Amazing. Utterly amazing. Hyper-modern, hyper-clean, and hyper-rich, Singapore is the supermodel of countries. So much so, that America, by comparison, looks like the frumpy, corpulent spinster who is past her prime but doesn’t yet know it. Keeping with the metaphor, one Singaporean writer has compared this city-state to a date with a beautiful woman who just happens to have a bit of the psycho about her:
If you steer your conversation and curiosity the right way,” he says, “your time with us will be unforgettable. But if you touch on a sore spot, we’ll fly off the handle …
Unforgettable is right. The distinct guttural rumble of Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Porches, and others of that species are as common as F150s in America. No wonder Formula 1 is racing there now. And almost everything looks shiny and new. Even the people. The only other place on earth I’ve seen like it is Shanghai. Flying back into Birmingham after a visit to that city felt like I was returning to a Third World country. So it is with Singapore, and then some. No kidding.
Yes, Singapore is a remarkable place. And, yes, it does overwhelm the senses, full as it is with eye candy. Night is a special time in this country that is smaller than Orange County: search lights paint the stainless-steel buildings that populate the skyline like pieces of art; music fills the botanical gardens; and people do the things that fashionable, moneyed people do, whether that is eating at a trendy Michelin-Starred restaurant (there are more in Singapore than in Paris), shopping at high-end boutiques, or attending an outdoor concert. The streets and sidewalks are so clean that I wondered if the Singaporean Department of Transportation employed an army of scrupulous maids wielding feather dusters rather than the hard-hatted guys you see in America. Trash, even gravel, along roadsides is so uncommon that we started looking for it. Indeed, you’ll sooner find money on the ground than debris.
But as the writer said, there are “sore spots” with the woman that is Singapore, seductive though she may be. And it doesn’t take much to reveal the Jack Nicholson-in-The Shining side of her. Her sore spots, the kind where she reminds you that she’s a psycho after all, include:
- Chewing gum. Unless it is a special gum prescribed by a doctor, it is illegal. And if you spit it out? Oh, let’s not even go there.
- Leaving a toilet unflushed. Unpleasant, for sure, and I have, admittedly, felt the victim of a crime when my senses were assaulted by these stealthy hit-and-run offenders. But is a fine necessary when a bottle of Febreze will do?
- Walking around your house naked. I don’t even want to know how they know you’re doing this.
- Eating or drinking—even water—on public transportation. My heavens, we are on the equator here in Singapore. Not even a sip?
At this point, perhaps you’re wondering as I did, has this country any boys in it? I mean, were these American laws—especially no. 2, so to speak—my entire college dorm (and my three boys) would have accumulated fines equal to that of their college tuition. How would you like to make monthly payments on that?
There are, however, more interesting laws and corresponding punishments:
- Smoking an illicit (untaxed) cigarette. I saw this warning on televisions—yes, televisions—in taxis: “It only takes one cigarette to be marked a criminal.” Penalty? Up to six years in prison.
- Using someone else’s Wi-Fi without their permission. Called “piggybacking,” it is considered hacking and can land you in prison for up to three years.
- Graffiti or posting signage without a permit. Do you remember American student Michael Fey? Thinking he was in East L.A., he vandalized two cars and stole a road sign in Singapore. That was a mistake. He was arrested, imprisoned, and caned.
- Drug trafficking. Violate this one and you will get the death sentence. “You will be hanged,” as one Singaporean told me, “and no one can save you, man.” I’m cool with this one … or am I?
Draconian punishments are not typically created because the government in question is sadistic and longs for an opportunity to cane or hang its citizens. Sadistic governments just do that stuff anyway regardless of law. No, harsh legal penalties are generally meant to prevent the very thing for which punishments like caning and death are the consequence. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the two countries bracketing Singapore, drug trafficking is a major problem. To prevent it from infesting Singapore, the government sent a clear message to would-be traffickers with these laws. That makes sense, right?
“Don’t want to be caned or hanged?” people will say. “Then don’t violate the law.”
That sounds simple enough—only it isn’t so simple. Arguments like this are frustratingly stupid because they legitimize surrendering broad, sweeping powers to governments and the people who run them, and if history teaches anything, it is that people and governments are not to be trusted with broad, sweeping powers. Civil rights don’t exist in Singapore. A few days ago, the country “elected” a President—without voting. So much for democracy. Furthermore, Singapore has the second-highest execution rate in the world. And why wouldn’t it when drug trafficking brings a mandatory death sentence?
Seeing “Warning: Death to Drug Traffickers Under Singapore Law” stamped boldly on the immigration card the flight attendants handed out to passengers just before landing in this, the Brave New World, I was momentarily gripped by panic when the thought “what about prescription drugs?” crossed my mind.
Less than two years ago, I suffered a life-altering accident when I was hit by a car while cycling. Suffice it to say that I broke a lot of bones—19 vertebrae, 12 ribs, multiple skull fractures, and so on. Before leaving the States, my physicians—I have a stable full of them now—prescribed several medications for pain. Also in my possession were two half-empty bottles of Oxycodone, a leftover from my accident that I had been keeping in reserve for days when my pain is intolerable.
“You’re fine, Dad. That’s a prescription,” Zachary said with perfect rationality. But I have had experience with irrational governments before.
“I am not so sure,” I replied, whipping out my smartphone like a gunslinger.
A quick internet search revealed that this medication is outlawed without a permit—for which you must apply well before entering the country—and possession of more than 20 pills constitutes trafficking.
Suddenly, I felt caught in the world of Midnight Express, and, worse, I was Billy Hayes: “Son, you ever been in a Turkish prison?” No, and I didn’t want to be hanged in a Singaporean prison, either. A couple of flushes down the toilet later, I was in the clear.
Do you begin to see the problem? Please bear in mind, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I don’t even drink and, by strict definition of the law—are there any other definitions in a country like this?—I was possibly a violator of one of their most severe laws. Like many, I was initially sympathetic with Singapore’s stiff punishments for drug trafficking—hang’em! you say to yourself—but now I was getting a crash course in what it might mean to fall afoul of a government whose definition went well beyond types like Al Pacino’s powder-nosed Scarface and where “innocent until proven guilty” isn’t a legal concept.
And hanging alleged drug traffickers is one thing, but criminalizing chewing gum because you don’t like getting it on your shoe? This is not only a surveillance state—and as Edward Snowden revealed, it is definitely a surveillance state—it is also a state where apparently those doing the surveilling have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
“It’s like the Truman Show,” Zachary, said, making a typically astute observation. He was spot-on. Singapore is a kind of model society that is very conscious of the fact that others look to it as a model, especially governments that want to combine free markets with dictatorship. That’s why the country is so neat and tidy. Singapore is akin to a young family anxiously awaiting a visit from the in-laws: the lawn is freshly mowed, the house is cleaner than usual, and the kids have all been threatened within an inch of their lives to be on their best behavior. Had my wife and I employed Singaporean discipline in our home, who knows? Maybe the kids would’ve made their beds and flushed the toilets.
Whatever my opinion of the country, people in Singapore seem happy enough. That was also true of my experience in Shanghai. And why not, when it is so modern, so beautiful, and so wealthy? The problem lies in the shadows, the “what ifs,” of life under an undemocratic regime of this kind. Chiefly, what if you end up innocently on the wrong side of the law? There’s no real due process because there’s no freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, or any other freedom the government doesn’t, at that moment, want you to have.
Interestingly, many on the Left love Singapore. This is not entirely surprising given the Left’s historic fascination with totalitarian regimes. Walter Duranty, Moscow Bureau Chief for The New York Times, famously extolled the virtues of Stalin’s Russia and was given a Pulitzer Prize for it. George Bernard Shaw, another classic Leftie, did the same thing. They saw in that society precisely what they wanted to see.
Now The Huffington Post, in an article titled, “Why Singapore is the World’s Most Successful Society,” essentially declared the city-state “the most successful society since human history began.” Since human history began. Really? Does HuffPo really know what life was like for the Sumerians or in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom? Hyperbole aside, Singapore scores high in rankings of this type because it scores high in categories like per capita income, education, and healthcare. It is as if freedom of anything just doesn’t matter in this analysis. Calling it “a benevolent dictatorship,” the piece is a typical lovefest.
Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I’ll submit to that sort of governance when He that governs me is God and I am in heaven. Until then, call me a cynic, but I prefer leaders who are held accountable by the people.
Singapore star rating: 6/10
Larry Alex Taunton is a cultural commentator, freelance writer, and the author of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens and The Grace Effect. You can follow him at larryalextaunton.com or on Twitter @larrytaunton.