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.” https://www.wired.com/1993/04/gibson-2/
Most 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.
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.
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 https://www.wired.com/2012/04/opinion-jeyaretnam-disneyland-death-penalty/