Singapore: The Sacred and the Profane

In 1993, Wired magazine published an article that was banned by the government of Singapore, as the article might have predicted. “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” by novelist William Gibson, went after Singapore with biting wit, describing its prevailing philosophy as “be happy or I’ll kill you.”

IMG_0482Most of us have heard that Singapore is an economic powerhouse that punishes  misdemeanors with cane beatings.  Born and bred from a peculiar combination of capitalism, socialism and oppression, Singapore is a hyper modern city-state with street food but no homelessness, litter or dissidents.

I arrived in Singapore last night and set out this morning walking without much of an agenda.  The city has lots of wide boulevards but is nevertheless very walkable for those who can tolerate the steamy heat. The first place that caught my attention was a small Hindu temple that honors Ganesha, the elephant deity. Inside, I followed a group of worshipers clockwise around the alter and then joined a ceremony led by a friendly priest who put ashes in my palm.

A few blocks later, I visited a Buddhist temple where I saw a tooth that is believed to be  Buddha’s, and then listened to resonant chanting by invisible Buddhist monks.  I loved these temples and the introduction to Singapore with feelings of tranquility.

I didn’t take a photo of Buddha’s tooth because the signs said not to and a violation might be a misdemeanor.

In other ways, my morning was not a scene from “Crazy Rich Asians.”  For example, the movie is full of people with British accents, apparently a reference to Singapore’s status as an outpost of the British Empire until 1963.  So far, I haven’t heard anyone with a British accent. During my walk, however, I did hear myself begin a couple of sentences in Spanish, causing me to feel silly and triumphant at the same time.

The dreaded durian fruit. They smell so bad, my hotel would charge me $400 if I brought one into my room.

As I continued ambling through the barrios closest to my hotel, I looked for a place to buy a suitcase because United Airlines returned mine last night with a hole where a wheel used to be. I also checked out the food options. Singapore is famous for its food, which draws from many Asian traditions. I walked 7 miles before I found a vegetarian lunch and it was a disappointment….steamed vegetables and rice for $18.  I am sure to do better tomorrow….


We’re not Disneyland by a long shot but it is probably true to say that if George Orwell and Philip Dick had an illegitimate child of a theme park, then this would be it….Sometimes I wonder why I came back to Singapore, what keeps me patriotic. As Lin Yutang, the famous Chinese writer and inventor said: “What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” That must be it.

Kenneth Jeyaretnam, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty Revisited, Wired Magazine, April 19, 2012


  1. Thank you Kim. Sometimes it is at the Crossroads sacred and profane, where we find that we are most alive. The intersections of good and evil, life and death, rich and poor. Black Elk wrote of the Crossroads, and Oedipus killed his father at the Crossroads. Decisions and sacrifices are made at every crossroad. Left? Right? Forward, Back? Robert Johnson said he sold his soul to the devil at the Crossroads, and hid decision changed the world.

  2. Glad you’re off to a good start in this new adventure! I was somewhat stunned by the contrast between the sterility of the spectacular sky-scraper dominated ultra-modern “downtown” Singapore featuring gigantic hotels, office buildings and lengthy shopping malls hawking luxury goods and the large variety of welcoming ethnic neighborhoods where folks live and eat like normal people. Be sure to visit the night zoo which is a real treat quite unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in the world. The critters are very active during the nighttime, as are the hordes of young men and women searching for romance.

  3. I visited Singapore for a visa run when I lived in Bangkok. I wasn’t enamored by the city and found myself missing the spontaneity of hyper-chaotic Bangkok. Singapore was clean, organized and had all the bells and whistles necessary to be a nice place to live, but I found it to be soulless. Fantastic Indian food in Little India though for all us vegetarians! Enjoy!

    1. Ate myself silly today on a walking tour of Little India and Chinatown. Both neighborhoods are earthier than most of the city but I am still unsure about the vibe….

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