15 Apr 2005

Happy-face fascism

Yes I know it was first published in 1995 by 'Ann Tellman'[not a real name of course] and I know how much you like things to be all 'shiny and new'. But the following is so good I had to draw your attention to it. Has Singapore changed since 1995?

In a past article I posed the question, 'Is Singapore Fascist?' and of course was told off in a later comment for doing so. Very few agreed or even discussed it via the comments section. Well it looks like I might have been on to something...

It's not Big Brother but the Parent State that presides over official family values in Singapore, the technocrat's Utopia. Sue Ann Tellman reports on a place where no-one is supposed to grow up.

The caning for vandalism last year of the American teenager, Michael Fay, by the Singapore Government brought strong protests from the West. The punishment may have been cruel and inappropriate but the protests reeked of hypocrisy a high-profile diplomatic and media defence of one American teenager accompanied by the usual silence on the numerous world situations where every day millions face death, torture, hunger and forced migration.

The Singapore Government made much of this hypocrisy, helped by individual law-and-order Americans who praised Singapore for its harsh response to teenage vandalism. But the Fay caning represents just one element of a good metaphor for Singapore as a whole: parental authority institutionalized in a nation-state.

The rules sound familiar from childhood and adolescence: flush the toilet (public toilets are monitored and non-flushers fined); no gum allowed (it clogs the subway doors); cross at the stoplight (jaywalkers are resolutely fined); cut your hair (backpackers stay away); no sex (eroticism not encouraged unless it produces marriages between university graduates who will improve the stock); no drugs (mandatory death penalty, non-negotiable); above all, don't disagree with your parent (a one-party state, a controlled press, import of foreign publications restricted).

The punishments are typical of a dysfunctional family: beatings (the bamboo cane); large fines (for infractions of small rules); isolation (imprisonment of political dissidents); expulsion (for those who won’t live by the rules); and, in extreme situations, death.

However, this is also a very rich parent, one of the richest in Asia. It is a parent whose primary purpose seems to be to make money, the more the better. BMWs and Mercedes Benzes abound. Anything shabby has been torn down and replaced so far upscale that only the wealthy can enter. Economic growth is a matter of national security. In 1993 three economists were put on trial under Singapore’s Official Secrets Act for revealing the country’s economic growth rate in advance of the Government’s official announcement.

Rich families are often not happy families and Singapore is no exception. All the control makes for boredom, cultural sterility and a certain infantilism. Want to see good theatre or go to an exciting rock concert? Want to read incisive political satire or even a good Singapore novel? Want to have a stimulating discussion on culture, politics, economics, psychology or sociology? Forget it not in Singapore. Quite seriously, conversations are more open and stimulating in Rangoon or Pyongyang the capitals of notorious dictatorships. In Singapore idle chat could lead towards either of the Government’s two big enemie ‘communist conspiracy’ or 'Western liberalism'.

Instead, the Government promotes 'family value' to provide the social stability needed for continued economic growth. In the Singaporean context this means complete subservience to the state and its social dictates. And despite all the Government’s preaching of 'family values'social alienation and boredom increase with rising rates of divorce, teenage crime, single-parent families and drug abuse. One crucial element in addressing these developments a recognition of responsible human freedom is missing, identified as it is with 'Western liberalism'. Instead, the Government keeps lecturing away on family values while increasing the social control, denying unmarried mothers access to government housing as this would confer 'respectability' on them. And, of course, more canings and more executions.

One way the Singapore Government has tried to address its people's unhappiness has been, in the best fascist tradition, to impose happiness on them. A shiny Disneyland atmosphere abounds spotless fast-food and entertainment franchises (McDonalds, KFC, Hard Rock Café); theme parks (one of which is in a building that until recently housed a political prisoner for 26 years surely one of the most creative 'cruel and unusual punishments' ever devised); mini-rainforest eco-parks (next to weapons-testing ranges); controlled areas for stalls of traditional Chinese, Malay and Indian food; and shops, boutiques and shopping malls galore. Happiness is making money, spending it and helping Singapore flourish.

But the Disneyland atmosphere with its money and its happiness-message does not seem to produce very happy people. While family life continues to flourish among the poorer, less-educated minorities (the Indians and Malays who are not really a part of ‘the official family’), the next generation of leaders – the money-making young Chinese professionals – show remarkably little interest in sex, marriage and family life. With the best parental concern the Government has developed its own dating service for unmarried university graduates, the Social Development Unit, housed in the Ministry of Finance. State television has gone on a family-life-is-fun campaign with commercials showing a happy family playing together and singing "Fun, fun, fun, fun... Families are fun, fun, fun, fun."

Part of the problem is that with all this attention to money, many people do not know much about sex. Any public expression of it is commonly connected with demonic 'Western liberalism'. Singapore gynaecologists routinely report women coming to them complaining of barrenness only to be told they are virgins. Reports one doctor: 'So many just do'’t know where to put what'. For many men masturbation by a masseuse at the health centre in the shopping mall or a visit to the sex clubs of Bangkok is enough to keep the moneymaking juices flowing.

The growth of Christianity in Singapore, especially among Chinese professionals, can be seen as another sign of people’s unhappiness. Unhappy with simply making money, many Singaporeans seek transcendent meaning. The Christianity that develops is evangelical, charismatic or fundamentalist, providing ecstatic experience but also sanctifying the making of money. The names of a few of the churches give a sense of the otherworldly spirituality of Christianity in Singapore: Glory Joy Christian Church, Pearly Gates Christian Fellowship, Singapore Charismatic Church, World Revival Prayer Fellowship, Harvester Baptist Church, Praise Evangelical Church – the list goes on and on. The gospel of prosperity is common – if you are a faithful Christian, God will reward you with prosperity. The Government is uncomfortable with the notion that there may be a higher power than itself and has instituted a Religious Harmony Act which prohibits any preaching on social or political issues.

The patriarch of this large dysfunctional family, where free and autonomous adulthood is so elusive, is Lee Kuan Yew, leader of the People’s Action Party. Lee was Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990 and is now Senior Minister advising Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Interviews with Lee portray an authoritarian, eccentric and, at times, quite angry Confucian patriarch laying down in minute detail family stability for the whole nation.

Singapore is keen to spread its brand of happiness elsewhere. In dealing with regimes in the region even more repressive than itself – like Burma – Singapore is an advocate of ‘constructive engagement’. Singapore companies continue to invest and make money while governments support one another. Recently a group of Singapore companies including Singapore Airlines set up the Singapore-Myanmar International Leisure Enterprise (SMILE an appropriate Singapore acronym), a consortium to develop tourism in Burma. Singapore, loaded with capital and management expertise but short on natural resources, is a prime candidate for the role of economic colonizer in the region.

It is easy enough from the outside to argue that people should be braver and openly criticize Singapore’s repressive policies. But the fear is all-pervasive. Even one political joke told in the wrong place can ruin a career. One Singaporean’s comments explain much: Boundaries have been drawn on our lives, governing everything from how to live our private lives to how extensively we can participate in the political arena. Through local newspapers, radio, television, the community centres, resident committees, People's Association and the People's Action Party itself, we have been told to have unquestioning faith in our leaders. Even if we don't, many of us will not dare to say so publicly. Those who have challenged the Government have faced imprisonment, torture, loss of all political rights or exile.

Singapore faces a clear choice of futures: continued control by an authoritarian parent producing citizens lacking autonomy and freedom but materially richer and richer or, if everything collapses, poorer and poorer. Or, in the context of continued economic planning and development, a new liberation in which free expression of human reason, faith and imagination becomes possible.
Sue Ann Tellman is the pseudonym for a writer who would still like to be able to get through Singapore immigration

21 comments:

Agagooga said...

Yes, Singapore has changed since 1995.

I'm not sure that even in 1995 it was as bad as it's made out to be here.

soci said...

So how does it differ from Ann's description?

You can now getting chewing gum with a prescription.

any others?

Anonymous said...

yup, singles aged 25 and above can apply for a 4-room flat while in the past you have to get engaged first before you can do that. i think the government finally realised cohabitation is more effective in boosting birth rates than marriage itself. the theory? try until you hit it. then get married. hmm.

This side of paradise said...

If this Sue Ann can even get the name of the PM wrong in the article, how is the rest of the article relevant?

Anonymous said...

Hi, it thought it is singles aged 35 and above instead of 25 and above?

anonymous 1

expat@large said...

strikes me as still fairly accurate 10 years on, not that I knew it well back then.

The Lee family still has its grip.

People still strike me as primarily money-oriented, superficial and, though it wasn't mentioned in this article, immensely vain.

Of course Big Family now has videos monitoring those nasty goings-on in streets in Geylang.

Agagooga said...

The Internet, for one. They're not regulating it with as heavy a hand as the mass media.

Anonymous said...

It amazes me how people can accuse us of dressing sloppily yet also being immensely vain.

soci said...

hi agagooga. The internet is being monitored, and the monopoly on IPservers, is their current way of regulating it. The law is in place and I am sure that it will be used when someone over steps the mark.

I can remember a website owner fleeing to Australia a few years ago because he was accused of inciting religious hatred. So the powers that be will flex their muscles when they feel compelled to.

But you are correct, they have currently not been heavy handed. Or is it the case that they do not perceive the 'chattering bloggers' as a near an present threat.

While bloggers continue to debate in this 'cyber' reality, without manifesting that chatter into action in the actual streets, they feel safe. Want to try and organise a less than fashionable 'flash crowd' and see how many police officers appear?

But remember that you are being watched and that the internet lacks anonymity. No matter whether you leave a name or the name anonymous as many do.

Anonymous said...

Another contradiction for you:
Much as the government lauds the presence of FTs, any comments made by foreigners is considered "not required to be told what to do" as in the case of the recent Amnesty Forum. My my! I love the LKY Logic. Hasn't he been receiving instructions from his formative years in Cambridge or does he really thinks he's white.

soci said...

'Yes we would like to attract foreigners to come to Singapore and work for us, to bring in new ideas but they must sit down, shut up and do as they are told like everyone else.'

Does this sound familiar to people who have worked in Sg?

And LKY is a philosopher king all knowledge emerges from his lips like water from a fountain.

soci said...

After reading the comments left over the last few days I have re-read the article and it appears to me that Singapore hasn't changed.

Go read the likes of MrBrown, Xiaxue and other certain blogs that shall not be named, and it is full of infantile concerns or pulling silly faces.

I am planning on doing research into Singaporean attitudes on certain contemporary issues and I am starting to think that because of the high readership of the two blogs mentioned above that my source of data is definitely skewed towards 'infantilism'.

Please point me towards blogs that are not infantile and currently do not appear on my Singapore BLog list

whatever said...

It's easy for a foreigner to enter Singapore and criticize the flaws he/she perceives there. God knows I've done the same to America since arriving here. But to analyze things from a top-down perspective ("the Government does this and this") is to miss the big picture. I've had no lack of stimulating political/cultural/etc discussions with fellow Singaporeans (perhaps you need to expand your social circle?) and as every good Singaporean knows, you can do whatever you want as long as your parents don't find out. How is that different from other countries?

All this talk about a PAP conspiracy to 'impose happiness' onto Singaporeans is quite unsubstantiated. Does the spread of Christianity in America similarly indicate unhappiness among Americans? I don't see people jumping to that conclusion.

Yes, completely free speech is still not to be had in our country. Yes, the government has a thumb in every money-making pie. But this doesn't mean Singaporeans are quietly unhappy or resentful. On the contrary, more people are speaking out about the issues close to their heart. There's a vibrant community of young people eager to make change, both offline and online (the online portion of which I believe you've just summarily dismissed as 'infantile'). We need time, and we need people to stop judging our country based on the self-righteous principles they cling equally narrow-mindedly to.

Jol said...

whatever:
But the top-down approach is so much more applicable/relevant in Singapore than it is in America (or say the UK), simply because of Singapore's no-holds-barred corporatist governmental style.

It's quite impossible to discuss Singapore without discussing the merits and demerits of its style of governance because that governance infiltrates everything that goes on the in country so pervasively and on a minuteness of scale that is hardly to be found anywhere else.

If Singaporean youth are eager to make a change, maybe they also need to know what's going on before they can diagnose what's going wrong. The observation that many Singaporeans are infantile is extremely well-supported by the evidence. I don't consider myself an exception - but I also think I can't get out of it unless I acknowledge the problem first.

dks said...

hilarious. certainly nothing infantile here.

singapore's a dump. the government's a stick in the mud. it's clean and green wherever tourists tread.

but fascist?

too much emphasis on the role of governments when governments all over the world have lost control of their countries to the new political power; the megacorporation.

fascism is a word, and if singapore is fascist, then i'm glad fascism works quite as well as it has.

if, say, america decides it has a drug problem, the singaporean methodologies of hanging dealers, crackhos and that fellow who's doing a double-take on that smouldering joint would likely solve the problem.

fascism for more better life! fascism for more shiny tommorrow!

Molly Johnson said...

Info on neo secret society tech

ordinary bloke said...

Singapore is often held up as a model for developing countries. As a citizen of a developing country (South Africa), I become very concerned when reading about the oppressive political and cultural atmosphere in this country. I have absolutely no desire to live in (or even visit, for that matter) a place where you have to get a prescription for chewing gum, or face the possibility of execution for smoking weed. It is noteable that the foremost proponents of Singapore as an ideal to be emulated are predominantly wealthy and possessed of a police state mentality. For an ordinary bloke like me, I cannot see any benefits of such a system.

Disneyland with the death penalty, that's Singapore for you.

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