"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."