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Singapore Lives

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.

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