Published: April 2009
By Howard W. French
<b>Howard W. French</b> traces Singapore's incongruous transition from buttoned-up business hub to multicultural capital, where dancing on tables is encouraged—but chewing gum is still regulated.
Once the girls started dancing on the tables, the shadowy club, pulsing with frenetic hip-hop and Latin beats, felt as if it could be in any number of cities. Minutes before, along the narrow bar, a dozen guys were slouching on their stools. A few others, nursing longneck beers, struggled to sustain a conversation above the noise. Vintage black-and-white films of Sugar Ray Robinson fights from the fifties played on a television hung high overhead, distracting their attention. Suddenly, the all-female bartending crew at C.U., a watering hole inspired by a New York dive made famous by the film Coyote Ugly, swung into action, clanging the brass rails. Three swivel-hipped young women—one was a miniskirted Chinese girl, another an Indian in jeans, the third, with long, black hair and a high-wattage smile, could have come from any Southeast Asian country—climbed onto the bar and, outlined by wildly flashing lights, began writhing and shaking to the beat. The male patrons stared up in wonder at the figures, which provoked a desperate plea from the DJ: "All the men in the house are too serious tonight. Can we get the guy with the green wig up on the bar?"
From my perspective, it didn't look very hopeful. But sure enough, a tall man with an electric-green Afro wig—the American guest of honor at a bachelor party—clambered atop the makeshift stage, and within minutes his gyrations had unleashed a ferocious bout of revelry. Several of the previously subdued drinkers followed him up, abandoning their beers to compete for a spot on the bar, which was now crowded with hip-swaying swingers.
As recently as two years ago, you could have imagined this scene taking place almost anywhere but Singapore, the Southeast Asian island nation whose prosperity was built on watchwords like industry, commerce, hard work, discipline—and caning, for those who didn't get with the program (a lesson painfully learned by Michael Fay, the 18-year-old expat who famously received six lashes in 1994 for having vandalized cars). Ad campaigns here reminded the public that hanging was the punishment for drug offenders—including users of marijuana. Wild and crazy seemed to have escaped the lexicon altogether.
In freewheeling, fun-city terms, Singapore may still be a far cry from Bangkok, but tabletop dancing, which was approved by the government in August 2003 and which C.U. helped to pioneer, is the latest—and most shocking—pastime sweeping the city as it seeks to make itself over from prohibitively staid to invitingly sexy. The goal, government officials say openly, is to attract more tourists and foreign investors, foster greater creativity, and get Singaporeans themselves to lighten up and enjoy life. Toleration of places like C.U., the relaxation of rules to allow clubs to stay open all night, even official sanctioning of tours to the island's whispered-about red-light districts—the oldest and most famous being a tiny warren of streets in the heart of Chinatown with pay-by-the-hour hotels—are the central exhibits in conversations here about rapid social change.
For most of the past decade, I've traveled and worked all over Asia, but somehow never made it to Singapore, a social engineer's fantasyland: it's ultramodern yet frankly Confucian; it embraces cutting-edge capitalism yet is governed almost dynastically. There's no use pretending that this stop on the Far Eastern trade route is a world capital of culture like New York or Paris, or steeped in history like Beijing. It's not even Tokyo, with its over-the-top street culture, or Shanghai, my current home base, where the immense urban sprawl and adrenaline-spiked energy are draws all by themselves. In my mind, it had never been much more than a high-tech transition point en route to other places, a city where residents and expats stayed for longer than a layover only in the interest of watching their portfolios grow.
Two days before that night at C.U., my plane made its final approach, flying in low over Malaysia's tropical rain forests, a landscape densely studded with greenery. My first worry was as ridiculous as it was prosaic: Would I get busted by customs for bringing in the chewing gum from Korea that I had thrown into my carry-on the night before my morning flight?I had, of course, known about the prohibition of gum, in force since 1992 and intended to promote sanitation. I had even read how the state had recently relaxed the ban, allowing packs to be sold in pharmacies to those wanting to quit smoking or cope with stress (so long as they file with the government). Tossing it in my bag had been an unthinking reflex. Fortunately, I made it through customs without incident, and a few moments later I was on Singaporean soil, chewing gum and all.
At first glance, Singapore was exactly as I had pictured it. Double-decker buses chugged by in traffic, their ads plugging not Benetton in this society of Benetton diversity, where Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus all share the same neighborhoods, but instead vaguely Orwellian public service messages, such as SPEAK WELL. BE UNDERSTOOD, written in large yellow letters and signed by the Speak Good English Movement. Through the huge bay windows of my suite at the Ritz-Carlton, I could see how the city's harbor traced the curved lines of its postmodern Esplanade performance center. Completed in 2002 as a joint effort of Michael Wilford & Partners of London and DP Architects of Singapore, the two spiky geodesic domes, which house performance spaces for everything from theater and classical concerts to Jamaican ska bands, have become an icon of the country's rebirth. Closer to my hotel, clutches of skyscrapers in the central business district stood tall and orderly, offset by the chalk-white, Gothic Revival St. Andrew's Cathedral and the columned façades of the Fullerton Hotel. The city's huge container port sat far off to the left, its frenzied activity seemingly frozen by the distance.
Down on the street, once I got into the pace of things, humid Singapore proved to be anything but frozen. Chinese fish merchants cleaned their catch in the heart of one of the island's biggest Indian markets. Travelers in transit flooded the Ngee Ann City mall, an American-style shopping arcade in the Orchard Road district, where Takashimaya is a neighbor of Tiffany, Cartier, Bulgari, and Ferragamo—just as it is in Manhattan or Tokyo. When the sun set over the harbor, nightclubs along Mohamed Sultan Road laid out the velvet ropes, and lines snaked down the block. Simultaneously, on Keong Saik Road in Chinatown, in the middle of one of the busiest nights of the local Chinese calendar, Hindus at the Sri Mariamman Temple ritually smashed coconuts on the ground after praying to Ganesha, the elephant god. These juxtapositions of cultures, to reprise the language of a promotional spot played endlessly on CNN, were what I found most "uniquely Singapore."
Of course, Singapore hasn't always been a multicultural center of towering efficiency. In the space of a generation, it has gone from the sweltering, malaria-ridden backwater it was at the end of World War II, when Britain reclaimed the island they had lost to the Japanese in 1942, to an air-conditioned, ultracompetitive society built on trade and technology. Pulling out of the short-lived Malaysia Federation in 1965, Singapore declared independence and seemed to rise inexorably, becoming the rare Asian state to enjoy nearly universal employment, high literacy, steady growth, and well-dressed citizens earning First World incomes.
This is all the more impressive when you consider that the island has almost no natural resources. It has developed, instead, by investing massively in education and infrastructure (for high-revenue industries like shipping and oil refining) and by attracting capital from overseas. Singapore has thrived the old-fashioned way, earning a reputation for strong government and stability and for being a good place to do business in a region where upheaval and corruption have been the norm.
"Thirty-five years ago there wasn't much difference between Singapore and the poorer parts of Indonesia," a fortyish manager at one of the country's largest banks told me in a high-end bookstore on Orchard Road. "We've cleaned it up. We've built it up. And we've done well, haven't we?" As busy shoppers brushed past us, we chatted about Singapore's per capita income, which is more than $24,000—exceeding not only that of other recently transformed Asian tigers, such as Taiwan and South Korea, but also New Zealand's and Spain's.
Throughout this development, however, the state's heavy-handed brand of government-knows-best rule—one that locks young schoolchildren into rigid educational tracks based on aptitude tests—had gained the country renown as a priggish nanny state, "Disneyland with capital punishment," in the words of one cultural critic. Even today, as Singapore struggles to adapt to global social change, there's something poignantly ironic about the way it is proceeding: relying, as it always has, on government planning and quasi-Maoist awareness movements, with their effusion of slogans (on hygiene, increasing the country's low birthrate, and personal safety), to enforce new freedoms, rather than simply removing government from ordinary people's lives.
Dick Lee, a singer, comedian, and TV host—part Paul Anka, part Beat Takeshi (the host of Japan's wackiest variety shows), and nearly as famous throughout eastern Asia as Madonna or Michael Jackson—has strong opinions about the current transformation in his home state. My conversation with the Mad Chinaman, as fans call him, in the Ritz's Chihuly Lounge, began defensively, as I found so many encounters with Singaporeans did. "Whenever I ask foreigners about Singapore, they say it is boring," Lee said, wincing. "It's a bit unfair. People are much more relaxed and more individualistic than they used to be, censorship laws have loosened, and the clubs stay open late now. Not too long ago, when you were out, by the time you were having fun it was time to go home."
The current bid to turn the island into a land of fun coincides, significantly, with a recent change of regime: in August, Lee Hsien Loong, son of the country's omnipotent first prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew, took over the government after the 14-year rule of Goh Chok Tong. The stern, almost ascetic Lee Kwan Yew is a famous proponent of so-called Asian values—an ethic said to encompass a cultural preference for thrift, hard work, and the promotion of communal interests over democracy and individualism—and he never completely relinquished his influence, having been anointed with the aptly paternalistic title of minister-mentor. During the nineties, the vague creed of "Asian values" spread through the Far East, until the financial meltdown that swept the region in 1997, hitting authoritarian states, including Singapore, with particular force. Consolidated power, some said, had led inevitably to a kind of crony capitalism in which big businessmen were so closely linked to the ruling parties that regulatory scrutiny had been allowed to lapse.
Much has happened in eastern Asia since then—not only threats like SARS, avian flu, and terrorism but, on a more positive note, the advance of democracy in nearly every country. China, though still officiallyCommunist, has been increasingly embracing personal freedoms and investing heavily in tourist destinations like Shanghai and Beijing—and doing so without government regulation of corporate investment and growth. Singapore had been touted as a role model in Asia until the market crash, but its new leaders have come to realize that an emphasis on supposed Asian morality and hyper-but-sterile efficiency are not enough to compete in this part of the world.
So while Singapore remains a fairly conservative place overall, its skin-baring fashions, like those I saw on the club scene, are nonetheless becoming more daring. Body piercings and tattoos are the latest obsessions among young people. And the city's gay culture is already among the most open anywhere in Asia; on my stroll down Tanjong Pagar Street in Chinatown, same-sex couples walking arm in arm were a common sight. (In Shanghai, by contrast, gay life remains largely invisible, consigned to out-of-the-way ghettos.) At one of Singapore's most famous clubs, the Boom Boom Room, I even saw transvestite comedians take over the stage. The official acceptance of tabletop dancing was inevitable.
The paradox of Singapore is that public freedoms like these coexist with government rules concerning nearly every aspect of private life, even lifestyle behavior (oral sex, to cite one example, is prohibited). Other forms of bureaucratic prodding are also common. Lest they forget, signs remind civil servants to smile, announcing with ironic solemnity that EVERY GESTURE COUNTS. Taxis even come equipped with monitors that bleep when the speed limit is reached. There's actually an unofficial shrine to this sort of phenomenon, which has deep roots in Chinese culture. The Haw Par Villa, a park on the edge of the city center built in 1937 by the founders of Tiger Balm ointment, is filled with kitschy mythological symbols painted in primary colors. By far the most famous display is a cave called the Ten Courts of Hell, where punishments for all manner of sins are gruesomely depicted (for robbery, you're thrown into a volcano pit; for moneylending, you're hoisted onto a hill of knives). When I was there, dozens of visitors wandered through the cave, some laughing off the injunctions, others debating just how heavy their own penance should be. Preferring not to think too hard about hell on an already blazing afternoon, I headed to the city's artificially cooled art centers—the nonprofit Singapore Tyler Print Institute, the contemporary Earl Lu Gallery, the multiethnic Asian Civilisations Museum, the Esplanade.
Amid all the talk of what's new here, there are some things, some very good things, that remain unchanged. Following the advice of regular visitors and resident friends, I ate as much street food as possible. Because of the country's ethnic diversity—the result of Singapore's pivotal trading spot—Chinese, Indian, Malay, Middle Eastern, and European restaurants stand side by side in almost every enclave. Their coexistence stems not just from centuries of social mixing in such a small space, but from the relaxed manner in which the various cultures interact. One night I stopped at the Newton Hawker Center hard by the Orchard Road shopping district, where dozens of stalls compete for customers who eat without fuss at little tables under fluorescent lights, sipping coconut juice through straws, straight from the shell. I tried grilled stingray, stuffed jumbo shrimp, and spicy boiled vegetables, and tempered their heat with cold Tiger beer.
When my appetite returned, the next afternoon, I headed to the Tekka Market, in Little India, making my way past fruit vendors selling mangosteens, pomelos, rambutans, and dragon fruit alongside more pedestrian choices like stubby green bananas, oranges, and papayas. Outside one stall, I stopped to have my fortune told by Sami Dhuraia, a 75-year-old Indian palm-reader with a shock of white hair.
Dhuraia, who works by the market steps with his little pet parrot caged on a table next to him, reads palms for $6, marking customers' hands with black ink and then making his pronouncements in heavily accented English. My lucky number, I discovered, is five, and I'm destined to live 91 years. I asked him what he thought about the changes on the island; he paused, casting an impassive gaze upon me, before delivering a deft parry. "I am only a mystic," he told me. "Those things are taken care of by God."
WHERE TO STAY
Steps from the shops of Orchard Road, with oversized rooms and a quiet garden. DOUBLES FROM $298. 190 ORCHARD RD.; 800/819-5053 OR 65/6734-1110
Former British colonial post office converted into an Old World-style hotel. DOUBLES FROM $280. 1 FULLERTON SQUARE; 65/6733-8388
The city's hippest hotel has tiny guest quarters with vintage furniture by Verner Panton. DOUBLES FROM $92. 50 KEONG SAIK RD.; 65/6347-1929
Raffles the Plaza
All-white bathrooms and wooden-floored guest rooms have guests opting for this new Raffles over its older sister. DOUBLES FROM $232. 80 BRAS BASAH RD.; 65/6339-7777
Modern Asian art gives an updated look to a traditional city hotel. DOUBLES FROM $302. 7 RAFFLES AVE.; 800/241-3333 OR 65/6337-8888
WHERE TO EAT
Run by an Italian chef and his Singaporean wife. Fresh greens, soy sauces, and lemongrass add Pacific Rim flavor to their Mediterranean dishes. DINNER FOR TWO $48. 126 TANJONG PAGAR RD.; 65/6324-6225
Chef Sebastian Ng's Mod Oz influence can be tasted in everything from the soft-shell crab in aioli to the sea bass with ginger. DINNER FOR TWO $50. 50 KEONG SAIK RD.; 65/6347-1928
My Humble House
A collaboration between Beijing artist Zhang Jin Jie and Singaporean locals turning out contemporary Chinese with unusual touches (try the oatmeal-dusted prawns). DINNER FOR TWO $83. 8 RAFFLES AVE.; 65/6423-1881
Belgian chef-owner Emmanuel Stroobant cooks with rock-and-roll flair, using Japanese ingredients in rustic European dishes. DINNER FOR TWO $120. MAGAZINE RD.; 65/6438-0887
37 Bar & Bubble Lounge
Tucked among the Chinatown brothels, the 37 Bar and the Bubble Lounge draw a sophisticated crowd with Cosmos, brandy, and, of course, lots of champagne. 37 KEONG SAIK RD.; 65/6227-9370
76 ROBERTSON QUAY; 65/6338-8117
15 MOHAMED SULTAN RD.; 65/6738-9050
A wall-sized Keith Haring canvas hangs above the chandelier-lit dance floor, where models and hipsters writhe to Latin-tinged and electronic rhythms. 17 JIK KIM ST.; 65/6738-2988
Whitebait & Kale
The outdoor lounge near Orchard Road is filled with the pre-clubbing crowd mingling over espresso martinis. 1 ORCHARD BLVD.; 65/6333-8025
WHAT TO DO
Asian Civilisations Museum
1 EMPRESS PLACE; 65/6332-7798
Earl Lu Gallery
90 GOODMAN RD.; 65/6344-4300
Esplanade Theatres on the Bay
1 ESPLANADE DR.; 65/6828-8389
Eu Yan Sang
A traditional herb chemist. 269A S. BRIDGE RD.; 65/6223-6333
Haw Par Villa
262 PASIR PANJANG RD.; 65/6872-2780
Singapore Tyler Print Institute
41 ROBERTSON QUAY; 65/6336-3663