the British naturalist and statesman officially recognized as the founder of modern-day Singapore—surely making him the only non-royal European so honored by the country he helped colonize. He stands with his feet firmly planted and his arms folded across his chest, not far from the banks of the Singapore River, from which he first stepped onto the island of Singapore on January 28, 1819, ushering in 140 years of British rule. "Our objective," he said, "is not territory, but trade, a great commercial emporium."

Singapore, then just a pimple on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, was a swampy fishing and trading village when Raffles arrived. It had few people, no resources and no relief from the blistering heat. But like all valuable real estate, it had three key attributes: location, location, location. "The City of the Lion" stood at the crossroads of the Orient, amid the Strait of Malacca and the shipping lanes that link the lands of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Like Hong Kong and Gibraltar, it would become a cornerstone of Britain's empire, and its port would eventually become one of the world's busiest.

As trade increased and an infrastructure was built up under the British, migrant workers—Chinese (who today make up more than three-quarters of the population) and Indians, many of them from what is now known as Sri Lanka—began arriving to join the indigenous Malays. The island became a rich blend of colors, religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism) and languages (English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil). By World War I, Singapore's population had reached 340,000, and a city had emerged with two-story shop-houses, handsome government buildings and a harbor filled with the ships of many nations. The residents were largely uneducated. And, like many port cities, Singapore was crowded with transient males, gamblers, prostitutes and opium users. (The British had a virtual monopoly on the sale of opium.) Singapore became known as Sin City, only in part because of the abbreviation of its name, in striking contrast to the strait-laced, priggish image it would nurture after independence in 1965.

The British defended Singapore with 85,000 troops in World War II and considered the island impregnable. But in February 1942, Japanese forces poured south down the Malay Peninsula. After a week of fierce fighting and mounting Allied and civilian casualties, Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, his open-neck shirt dripping with medals, his boots kicked off under the negotiating table, and Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, wearing shorts and a mustache, faced each other in the downtown Ford Motor Company factory. Yamashita pounded on the table with his fists for emphasis.

"All I want to know is, are our terms acceptable or not? Do you or do you not surrender unconditionally? Yes or no?" the Japanese commander demanded. Percival, head bowed, answered softly, "Yes," and unscrewed his fountain pen. It was the largest surrender in British military history. The myth that British colonial powers were invincible and that Europeans were inherently superior to Asians was shattered. Japan renamed Singapore Syonan-to, Light of the South Island. The sun was setting on the British Empire.

The drab, one-story Ford factory has been transformed into a sparkling war gallery and museum, paying tribute to the courage and suffering of the Singaporean people during the Japanese occupation. Changi Airport, built by the Japanese using Allied POWs, still survives too, though not in any form an old veteran would recognize. Changi now handles 35 million passengers a year and has been rated "Best Airport in the World" 19 years in a row by Business Traveller, UK magazine. Search as I might, I couldn't find the ghosts of the old Singapore. The musty romance of the tropics, the restless adventurers stooped with drink and island living, the echoes of Somerset Maugham and the sea captains of Joseph Conrad have slipped away, along with pith helmets and Panama hats. In their place are the trappings of a city that feels as new as Dubai, humming with efficiency and industriousness, living by its wits, knowing well that if it doesn't excel it will be swallowed up by the pack.

What happened to the old Singapore? "We destroyed a lot of it," says Tommy Koh, chairman of the National Heritage Board and a leading figure in the city's cultural renaissance, "but we realized just in time that we were also destroying our heritage in the process. Entire neighborhoods were knocked down for new development, in Chinatown and other places. For the first two decades of independence, the mind-set of the whole nation was to erase the old and build the new in the pursuit of economic progress. People like me who wanted to save what was historic were brushed off as artsy liberals. But you have to remember that in the 1960s, we were a very poor country."

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