The Song of Singapore

Posted on November 24, 2008. Filed under: The Song of Singapore | Tags: , , |



by Inderjeet Mani


(Parts of this article were previously published separately in the Deccan Herald and the Reston Review.) 

We were nearing our destination when the hostess announced that anyone entering Singapore for illegal work would be given “six strokes of the lash”, in addition to six months in prison. Soon after that she came graciously down the aisle and handed me an em­barkation card, which carried a warning about the death sentence for drug smuggling. Meanwhile she smiled a disarming, somewhat shy smile, the professional smile of the Singapore airlines girl in her sarong kebaya. I couldn’t help smiling back.


I kept smiling as I walked on the highly polished floors of Chiangi Airport. It was different from other airports in the region. Tokyo’s Narita I had found suffocatingly crowded, with barely enough stand­ing room; Hong Kong seemed crumbling and backward, and Bangkok remained dirty and overrun by sorry-looking hippies and whores. At Chiangi, by contrast, everything was spic and span, running smoothly and efficiently under the watchful eye of the se­curity po­lice. Travelers waited politely with their duty-free bags, the girls at the information desk were attentive, and in the cafeterias with the papaya juice foun­tains everything was calm and orderly. Even the taxis ap­proached cautiously, waiting obediently for the police signal before collecting the next arrival.


As I left the airport I passed by a guarded gate. It was the V.I.P. terminal. The long black limousines of the government and business elites waited quietly inside the compound, their sleek blackness reeking of a quiet, unseen evil. As we glided along the beautifully manicured orchid-lined boulevard leading to the city, I realized that I had entered one of the world’s most successful police states.


Still, it was impossible not to sit back and revel in the luxuriant surroundings. Tropical foliage and tall trees shot up into the sky around me, palm leaves swirled in the sun, and I felt on my skin the slightest suggestion of a salty breeze carrying a whiff of jasmine. I put my legs up and sat back. Hundreds of high-rise apartment build­ings appeared, each window bearing a flag and a pole of washing hung out to dry. The roads flashed by, smooth and spotless, still bearing the marvelous names bequeathed by the British, Bencoolen Way, Tiverton Lane, Goodwood Drive. Then we entered a region of broad avenues resplendent with the towering glass facades of banks, hotels, and shopping centers. Boutiques came and went, Alfred Dunhill, Nina Ricci, Chanel, as well as lesser stores like Qureshi’s Carpets and the Chew Cheong Silk House. The city seemed in the middle of a construction boom, busy with jackham­mers and earth movers and ubiquitous hardhat signs. Orchard Road gave way to Sir Bukit Timah Road, and then the taxi turned suddenly down a quiet lane, thick with bougainvillea and other floral fragrances. We passed a number of sprawling mansions nestled within bamboo groves, arriving at last at the gates of the Balmoral Hotel.


As soon as I got in to my room I fell promptly asleep. When I woke up the sun had set. Opening the window, I was greeted by the shrill welcome of a thousand cicadas. I took a quick shower and went down to dine on the exotic foods of Asia.


As luck would have it, the hotel prided itself on its French cuisine. After some coaxing, a young Malay waiter furnished the native menu. The soup came with a number of interesting objects floating in it, including a sea-horse, which tasted rather mushroom-like. There was no one else to talk to in the dining room, so I sum­moned my waiter.


“Everyone’s gone to the bar”, he told me. “After dinner you should go to the bar. Try our famous Singapore Sling.”


I looked at him carefully, but he was quite serious. The bar was next door, and through the open doorway I could hear the lead singer of an Indonesian pop group belting out a mournful sixties tune about a tavern and the good old days. From time to time his harsh grating voice lapsed into some unidentified Malay slang. A few patrons clapped clumsily.


“In two weeks time it will be our National Day”, my waiter told me proudly. “Won’t you stay for it?”


His face had a fresh, innocent look. I would have liked to tip him, but tipping was strictly forbidden.


“Will there be fireworks?”


“At the parade grounds. We are not allowed to play with fireworks. Only the Army can do that. The government is very strict.”


He smiled apologetically about the strictness. I sympathized with him. Given the prospect of a public flogging (another quaint custom bequeathed by the British), no Singaporean in his right mind would dream of exploding a firecracker.




The vision of a wealthy, vibrant nation built on industriousness and fear is not a new one. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had the courage and good luck to carry it off. Singapore’s citizens were now well-versed in the skills of the twentieth-century, but they did not apparently share a commitment to demo­cratic values. They seemed cautious, content to live with the devil they knew, who had made them prosperous and brought them to an ad­vanced stage of technological development. The government in turn was apparently an intelligent one, aware that dissent must never be completely bottled up, but allowed to bubble off here and there through officially approved channels. The few who emerged in the censored Straits Times to voice dis­satisfaction with the status quo did so in oblique ways, speaking only of the need to preserve their diverse cultural traditions, or complaining about the highly com­peti­tive college entrance exams. The most outspoken criticism I heard was of the Singapore Airlines girl, as an insult to Singaporean woman­hood. It was no acci­dent that they had picked on an advertis­ing im­age; their society lacked other heroes, and their history cele­brated only a former colonial master, Sir Stamford Raffles, who in 1819 did what he had to do and established the British presence on the island.


Mr. Lee’s caution also reflected the delicate position Singapore oc­cupied with respect to its neighbors, the Muslim lands of Malaysia and Indonesia. Each of those still developing nations had substantial mili­tary machines. Unlike Singapore they were nations without a solid Western-style infrastructure, with a large underclass, and that opened up the possibility of political turmoil, the nasty threat of alternative isms, of people moved by beliefs, by passions: Islamic fundamentalism, communism, separatism, terror­ism, or some explosive combination thereof. Lee and his cohorts were also concerned about the threat of racial displacement. Despite Singapore’s professed multiculturalism, with its toler­ance of Indians, Malays, and Eurasians, each with their own vibrant ethnic communities – so much so that the country  vigorously cele­brated nearly two dozen festivals a year – the pre­dominant influence in Singaporean government and business had al­ways been Chinese.




In the Tamil quarter of Serangoon Road, I found bazaars of old, buildings with long colon­nades and dark staircases, packed with tiny shops with their owners chattering animatedly, waving their hands, unfolding rolls of glit­ter­ing saris. I could hear Tamils speaking Malay, Chinese Tamil, Sikhs Chinese, all yakking away about the police, sports, or financial wor­ries. The staircases led up to flimsy wooden doors, reminding me of the brothels of Old Delhi, but they often had little girls seated on top in pavadais, giggling down at the passers-by. Some of the rooms on the ground floor were not shops but miniature residences which over­looked the street, and on this Saturday morning the head of the each household could be found seated in his tiny living room clut­tered with steel cabinets and a worn desk or two, drinking coffee and pensively watching the street go by. Women wandered down the pas­sageways in black purdah or wearing richly embroidered brocade dresses, saris, and salwar kameezes. Others stood in the doorways chatting, or stopping at stalls to eat. At the Apollo eatery a large crowd had gathered, to sample among other delicacies an especially spicy mutton, prawn and pickle dish served on a fresh banana leaf. A notice declared that hands were to be washed before eating.


Outside the Kaliamman Hindu temple I found more crowds, groups of Tamil dandies lounging about in slippers, with ash on their foreheads and cigarettes in their hands, their slender waists hugged by tapered bush-shirts, each with a comb in his back pocket to minister to an extravagantly puffed hairdo. From time to time one of the youths would detach himself from the gathering and head into the temple, to circle three times and prostrate himself before each of the rather fearsome idols of the Goddess Kali. These youths were reminiscent of their freshly laved cousins who gathered outside the cinema halls on Saturdays in Madras or Cochin, and yet they seemed somehow more vigorous, less sallow, less fierce, as if their transplantation another twenty degrees east had freed them of the oppressive burden of history and failure.


Strolling along I found myself in a hawker center, where people of every conceivable racial extraction were sitting together swilling Tiger beer and feverishly gulping down prawn and noodles. To feed sumptuously, to practice one’s religion, to retain the freedom to chatter about everyday matters – these were apparently sufficient to keep a civilization afloat. And what a chattering – some of it in singsong Singlish, with the characteristic “la” tagged on the end of every sentence, much of it in Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, Tamil, and even a dash of Australian and Italian. The chattering rose and fell, merging with the sea of miscellaneous sounds created by humans and their inventions, the sounds of cars, buses, and voices rising like lightly crested waves above them. The most frequent sounds were scraping sounds, coming from frying pans being stirred, and then there were others, like the clatter of beer bottles being extracted from wooden cases, the clacking of fish being chopped by a cleaver-wielding Chinaman in a singlet. There was also a medley of lighter plopping sounds, prawns being scooped up from neat little piles, dishes bubbling peacefully, punctuated by the inevitable clinking of dishwashers’ glasses. At nearby tables I could hear sounds of a more private nature, slippers clinking, chopsticks clicking against plastic bowls, the sounds of vigorous chewing and sucking and slurping and swallowing, and the occasional smacking of lips. A child was playing with her bangles, letting them roll and settle on the table, and cigarettes were being lit up, then beer was being sirruped against a backdrop of bicycle bells. An old woman be­gan coughing.


As I sat in the hawker center listening, the sounds seemed to cas­cade together and grow in number, gathering force, building into an immense wave, and it struck me then that each region of the world had its own peculiar chorus of sounds, its street or field or mountain song, as it were. Yet it seemed there was something unique and different to the sounds of Asia as a whole, and to the experience of Asian ears: a kind of quiet attentiveness amidst all the tumult, not simply a sense of happy chaos and multiplicity or simplicity but some other kind of preoccupation, which made living a rather busy and intense affair.




“Right here”, one of my neighbors at the hawker center told me, when I asked him about his origins. He pointed to Chang Kwok Hospital, an older, decrepit building festooned with flags.


He was an old Indian and he had lived his entire life within a few miles of the hospital, and it was possible that he would die in the same circumscribed area. And it was he who told me about the C.B.I.B., the Singaporean se­cret police.


“They’re everywhere. So many people work for them as informers. Anyone you see – it could be the man eating chicken curry over there, or that Eurasian lady with the straw hat…you can’t really tell, they look just like you and me.”


He explained about the housing blocks. Each block had its own vigilance committee, which reported once a week to the police. Everyone knew what was going on, even, he said, who was going out with whom.


“Doesn’t it bother you, all this spying? If you can’t trust anyone. what’s the use?”


He took a deep gulp of his beer, and then wiped his lips politely on his sleeve.


“As long as we mind our own business, everyone is happy. You should have seen us twenty five years ago. Now, no one goes without a roof over their heads. And Prime Minister Goh – he’s loosening things up a bit….”


The loosening up was of a limited kind, the most prominent act of liberalization being the much-welcomed lifting of the ban on R-rated movies. I had heard that this was part of an economic plan to eventually get a foothold in the X-rated movie business.


“And the young people – you should see them, so clever, so smart, their heads held high. Thanks to Mr. Lee’s foresight in the area of education, we now have some of the best schools in the world.”  His eyes gleamed with pride.


His statement was disturbingly true. The Singaporeans seemed to have mastered the art of changing small children into robots. They had adopted the Japanese model, imposing sixty to seventy-hour work weeks on children over the age of ten, shaping them into obedient, industrious machines. It was an admirable, if frightening, achievement. I had talked about the results with some of my friends at the National University. They acknowledged that the government had taken a rather brutal approach, but what other choice did they have? With no natural resources, the island’s sur­vival into the twenty-first century depended entirely on people, on selectively breeding tough technocrats, engineers, and skilled workers. Who else would be there to man the multinationals?


This singular emphasis on science and practical skills did not leave people with a narrow, blinkered attitude. Quite the contrary – the young robots were terribly well-informed, quick at grasping complex arguments, able to reason rapidly and cheerfully, to calculate and act decisively. Although their programmers had not paid much attention to the liberal arts, regarding it no doubt as a breeding ground for intellectualism of a dangerous sort, they had taken pains to cater, through the introduction of parochial schools, to the needs of various ethnic groups who continued to re­gard the mastery of Chinese characters or Tamil intonation with some pride. 


My friend at the hawker center poured me another Tiger. He asked about India. He had been there a few years ago, but had come away dis­mayed by the inefficiency and squalor.


“My ancestors left a hundred years ago. I’m so glad they came here. We don’t have the sense of history you people have, but unlike India, all the different cultures here coexist peacefully – the five stars on the Singapore flag, la. Economically, we’re strong, very much the Lion City.. The security aspect is a small price to pay for all this..”


We sat and talked till evening, about the new, muscular Asia that was emerging all around us, after centuries of stony sleep. At times it seemed this new Asia was overtaking the West in development, it seemed to have bred a new race of highly skilled and organized peo­ple, modern and yet parochial, rationalist and yet skeptical of fun­damental liberties, at ease in the international kitsch of consumer and pop culture, yet honoring – however superficially – ancient traditions and rituals. They were philistines, their culture would breed no Baudelaires or Shakespeares, and certainly no Buntys. But their streets were vibrant and alive. They ate well and drank hard and did not ponder the meaning of life, but they also prayed to a multitude of gods and did not kill each other. Such a para­doxical culture seemed well-suited to the flux of the modern world, but I wondered how long it would survive in the ab­sence of political freedoms. Wouldn’t some of its bright-eyed youth one day take to the streets demanding liberty, whatever that was, as count­less others had for some reason been prone to do the world over? Wouldn’t they risk whippings, lathi charges, tear gas, guns? Wouldn’t they sing Guantanamera and fast unto death outside the Legislative Assembly? 


But at other times it was clear that nothing had really changed, it was no more than an old all-absorbing Asia taking on new forms, the pulse of the civilization was the same as ever. The old Chinese women still played mah-jong and watched the passers by with shrewd and suspicious eyes, and despite their financial pre-occupations people young and old still had a look of simplicity in their faces.




I said goodbye to my hawker center friend and wandered for a while in the bazaar. A boy walked by holding two polythene bags bulging with fish soup. At a cake shop the owner was seated cross-legged threading flowers, under an immense gar­landed picture of Ganesha the Elephant God, single-tusked, pot-bel­lied, riding on his mouse. A few yards away three Chinese men sat together on a bench roasting lightly skinned pigs. Another sat hud­dled over a cauldron, scratching his back thoughtfully with a cooking ladle. Just then I nearly tripped over an elderly, bespectacled man seated inconspicuously on a small steel trunk on the pavement. He greeted me with a smile, and reached for my palm.


Like everyone else, I had been through some hard times, and I was curious to hear what this old Tamil gentleman would say. He measured my fingers, noted my date of birth and made various quick calculations in a tattered hardcover notebook. 


“You will always be restless, traveling to distant lands across the seas, away from your birthplace. In five years you will prosper, as an exporter of a precious commodity….”


He talked for a while about business matters, and I soon grew bored, having sold very little merchandise in my life. As he talked on, I re­membered, self-consciously, some rather stern lines from T. S. Eliot:


 “[To evoke] ….biography from the wrinkles of the palm

    And tragedy from the fingers; release omens

    By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable

    With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams

    Or barbituric acids, or dissect

    The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors –

    To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual  

    Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:

    And always will be, some of them especially

    When there is distress of nations and perplexity

     Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road…”


“What about…other matters?”


“Next year you will marry, but the marriage will not be consum­mated.”


I heard a girl giggling, and turned, to find a small group of young women standing by, their eyes laughing, obviously enjoying the reading.


The palmist studied my face carefully, as if perusing some battle-worn map.


“You were injured in a car crash last June?”


“You think often about your old friends from long ago?”


“You long for your homeland?” He used the Tamil word “wooru”, which, rather like the French “pays”, means not country, but the land or region you come from.


Astrologers and palmists, I have found, have often been uncannily right about my past, but never about the future. And just as well, for life is best lived in complete ignorance of the vicissi­tudes of fate. Modern man must be thankful to be rid of the terrible prophecies of classical soothsayers and oracles. Yet, while we may scorn those obsolete methods of prediction, our understanding of ourselves is seldom wrong: we know too well our own weaknesses and foibles, recognizing that we will most likely live with them to the very end. We understand, for better or for worse, the rough tra­jectory of our lives.




Some days later I found myself waiting for a taxi in Raffles Place, surrounded by young people relentlessly shopping in the high-fashion stores and boutiques. A block away, overdressed young Chinese men were coming out of the trading floors armed with heavy briefcases. Rush hour was in progress, and BMWs and Benzes glided by, picking up those dashing young men in pinstriped shirts. At a taxi rank a po­liceman stood by, vigilant. A mangy cat sat near him. It was hungry, ferociously hungry, miaowing imploringly at passers by, and from time to time biting savagely at its fleas.


Meanwhile commuters hurried past, and the Benzes and BMWs kept on picking up more and more young bankers. Two young things in black party dresses were standing behind me speaking into a portable phone, planning the evening’s engagements. An elegant young woman in a miniskirt was holding the briefcase of a dishev­eled Dutch trader, as he held a suitcase in one hand and rummaged through his pockets with another for an apparently lost air ticket. Her voice was soothing, reassuring – they would take care of it at the airline counter, no problem, and why not take the MRT – the sub­way – it would be faster, only a short walk, and she’d be glad to carry his briefcase for him. She seemed so poised, elegant, beauti­ful, speaking with an air of happy wholesomeness about the some­what tense go­ings-on in the trading room. Then she mentioned a party she was go­ing to that weekend, talking about young Europeans and Singaporeans who had found nice flats and were apparently having the time of their lives. She reminded me of airline hostesses, who always seemed to be discussing parties and entertainments with an air of cheerful va­pidity; but I felt happy for her, and a little sad that we had not had an opportunity to converse, for soon she had disap­peared with the Dutchman, heading no doubt for the MRT.


The day before I left, I rode in a reconditioned dragon-headed junk across the oily waters of Singapore harbor to Pulau Kusu, or Tortoise Island. I was accompanied by a gray sky, a light breeze, and the brash voices of Australian and Korean tourists in flowery shirts and shorts. Dozens of small, thickly-palmed islands passed by, Sentosa, the resort isle, and Pulau Brani, and Lazarus Island, with its palms clustered together in spidery tufts. Cameras were click­ing, filming relentlessly. The urge to trap, to freeze and impale mo­ments of life like so many listless butterflies….but there was ro­mance in the air. A woman handed the camera to a new-found ac­quaintance, leaning on the railings and posing blushingly, her hair lightly sprinkled with foam. The boat bobbed restlessly, its gleaming wood washed by light waves, its dragon prow surging forward. Meanwhile our guide, dressed in skin-tight jeans with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, was announcing that T-shirts and biscuits were on sale. Earlier on she had rattled off long statistics about the Port of Singapore – second only to Rotterdam in the number of ships arriving per day. The announcement switched to Japanese, then Chinese – her Japanese sounded fluent to my ears, while her English reeked of gangster slang. Perhaps she had done time at an American base or bar.


Pulau Kusu approached slowly, and then a boy quickly hopped onto the pier to tether our vessel. We alighted onto this tiny hilly island, site of a Singaporean October festival.  There I found about a hundred small tortoises gathered in small communal pens, each with a shallow pond. I stood and watched them for a while, admiring their hard shells and stat­uesque semi-immobility. How far away their world was from the rush-hour one of Benzes and BMWs!  Presumably lack­ing any sense of time or duration, their dull mud-pens may have constituted for them a vibrant world throbbing with exciting stim­uli. Whatever the case, they seemed to care little for humans, as they unblinkingly inched forward towards some unidentified goal.


I strolled along a brightly painted walkway, its railings draped with creepers, passing a cluster of beach huts towards which one of the Australian cameraman was heading, brandishing a roll of toilet pa­per. There were two temples on Pulau Kusu. I hurried up to the Malay shrine, located up a steep wooded climb. There was nothing there, except a collection of unlit incense sticks and an ancient leather­bound Koran under a glass case. Down below, the Chinese temple was undergoing repair. In the temple compound was a resident python, slithering in a small caged cell. An empty food bowl stood outside.


The temple was peopled with statues of Taoist and Buddhist deities. A number of plump Chinese ladies with tiny feet stood about praying or selling flower wreaths and souvenirs. Before leaving, I murmured a quick prayer to two shy white goddesses, Gian Yin – Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Giver of Sons, and Da Bo Gong, who had the power to confer prosperity, and calm.



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