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Singapore's Modern Revolution

Sol LeWitt’s 1999 Wall Drawing #917, Arcs and Circles, in a lobby area at the Marina Bay Sands hotel.

Photo: Morgan & Owen

In shiny, happy Singapore, superlatives come at you with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Not two minutes after my arrival at Changi Airport, rated Tip-Top Number One Most Excellent Airport in the Universe (or something like that) by Skytrax, I was being regaled with tales of crackerjack government efficiency.

See the scarlet-flowered rain trees lining East Coast Parkway like a regiment of neon-green umbrellas! They are actually planted in tubs! At a word, superbly trained government workers appearing out of nowhere can swarm the asphalt and whisk the trees away in 30 minutes, converting the road into an emergency runway!

In Singapore—improbable geopolitical phenomenon, tiny banking and trade powerhouse, a nation transformed in a half-century from a scruffy, licentious port into the squeaky-clean economic heavyweight of Southeast Asia—the way is ever forward.

For the better part of the 20th century, the dynamics of Singapore’s futurist trajectory dominated the national narrative, and there is no reason to think that will change anytime soon. In the past several years alone, the island nation has poured billions of dollars into efforts to refashion itself as an equatorial Vegas, green-lighted the creation of two immense new “integrated resorts” with casinos at their heart, gone on a hotel-building spree that transformed many remnants of the colonial era into chic hostelries, like the brand-new Fullerton Bay, and renovated or else seriously rethought its institutions of culture, as if to rebuke those (and there are many) who have long griped that Singapore lacks soul.

These changes, unimaginable not so long ago, owe to a number of factors, not least of which are the irresistible incursions of the Internet, the return home of the country’s young and educated expatriate caste, and the first stirrings of cultural relaxation on the part of the social engineers who govern the place.

It’s not exactly as if Singapore’s dubious global reputation is altogether unwarranted. It remains in some ways the place its critics deride: vaguely sterile, overregulated—the so-called Asian Switzerland. It is still a country where press freedoms are scant; where both homosexuality and gum-chewing are highly restricted; where certain criminal offenses are punishable by the stroke of the cane. It is still possible in Singapore to lose days in the lightly chilled limbo of air-conditioned shopping centers, seldom encountering sunlight and yet rarely out of sight of Chanel.

But behind the gleaming palisades of glass and the modern office towers and malls, another Singaporean reality lies hidden in plain sight. “All those criticisms, the nanny-state thing, are outdated,” Kenson Kwok, the former director of the Asian Civilisations Museum, told me one afternoon at his early 20th-century terrace house near the city’s commercial center. “It’s a different country now. You’ve got politicians in their thirties and forties who will effect change.” Those politicians, like many among the country’s hyper-educated management set, must be aware of the costs of Singapore’s unsavory Big Brother reputation. So it is no coincidence that the country also seems suddenly eager to spotlight those parts of the cultural past thrown overboard as ballast during its race to modernity.

“Singapore is a tiny country, a tiny island,’’ Kwok said. “And the government, since independence, felt it first had to meet people’s material needs.”

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