twenty-six. big brother, blankness, grit.
Singapore Discovery Center 4.15: “we work hard for an easy life”
the issue of the city-state’s uniqueness is the focus of the Singapore Discovery Centre, located in the middle of nowhere past the western terminus of the E-W line. to give a sense of its siting: down the road is an air force training center, across the street a naval base, and directly adjacent, the concrete beginnings of a new military museum. I was here because I was saw an advertisement for the center’s security-threat simulation; quite an odd thing to offer as entertainment. after a week of watching anti-terrorist video & poster displays in the subway system (Edison a la MRT: “many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up”), I realize that the campaign here against potential outside threats is more ubiquitous than any other I have encountered. on one level, the vigilance can hardly be blamed; it is a small island with one of the world’s most lucrative ports, a concentrated downtown of glass towers, and everywhere else high density mid-rise housing as far as the eye can see.
the center is set up in a circular fashion with a central atrium surrounded by an open mezzanine. the central exhibit, the finale of the promenade through the space, boasts a dark cloaked room inside of which a vibrating metal floor and an extremely violent video showing a simulated MRT bombing plays every 15 minutes or so. although the rest of the discovery center is presented as eye-candy for a child, neon blinking lights, video games, and dumbed-down propagandistic kitsch extolling the sources of Singapore’s character, this room warns against allowing children under 7 to watch the simulation. nonetheless there were at least 3 young children in the room with their parents.
the video depicts a bright happy normal day on the MRT, and zooms in on a little girl and her mother, chatting happily. suddenly there is an ear-splitting explosion, the screen covered with fire and bleeding bodies and ambulances and chaos. the grand finale of the video shows the happy little girl from earlier turning over her dead mother’s body and wailing. “would you let this happen?,” asks the screen as it blacks out. I left feeling nauseated; the video is an effective tool to generate terror against terror, and the campaign so extensive in the rest of the city that never a misplaced bag will you see. at the same time, I can’t help thinking of fear’s use as a tool for paranoid unification vis a vis an unseen ‘other,’ and for unilateral support of a regime that protects the good life that most Singaporeans enjoy.
the rails also play a major role in nation-building, both literal and figurative. in addition to the MRT system being a primary site for the cultivation of anti-terror consciousness and serving as underground bomb shelters (where the system is sub-terranean), it is also the primary determinant of housing development patterns.
traveling to Punggol, the terminus of the N-E line, one encounters the outer fringes of the island’s housing development efforts and it is stark and raw. departing from the new, expressionistic MRT station, vibrant 16 storey-towers huddle in clusters along the elevated, almost door-to-door light rail (LRT) that runs in a perfect loop around what was not-too-long ago open swaths of greenery. the LRT loop takes 10 minutes, and is a tour of the tabula rasa: forest, field, rail, construction = town. some stations remain empty and unused, as the towers which they will serve are as yet unbuilt. this is a textbook example of ‘transit oriented development,’ and as such, highlights its limitations. life exists solely by branching (not very far) off the LRT. the ground-level is covered with empty sidewalks, playgrounds, and plantings that feel incongruous beneath the hulking masses of vertical homes. the community is not fully populated yet, so its evolution over the next 5 to 10 years will be revealing.
one Punggol development-in-the-works is called ‘Treetops’ and is currently heavily advertised on the MRT as Singapore’s first eco-settlement. images of gardens, open space, and a breezy façade entice bidders to love & protect nature. the views will surely be as promised, as Punggol is a greenfield site. the irony of creating an eco-development on a swath of open land with a view of the adjacent jungle goes without saying.
Punggol is visually remarkable, with its sea of housing against a backdrop of nothing. it is a perfect testament to Singapore’s ongoing active creation of itself in a upward & outward spiral. so many things here have a just-add-water systematic way of working; the formulas exist , the chemistry sound, on paper, but the reactions have yet to take place. the live-work-play paradigm is so seamlessly employed that ambiguous spaces of opportunism are hard to find, and in fact are more evident in older developments where infrastructures for living are LESS seamless – where a station relates clumsily to the parking garage, allowing an overpass lined with stalls on one side and a covered wet-market on the other (whereas at Punggol the modern station spills directly into a shopping mall).
Geylang Rd. 4.17
my last night here: finally, a messy sidewalk difficult to navigate, bodies bumping into me, strange stares from beer-imbibing sidewalk diners, etc. Geylang Rd. sticks out like a sore thumb in relation to the rest of the island. it is a panoply of two-storey neon shophouses, restaurants that spill into and overcome the walkways like joyful parasites, stores that usurp the sidewalk for their overflow stalls, laughter, drinking, selling of black-market cigarettes, and the buying & selling of female companionship. the neighborhood, north of Kampong Glam, is claimed to be home to Singapore’s ‘largest red-light district.’ this means a handful of side-streets that are bathed in dark, full of parked cars, and lined with women who look as if they might be the girl-next-door, your high-school playmate, or your aunt. men mill about as the prostitutes try and ‘befriend’ them with smiles and familiar conversation. a social services center lines one side of the street. the aura is unurgent, almost lazy. walking past an open second storey window where a trannie proudly changed for all to see, I felt a prickle to be encountering the closest thing to unexpected I have seen in awhile.
still, as is typical, Geylang’s fluorescent flamboyance begins as abruptly as it ends. the neighborhood is contained within 4 or 5 blocks, sectionally, and approx. 15 along its length. at its fringes are the occasional church, temple, cheap hotel, grocery store, and then suddenly, a well-guarded housing development bathed in silence and television glows. adjacent to the housing, the MRT E-W line runs quietly & above the usual linear swath of velvety grass. the silhouettes of evening commuters stroll across the field, backlit by the light from the blocks above.
late night: I don’t feel like falling asleep on the city yet, which I may miss in its own way. in the gaudy art-nouveau Parkview bar, which is slathered in bronze gild, I sat next to a German student studying political science in Singapore. my read of the population’s apoliticization was not mere cynicism. I learned, according to Rene, that voting is not anonymous, that all major media sources are government-owned (aired in rail stations, busstops, and on buses themselves), that opposition leaders can be sued for slander, and that supporting the PAP brings with it perks in the way of daily-life improvements. i.e. if a residential area yields a high-percentage of ‘unfortunate’ votes, improvements to housing (upgrades, renovations) will be very slow to happen, as more supportive communities are ‘rewarded’ in a timely manner. the conversation ended with Rene’s statement and speculation: this is by no means a liberal democracy, but is a liberal democracy what people here want? Singapore’s 40 year rise from rags to riches is oft-cited by residents as the result of the government’s (in particular Lee Kuan Yew) ability to single-handedly implement its vision, and has left the citizenry with an apparent faith in the government’s efficacy.
still, there are freedoms here that surpass those found in more liberal societies; freedom of religion is fiercely guarded (perhaps because religious persecution can be such a surefire way to generate a feisty opposition; see below*), and, although having nothing to do with law or policy, I have seen more young & old multi-ethnic couples here than anywhere else I have ever been. but according to Rene, well-educated intellectuals are often loathe to stay here; the country is suffering from exodus and is making efforts to attract more talent that is willing to call this place home. Singapore is often accused of being boring, and in response, tries to create art & ‘culture’ through dictation, rather than allowing culture to arise from the confluence of freely expressed difference, allowed to manifest itself more deeply than a freshly applied coat of paint.
(*most recently this respect for religious freedom allowed a man living with his 10 wives and 64 children to live unfettered until it was revealed he was raping his children).