CHARACTER, IDENTITY AND PERSONALITY OF PEOPLE IN SINGAPORE

PEOPLE OF SINGAPORE

People from Singapore are called Singaporeans, which simply defines the citizens of Singapore not a particular ethnic group. The term was little used until Singapore became independent in 1965. One hundred percent of all Singaporeans live in urban areas and the population is growing at the rate of 1.1 percent a year, one of the lowest rates in Asia. The Singaporean government is currently trying to encourage citizens (especially Chinese Singaporeans) to have more children to prevent the island from becoming a nation of retirees.

Singapore is a multi-cultural stew with people from Malaya, southern Chinese provinces, Indonesia and India. Some 77 percent of Singaporeans are Chinese, 14 percent are Malays, 8 percent are Indian and 1.4 percent are a hodgepodge of different nationalities. There are currently about 300,000 guest workers in Singapore. Most of them are from South Asia or Southeast Asia. Many of the Chinese are descendants of people originally from Fujian Province in southern China. Malays are a predominately Muslim ethnic group that make up a large portion of the populations in Singapore, Malaysia Indonesia and the Philippines.

Ethnic groups: Chinese 76.8 percent, Malay 13.9 percent, Indian 7.9 percent, other 1.4 percent (2000 census) [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Despite efforts to maintain an ethnic balance in housing, however, the stated goal of the nation's leaders is not that Singapore become a mini-melting pot, but, rather, a multiethnic society. Within the Chinese, Malay and Indian groups are mixtures. The designation Chinese lumps together speakers of more than five mutually unintelligible dialects; Singaporean Malays trace their forebears to all of the major islands of the Indonesian archipelago, as well as to the Malay Peninsula; and the ancestral homes of Indians include what are the modern states of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. [Source: Library of Congress]

Cosmopolitan Singapore

One of the most remarkable aspects of Singapore is the truly cosmopolitan nature of her population, a natural result of the country’s geographical position and commercial success. Established by Thomas Stamford Raffles as a trading post on 29 January 1819, the small sea town of Singapore soon attracted migrants and merchants from China, the Indian sub-continent, Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and the Middle East. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]

Drawn by the lure of better prospects, the immigrants brought with them their own cultures, languages, customs and festivals. Intermarriage and integration helped knit these diverse influences into the fabric of Singapore’s multi-faceted society, giving it a vibrant and diverse cultural heritage. By the end of the 19th century, Singapore became one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Asia, with major ethnic groups in the country being the Chinese, Malays, Indians, Peranakans and Eurasians.

Today, the ethnic Chinese form 74.2 percent of the Singaporean population, with the country’s original inhabitants – the Malays, comprising of 13.4 percent. The Indians make up 9.2 percent, and Eurasians, Peranakans and others making up a combined 3.2 percent. Singapore is also home to many expatriates, with almost 20 percent of them made up of non-resident blue collar workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh. The rest of the expatriate population include white collar workers coming from countries as diverse as North America, Australia, Europe, China and India.

As a reflection of its collage of cultures, Singapore has adopted one representative language for each of the four major ethnic or 'racial' groups. The four official languages in Singapore's constitution are English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. However, in recognition of the status of the Malay people as the indigenous community in Singapore, the national language of the country is Bahasa Melayu, or the Malay Language.

The presence of other languages, especially the varieties of Malay and Chinese, has obviously had an influence on the type of English that is used in Singapore. The influence is especially apparent in informal English, an English-based creole that is commonly known as Singlish. A badge of identity for many Singaporeans, it represents a hybrid form of the language that includes words from Malay, as well as Chinese and Indian languages.

Almost everyone in Singapore speaks more than one language, with many people speaking as many as three or four. Most children grow up bilingual from infancy, learning other languages as they become older. With the majority of the literate population bilingual, English and Mandarin are the most commonly used languages in daily life. While English is the main language taught in schools, children also learn their mother tongues to ensure that they stay in touch with their traditional roots.

Multi-Cultural Stew

Singapore is a multi-cultural stew with people from Malaya, southern Chinese provinces, Indonesia and India. Some 77 percent of Singaporeans are Chinese, 14 percent are Malays, 8 percent are Indian and 1.4 percent are a hodgepodge of different nationalities. There are currently about 300,000 guest workers in Singapore. Most of them are from South Asia or Southeast Asia. Many of the Chinese are descendants of people originally from Fujian Province in southern China. Malays are a predominately Muslim ethnic group that make up a large portion of the populations in Singapore, Malaysia Indonesia and the Philippines.

Since the city's foundation in 1819, Singapore's population has been polyglot and multiethnic. Chinese have been in the majority since 1830 but have themselves been divided into sometimes antagonistic segments speaking mutually unintelligible Chinese languages. The colonial society was compartmented into ethnic and linguistic groups, which were in turn associated with distinct political and economic functions. Singapore has never had a dominant culture to which immigrants could assimilate nor a common language. This was the foundation upon which the efforts of the government and ruling party to create a common Singaporean identity in the 1970s and 1980s rested. *

On July 1989 Singapore's 2,674,362 residents were divided into 2,043,213 Chinese (76.4 percent), 398,480 Malays (14.9 percent), 171,160 Indians (6.4 percent), and 61,511 others (2.3 percent). The proportions of the ethnic components had remained substantially unchanged since the 1920s. Although the ethnic categories were meaningful in the Singaporean context, each subsumed much more internal variation than was suggested by the term "race." Chinese included people from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as Chinese from all the countries of Southeast Asia, including some who spoke Malay or English as their first language. The Malays included not only those from peninsular Malaya, but also immigrants or their descendants from various parts of the Indonesian archipelago, such as Sumatra, the Riau Islands south of Singapore, Java, and Sulawesi. Those people who in Indonesia were members of such distinct ethnic groups as Acehnese, Minangkabau, Buginese, Javanese, or Sundanese were in Singapore all considered "Malays." Indians comprised people stemming from anywhere in pre-1947 British India, the present states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and from Sri Lanka and Burma. Singapore's Indian "race" thus contained Tamils, Malayalis, Sikhs, Gujaratis, Punjabis, and others from the subcontinent who shared neither physical appearance, language, nor religion. *

Chinese in Singapore

Singapore is dominated by Han Chinese and has been described as a Chinese island surrounded by Malay culture. The ancestors of many Singaporean China were originally from Fujian Province in China. Most of the first Chinese to arrive in Singapore, Penang and Malacca married local Malay women and this union gave rise to a community of “Straits Chinese.” Peranakan (Malay for born here) are Chinese who intermarried with Malays and adopted Malay styles of dress and cuisine .

Among the different Chinese dialects, Mandarin is promoted as the main language for the Chinese instead of others like Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese and Foochow. The second most commonly-spoken language among the Singaporean Chinese, Mandarin became widespread after the start of the Speak Mandarin campaign during 1980 that targeted the Chinese. In 1990s, efforts were undertaken to target the English-educated Chinese.

Tash Aw wrote in the New York Times, “Three-quarters of Singapore’s people are ethnically Chinese, most descendants of Hokkien-speaking immigrants from Fujian Province in southern China who came to the island in the first half of the 19th century, when it was a British settlement. Malays and Indians, both indigenous and immigrants who also arrived in the 19th century, have long formed important communities in the territory. But it is the predominance of the ethnic Chinese that was crucial to Singapore’s formation in the first place. In 1965, Singapore broke off from freshly independent Malaysia as a direct result of bitter disputes over the preservation of rights for ethnic Chinese and other minorities in the new Malay-dominated nation. (The two territories previously were part of a loose federation.) Today, this tiny Chinese enclave has a G.D.P. per capita about five times that of its far larger, resource-rich neighbor. [Source: Tash Aw, New York Times, February 12, 2015]

A survey in the early 2000s found that one in five young Chinese in Singapore said they would prefer to be another race, with most these saying they wanted to white with Japanese running a close second. Explaining why he would prefer to be white, one 24-year-old Chinese Singaporean told AP, “If it offered me the opportunity to work in the country of my choice, yes. It would be practical. But to say Caucasian is better is not a value judgement that I would make at all.” Another said, “I’m Chinese, but I’m so much more than that. To look at someone in terms of race is very limiting.” Some Singaporeans were quite alarmed by the results of the survey and say at is indication of the nefarious effects too much Westernization and emphasis on learning English.

Singaporean Identity

The government leadership of Singapore has attempted to establish a what is calls "Singaporean identity," which would include certain unifying and modernizing elements but yet retain essential variations, based on Asian culture and values. One of the unifying factors is the English language, selected as the medium for educational instruction both because of its neutrality in the eyes of the three dominant ethnic groups and because of its position as the international language of business, science, and technology. In order not to lose touch with their Asian heritage, however, Singaporean school children are also required to study an appropriate "mother tongue," designated by the government as either Malay, Tamil, or Mandarin Chinese--a vast oversimplification of the polyglot of Singaporean native languages. [Source: Library of Congress]

The period after Singapore's withdrawal from Malaysia in 1965 saw much public discussion of Singaporean identity. The discussion tended to use terms, categories, and basic assumptions provided by the government and ruling party. One basic assumption was that there was not, at least in the late 1960s and 1970s, a common Singaporean identity, but that there should be. A corollary was that Singaporean identity would not spontaneously emerge from the country's ongoing social, political, and cultural life. Rather, it would have to be consciously created and "built" by policies, directives, and educational campaigns. The content of the identity remained somewhat ill-defined, and it often appeared easier to say what Singaporean identity was not than what it was. The ideal seemed to combine, somewhat uneasily, a self-consciously toughminded meritocratic individualism, in which individual Singaporeans cultivated their talents and successfully competed in the international economy, with an equally self-conscious identification with "Asian roots" and "traditional values," which referred to precolonial India, China, and the Malay world. Singaporeans were to be modern and cosmopolitan while retaining their distinctively Asian traditions. *

Singapore's leaders explicitly rejected the ideology of the melting pot, offering rather the vision of a confidently multiethnic society whose component ethnic groups shared participation in such common institutions as electoral politics, public education, military service, public housing, and ceremonies of citizenship; at the same time they were to retain distinct languages, religions, and customs. Singaporeans were defined as composed of three fundamental types--Chinese, Malays, and Indians. These ethnic categories, locally referred to as "races," were assumed to represent self-evident, "natural" groups that would continue to exist into the indefinite future. Singaporean identity thus implied being a Chinese, a Malay, or an Indian, but selfconsciously so in relation to the other two groups. The Singaporean model of ethnicity thus required both the denial of significant internal variation for each ethnic category and the highlighting of contrasts between the categories. *

Being Singaporean also meant being fluent in English, a language which served both as a neutral medium for all ethnic groups and as the medium of international business and of science and technology. The schools, the government, and the offices of international corporations for the most part used English as their working language. The typical Singaporean was bilingual, speaking English as well as the language of one of the three component ethnic groups. Hence the former English-speaking Baba, Chinese or Indian, would seem to serve as the model of Singaporean identity. The resulting culture would be the type social scientists call "creolized," in which a foreign language such as English or French is adapted to local circumstances and the dominant culture reflects a unique blending of local and "metropolitan" or international elements. In the 1980s, there were signs of the emergence of such a culture in Singapore, with the growth among youth (of all "races") of a distinctive English-based patois called "Singlish" and the attraction of all ethnic groups to international fashions and fads in leisure activities. *

Singapore's leaders resisted such trends toward cosmopolitan or creole culture, however, reiterating that Singaporeans were Asians rather than Westerners and that abandoning their own traditions and values for the tinsel of international popular culture would result in being neither truly Western nor properly Asian. The consequence would be loss of identity, which in turn would lead to the dissolution of the society. The recommended policy for the retention of Asian identity involved an ideal division of labor by language. English was to function as a language of utility. The Asian "mother tongues"--Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil--would be the languages of values, providing Singaporeans with what political leaders and local academics commonly called "cultural ballast" or "moral compasses." Stabilized and oriented by traditional Asian values, the Singaporean would be able to select what was useful from the offerings of "Western" culture and to reject that which was harmful. This theory of culture and identity resulted in the effort to teach the "mother tongues" in the schools and to use them as the vehicle for moral education. *

In an extension of the effort to create a suitable national identity, in 1989 Singapore's leaders called for a "national ideology" to prevent the harmful drift toward superficial Westernization. The national ideology, which remained to be worked out in detail, would help Singaporeans develop a national identity and bond them together by finding and encouraging core values common to all the country's diverse cultural traditions. Suggested core values included emphasizing community over self, valuing the family, resolving issues through the search for consensus rather than contention, and promoting racial and religious tolerance. *

But despite all this Singaporeans are known for not having strong ties to their country. Opposition politician Chee Soon Juan told Newsweek, "young people and professional are leaving Singapore. They don't feel an intellectual or emotional bond to this country. It's just a place to make money." Some have tired of pronouncements on the Singaporean work ethic. One Singaporean MIT graduate told the New York Times, “We’ve always had it drummed into us that we have nothing—no water, nothing, only our talent, our people.”

Singaporean Character and Personality

Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times: “Generally passive in political affairs, Singaporeans sometimes chide themselves as being overly preoccupied with a comfortable lifestyle, which they sum up as the “Five C’s” — cash, condo, car, credit card, country club. Former Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong once said, "Although Singapore is a sovereign state, its people lack a common identity.” In 1997 he said, "I want a Singapore with a soul. Rich but not materialistic, competitive but compassionate."

Ian Lloyd, a National Geographic photographer and long time visitor to Singapore, said, “Singaporeans are a supremely practical people. They’ve developed their down-to-earth attitude from living in a tiny island with no natural resources other than their willingness to work hard and adapt to whatever life hands them.” On the question of what makes a Singaporean a Singaporean, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Foreign Policy magazine, “With the older generation, cultural identity was stronger because many would have been educated in either Chinese or one of the other languages...The younger generation’s identity is based on...developing an attitude that it is part of an enterprise that it is helping to build, that it has influenced, and that is unique.”

Singaporean identity, as envisioned by the country's leadership, calls for rugged individualism with an emphasis on excellence; the government constantly exhorts its citizens to be the best they can be. Education, home ownership, and upward mobility are all considered appropriate goals. Although Singaporeans are expected to be modern in their outlook, they also are encouraged to retain a core of traditional Asian values and culture. In a society in which all share a common education system, public housing, recreation facilities, and military training, the government considers it important to highlight the uniqueness of the three official ethnic groups--Chinese, Malays, and Indians-- through the setting aside of national ethnic holidays and the sponsorship of ethnic festivals. Singaporean ethnic differences are usually maintained, however, not so much by these somewhat self-conscious displays of ethnicity but rather by membership in ethnically exclusive associations. Usually religious, charitable, or business in nature, many of these associations had their origins in colonial Singapore and represent finer distinctions of ethnicity than those supported by the government. Chinese trade associations, for example, are usually restricted to speakers of a particular dialect. Hindu temples are sometimes associated with worshipers who trace their heritage to a particular region of India. [Source: Library of Congress *]

“In terms of public health, Singapore also closely resembles developed countries. Although some observers criticize the country's modern, sanitized environment and mourn the loss of the old port's charm, they probably either have forgotten or never knew the open sewers, tuberculosis sanatoriums, and opium dens of colonial Singapore. Whereas the manufacture and sale of opium continued to be a major source of revenue for the colonial government up until World War II, the government effectively combats drug use in modern Singapore through antidrug campaigns, rehabilitation centers, and a mandatory death penalty for trafficking. *

See Separate Article SINGAPOREAN SOCIETY

Singapore Success

Mark Jacobson wrote in National Geographic, “People like to call Singapore the Switzerland of Southeast Asia, and who can argue? Out of a malarial swamp, the tiny island at the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula gained independence from Britain in 1963 and, in one generation, transformed itself into a legendarily efficient place, where the per capita income for its 3.7 million citizens exceeds that of many European countries, the education and health systems rival anything in the West, government officials are largely corruption free, 90 percent of households own their own homes, taxes are relatively low and sidewalks are clean, and there are no visible homeless people or slums. If all that, plus a typical unemployment rate of about 3 percent and a nice stash of money in the bank thanks to the government's enforced savings plan, doesn't sound sweet to you, just travel 600 miles south and try getting by in a Jakarta shantytown. [Source: Mark Jacobson, National Geographic, January 2010 /+\]

“Achieving all this has required a delicate balancing act, an often paradoxical interplay between what some Singaporeans refer to as "the big stick and the big carrot." What strikes you first is the carrot: giddy financial growth fueling never ending construction and consumerism. Against this is the stick, most often symbolized by the infamous ban on chewing gum and the caning of people for spray-painting cars. Disruptive things like racial and religious disharmony? They're simply not allowed, and no one steals anyone else's wallet. /+\

“Singapore, maybe more than anywhere else, crystallizes an elemental question: What price prosperity and security? Are they worth living in a place that many contend is a socially engineered, nose-to-the-grindstone, workaholic rat race, where the self-perpetuating ruling party enforces draconian laws (your airport entry card informs you, in red letters, that the penalty for drug trafficking is "DEATH"), squashes press freedom, and offers a debatable level of financial transparency? Some people joke that the government micromanages the details of life right down to how well Singapore Airlines flight attendants fill out their batik-patterned dresses./+\

“Singapore can be a disconcerting place, even to the people who call it home, though they'd never think of leaving. As one local put it, "Singapore is like a warm bath. You sink in, slit your wrists, your lifeblood floats away, but hey, it's warm." If that's so, most Singaporeans figure they might as well go down the tubes eating pepper crabs, with a couple of curry puffs on the side. Eating is the true national pastime and refuge. The longer I stayed, the more I ate. It got so I'd go over to the marvelously overcrowded Maxwell Road Food Centre, stand in the 20-minute queue for a plate at the Tian Tian food stall, eat it, then line up again.” /+\

Kiasa: Afraid to Lose

Mark Jacobson wrote in National Geographic, “If there is a single word that sums up the Singaporean existential condition, it is kiasu, a term that means "afraid to lose." In a society that begins tracking its students into test-based groups at age ten ("special" and "express" are the top tiers; "normal" is the path for those headed for factory and service-sector work), kiasu seeps in early, eventually germinating in brilliant engineering students and phallic high-rises with a Bulgari store on the ground floor. Singaporeans are big on being number one in everything, but in a kiasu world, winning is never completely sweet, carrying with it the dread of ceasing to win. When the Singapore port, the busiest container hub in the world, slipped behind Shanghai in 2005 in total cargo tonnage handled, it was a national calamity. [Source: Mark Jacobson, National Geographic, January 2010 /+\]

“Over time, the MM [Lee Kuan Yew] says, Singaporeans have become "less hard-driving and hard-striving." This is why it is a good thing, the MM says, that the nation has welcomed so many Chinese immigrants (25 percent of the population is now foreign-born). He is aware that many Singaporeans are unhappy with the influx of immigrants, especially those educated newcomers prepared to fight for higher paying jobs. But taking a typically Darwinian stance, the MM describes the country's new subjects as "hungry," with parents who "pushed the children very hard." If native Singaporeans are falling behind because "the spurs are not stuck into the hide," that is their problem. /+\

Conformity, Obedience and Paranoia in Singapore

Singaporeans have traditionally valued conformity and stability. Singaporeans are told what to eat, who and when they should marry, and how to behave. Singaporeans are taught from an early age to be obedient. A 30-year-old office assistant told the Washington Post, “Your path is predetermined by the government. To be successful, you need to have a university degree. If you do not take this orthodox path, you will probably go nowhere, by the government’s definition.”

Many Singaporeans feel that the authoritarian side of Singapore is overemphasized. A playwright at an experimental theater told Time, “When I am traveling—all I hear is ‘you’re fined if you don’t flush, jailed if you chew gum. Well, yes and no—you don’t actually get jailed. But the discourse always revolves around the same thing, so nobody overseas wants to talk to us Singaporeans.”

Mark Jacobson wrote in National Geographic, “But there is an upside to all this social engineering. You could feel it during the "We Are the World" production numbers in the National Day show. On stage were representatives of Singapore's major ethnic groups, the Chinese, Malays, and Indians, all wearing colorful costumes. After riots in the 1960s, the government installed a strict quota system in public housing to make sure that ethnic groups did not create their own monolithic quarters. This practice may have more to do with controlling the populace than with true multiracial harmony, but at the rehearsal, as schmaltzy as it was, it was hard not to be moved by the earnest show of brotherhood. However invented, there is something called Singaporean, and it is real. Whatever people's grumbles—and as the MM says, "Singaporeans are champion grumblers"—Singapore is their home, and they love it despite everything. It makes you like the place too, for their sake. [Source: Mark Jacobson, National Geographic, January 2010]

Some say Singaporeans suffer from a degree of paranoia. They live in a tiny secular country sandwiched between two Muslim countries: one of whom suppleis it water (Malaysia) and other, the largest Muslim country in the world (Indonesia). Terry McCarthy wrote in Time, Singaporeans are paranoid about “its future, its people, its lack of people. Singapore has ended up being paranoid about being paranoid. Immense energy was expended on state surveillance, and leaders never stopped warning residents of the dangers outside.”

Mark Jacobson wrote in National Geographic, “One day, as part of a rehearsal for the National Day celebration, I was treated to a veritable lollapalooza of kiasu. Singapore armed forces playacted at subduing a cabal of "terrorists" who had shot a half dozen flower-bearing children in red leotards, leaving them "dead" on the stage. "We're not North Korea, but we try," said one observer, commenting on the rolling tanks, zooming Apache helicopters, and earsplitting 21-gun salutes. You hear it all the time: The only way for Singapore to survive being surrounded by massive neighbors is to remain constantly vigilant. The 2009 military budget is $11.4 billion, or 5 percent of GDP, among the world's highest rates. [Source: Mark Jacobson, National Geographic, January 2010 /+\]

“You never know where the threat might come from, or what form it will take.” In summer of 2009 “everyone was in a panic about swine flu. Mask-wearing health monitors were positioned around the city. On Saturday night, no matter how stylo milo your threads, there was no way of getting into a club on trendy Clarke Quay without a bouncer pressing a handheld thermometer to your forehead. It was part of the unending Singaporean state of siege. Many of the newer public housing apartments come with a bomb shelter, complete with a steel door. After a while, the perceived danger and excessive compliance with rules get internalized; one thing you don't see in Singapore is very many police. "The cop is inside our heads," one resident says./+\

See School Life Under Education, See Rules Under Singaporean Society and Justice System

Customs and Etiquette in Singapore

Singapore customs are influenced in relatively equal measures by European culture and Asian culture. People greet each other with both handshakes and slight bows, and call each other Mr. and Madame, and express no by sucking air through their teeth. Guidebooks advise visitors not to make any jokes with Singaporeans unless they know them really well. Because Singapore is so cosmopolitan to begin with—and people from many different parts of the world reside there—most customs and viewpoints are accepted and tolerated and people have been exposed to most everything.

The customs and etiquette of Singapore’s ethnic groups —namely the Chinese, Malays and Indians—are more in line with those of each ethnic group—such as Chinese eating with chopsticks and Malays and Indians sometimes eating with their hands—than anything distinctly Singaporean.

Many British customs remain. Afternoon tea, for example, is an ingrained Singaporean institution. But many people have a cold drink rather than tea. As is true with many places in Asia small talk is often revolves around food. A common greeting in Singapore is " Cha pah bway?" which roughly translated means "Have you eaten yet?", and to which the polite response is yes.

Many Singaporeans remove shoes when entering a house. When eating lie your chopsticks on the chopstick rest when you are not using them. If there isn't a chopstick rest place them on the soy sauce dish or bone plate. Don't put them in your rice bowl or on the dinner plate. Chopsticks on the table signify you are finished eating. Unlike mainland Chinese, Singaporean Chinese don't all jump up at once when a meal is over. They enjoy after dinner conversation.

Singapore Tries to Loosens Up

In the early 2000s, the Singaporean government tried to boost the economy by mandating that people be more creative. Thinking outside the box, adopting the five Cs (chaos, creativity, culture, concentration and connectivity), and making Singapore less boring became a nation objective. A report said that Singapore needed a little bit of “chaos,” “can do” attitude, “anything-goes” atmosphere and “dare-to-fail” spirit and to create a stimulating environment like that found n New York and Hong Kong.

Kids were told to think more independently. Artists were encouraged to express themselves. Citizens were encouraged to relax and have more fun. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said, “If Singapore is a dull, boring place, not only will talent not want to come here, but even Singaporeans will feel restless.” Many Singaporeans were not impressed. One artist told AP, “A lot of it is purely cosmetic. Singapore is still permeated with restrictions, censorship and self-censorship. And not many [Singaporeans] try to confront it.”

It wasn’t the first time Singapore tried to loosen up. When one government was told that there was money to be made in entertainment, he said, "We are going to take fun more seriously." Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has outlined "more free play" as one of his policy goals.

John Aglionby wrote in the Guardian in 2004: Singapore “has accepted 60 of the 74 steps that a special committee recommended last year to open up the tightly-controlled society and broaden people's horizons, local media reported. But many of the "Remaking Singapore" measures will result in government agencies still dominating people's lives and some are little more than cosmetic, particularly with regard to the arts and freedom of expression. Schools and colleges will have more flexibility in the students they accept, and rules for the registration of new societies and associations will be relaxed. Buskers will no longer have to give their proceeds to charity, although they will still have to audition, and academics will be encouraged to participate in public policy debates. [Source: John Aglionby, Guardian, April 17, 2004]

But proposals to loosen public entertainment licensing regulations and establish a "free arts zone" where rules can be relaxed to facilitate free -expression were rejected. The minister for national development and head of the Remaking Singapore committee, Vivian Balakrishnan, was quoted in the Straits Times newspaper as saying the changes and shifts were "significant" but "at a pace [at] which we can carry the vast majority of Singaporeans".

Some tangible changes have been introduced. Homosexuals are now welcome in the civil service; bar patrons can dance on table tops; nightclubs in certain areas can open 24 hours; the Rocky Horror Picture Show has had its first showing and the hit TV show Sex and the City and Cosmopolitan magazine will soon be available.

In many other respects Singapore is still "the fine city", so called because people can be prosecuted for trifling offences such as chewing the wrong sort of gum, jaywalking and not flushing the toilet. Sinapan Samydorai of the Think Centre, a mainly internet-based political forum, says the government is still micromanaging despite what it says. "They need to differentiate between national issues and local issues," he said. "Imagine if the president of the United States was pronouncing on how to flush the toilet."

Partying in Singapore

Over time Singapore has loosened up a bit but probably more in spite of government policies than because of them. David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine in 2007: “Whoooa! Could this be the stuffy, somber Singapore I had been warned about? This tiny nation—whose ascendancy from malaria-infested colonial backwater to gleaming global hub of trade, finance and transportation is one of Asia's great success stories—is reinventing itself, this time as a party town and regional center for culture and the arts. "Prosperity is not our only goal, nor is economic growth an end in itself," says Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. Translation: let the good times roll. Suddenly people are describing the city with a word that, until recently, wasn't even in the local vocabulary: trendy. The government has lifted its prohibition on bar-top dancing and bungee jumping. Cosmopolitan is very much for sale on the newsstands (though Playboy still hasn't made the cut) and sugarless chewing gum is available (with a doctor's prescription saying it is for medicinal purposes, such as dental health). [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, September 2007]

Many Singaporeans like to party. Some talk about going to parties every night. The ban on bar top dancing was lifted partly because so many people did it anyway and the government was trying to keep pace with people were already doing.

Singapore has a surprisingly wild club scene with a lot of heavy drinking. Some clubs used to offer shots of tequila delivered in needle-less syringe by a waitress in a nurse uniform. Others have Djs flown in from Europe for a single gig. It is not clear exactly why Singaporeans party so hard. Maybe it’s because they can’t do any drugs, or possibly to let out some steam after long stressful hours in the office. Among main the most famous partiers was Nick Leeson (see Nick Leeson). In his case what’s a bar tab in the hundreds of dollars when you’ve lost billions for your company.

Regan Morris, who worked for AP for five years in Singapore, wrote: “My yard was often the venue for wild, all-night parties where Malays, Chinese and Westerners would swill tequila off giant blocks of ice, cutting loose perhaps against the many rules that governed them by day.”

See Entertainment

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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