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Disney Land with the Death Penalty
WIRED sends William Gibson to the future: Singapore
By William Gibson
"It's like an entire country run by Jeffrey Katzenberg," the producer had
said, "under the motto 'Be happy or I'll kill you.'" We were sitting in an
office a block from Rodeo Drive, on large black furniture leased with
Japanese venture capital.
Now that I'm actually here, the Disneyland metaphor is proving impossible
to shake. For that matter, Rodeo Drive comes frequently to mind, though
the local equivalent feels more like 30 or 40 Beverly Centers put end to
Was it Laurie Anderson who said that VR would never look real until they
learned how to put some dirt in it? Singapore's airport, the Changi
Airtropolis, seemed to possess no more resolution than some early VPL
world. There was no dirt whatsoever; no muss, no furred fractal edge to
things. Outside, the organic, florid as ever in the tropics, had been
gardened into brilliant green, and all-too-perfect examples of itself.
Only the clouds were feathered with chaos - weird columnar structures
towering above the Strait of China.
The cab driver warned me about littering. He asked where I was from.
He asked if it was clean there. "Singapore very clean city." One of those
annoying Japanese-style mechanical bells cut in as he exceeded the speed
limit, just to remind us both that he was doing it. There seemed to be
golf courses on either side of the freeway. . . .
"You come for golf?"
He sucked his teeth. He had his doubts about that one.
Singapore is a relentlessly G-rated experience, micromanaged by a state
that has the look and feel of a very large corporation. If IBM had ever
bothered to actually possess a physical country, that country might have
had a lot in common with Singapore. There's a certain white-shirted
constraint, an absolute humorlessness in the way Singapore Ltd. operates;
conformity here is the prime directive, and the fuzzier brands of
creativity are in extremely short supply.
There is no slack in Singapore. Imagine an Asian version of Zurich
operating as an offshore capsule at the foot of Malaysia; an affluent
microcosm whose citizens inhabit something that feels like, well,
Disneyland. Disneyland with the death penalty.
But Disneyland wasn't built atop an equally peculiar 19th-century theme
park - something constructed to meet both the romantic longings and purely
mercantile needs of the British Empire. Modern Singapore was - bits of the
Victorian construct, dressed in spanking-fresh paint, protrude at quaint
angles from the white-flanked glitter of the neo-Gernsbackian metropolis.
These few very deliberate fragments of historical texture serve as a
reminder of just how deliciously odd an entrepot Singapore once was - a
product of Empire kinkier even than Hong Kong.
The sensation of trying to connect psychically with the old Singapore is
rather painful, as though Disneyland's New Orleans Square had been erected
on the site of the actual French Quarter, obliterating it in the process
but leaving in its place a glassy simulacrum. The facades of the remaining
Victorian shop-houses recall Covent Garden on some impossibly bright
London day. I took several solitary, jet-lagged walks at dawn, when a
city's ghosts tend to be most visible, but there was very little to be
seen of previous realities: Joss stick smouldering in an old brass holder
on the white-painted column of a shop-house; a mirror positioned above the
door of a supplier of electrical goods, set to snare and deflect the evil
that travels in a straight line; a rusty trishaw, chained to a freshly
painted iron railing. The physical past, here, has almost entirely
In 1811, when Temenggong, a local chief, arrived to resettle Singapura,
the Lion City, with a hundred Malays, the jungle had long since reclaimed
the ruins of a 14th-century city once warred over by Java, Siam, and the
Chinese. A mere eight years later came Sir Stamford Raffles, stepping
ashore amid a squirming tangle of kraits and river pirates, to declare the
place a splendid spot on which to create, from the ground up, a British
trading base. It was Raffles's singular vision to set out the various
colonial jewels in Her Majesty's crown as distinct ethnic quarters: here
Arab Street, here Tanjong Pagar (Chinese), here Serangoon Road (Indian).
And Raffles's theme park boomed for 110 years - a free port, a Boy's Own
fantasy out of Talbot Mundy, with every human spice of Asia set out on a
neatly segmented tray of sturdy British china: "the Manchester of the
East." A very hot ticket indeed.
When the Japanese came and took it all, with dismaying ease, the British
dream-time ended; the postwar years brought rapid decay, and equally rapid
aspirations for independence. In 1965, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, a
Cambridge-educated lawyer, became the country's first prime minister.
Today's Singapore is far more precisely the result of Lee Kuan Yew's
vision than the Manchester of the East ever was of Sir Stamford Raffles's.
Lee Kuan Yew's People's Action Party has remained in power ever since; has
made, some would say, quite drastically certain that it would do so. The
emblem of the PAP is a cartoony lightning bolt striking within a circle;
Reddi Kilowatt as the mascot of what is, in effect, a single-party
Finance Data a State Secret
SINGAPORE: A government official, two private economists, and a newspaper
editor will be tried jointly on June 21 for revealing an official
Singaporean secret - its economic growth rate.
Business Times editor Patrick Daniel, Monetary Authority of Singapore
official Shanmugaratnam Tharman, and two economists for regional brokerage
Crosby Securities, Manu Bhaskaran, and Raymond Foo Jong Chen, pleaded not
guilty to violating Singapore's Official Secrets Act.
South China Morning Post, 4/29/93
Reddi Kilowatt's Singapore looks like an infinitely more liveable version
of convention-zone Atlanta, with every third building supplied with a
festive party-hat by the designer of Loew's Chinese Theater. Rococo
pagodas perch atop slippery-flanked megastructures concealing enough cubic
footage of atria to make up a couple of good-sized Lagrangian-5 colonies.
Along Orchard Road, the Fifth Avenue of Southeast Asia, chocka-block with
multi-level shopping centers, a burgeoning middle class shops ceaselessly.
Young, for the most part, and clad in computer-weathered cottons from the
local Gap clone, they're a handsome populace; they look good in their
shorts and Reeboks and Matsuda shades.
There is less in the way of alternative, let alone dissident style in
Singapore than in any city I have ever visited. I did once see two young
Malayan men clad in basic, global, heavy metal black - jeans and T-shirts
and waist-length hair. One's T-shirt was embroidered with the Rastafarian
colors, causing me to think its owner must have balls the size of durian
fruit, or else be flat-out suicidal, or possibly both. But they were it,
really, for overt boho style. (I didn't see a single "bad" girl in
Singapore. And I missed her.) A thorough scan of available tapes and
CDs confirmed a pop diet of such profound middle-of-the-road blandness
that one could easily imagine the stock had been vetted by Mormon
"You wouldn't have any Shonen Knife, would you?"
"Sir, this is a music shop."
Although you don't need Mormons making sure your pop is squeaky-clean when
you have the Undesirable Propagation Unit (UPU), one of several bodies of
official censors. (I can't say with any certainty that the UPU,
specifically, censors Singapore's popular music, but I love the name.)
These various entities attempt to ensure that red rags on the order of
Cosmopolitan don't pollute the body politic. Bookstores in Singapore,
consequently, are sad affairs, large busy places selling almost nothing I
would ever want to buy - as though someone had managed to surgically
neuter a W.H. Smith's. Surveying the science fiction and fantasy sections
of these stores, I was vaguely pleased to see that none of my own works
seemed to be available. I don't know for a fact that the UPU had turned
them back at the border, but if they had, I'd certainly be in good company.
The local papers, including one curiously denatured tabloid, New Paper,
are essentially organs of the state, instruments of only the most
desirable propagation. This ceaseless boosterism, in the service of order,
health, prosperity, and the Singaporean way, quickly induces a species of
low-key Orwellian dread. (The feeling that Big Brother is coming at you
from behind a happy face does nothing to alleviate this.) It would be
possible, certainly, to live in Singapore and remain largely in touch with
what was happening elsewhere. Only certain tonalities would be muted, or
tuned out entirely, if possible. . . .
Singaporean television is big on explaining Singaporeans to themselves.
Model families, Chinese, Malay, or Indian, act out little playlets
explicating the customs of each culture. The familial world implied in
these shows is like Leave It To Beaver without The Beave, a sphere of
idealized paternalism that can only remind Americans my age of America's
most fulsome public sense of itself in the mid-1950s.
"Gosh, dad, I'm really glad you took the time to explain the Feast of the
Hungry Ghosts to us in such minutely comprehensive detail."
"Look, son, here comes your mother with a nutritious low-cholesterol treat
of fat-free lup cheong and skimmed coconut milk "
And, in many ways, it really does seem like 1956 in Singapore; the war (or
economic struggle, in this case) has apparently been won, an expanded
middle class enjoys great prosperity, enormous public works have been
successfully undertaken, even more ambitious projects are under way, and a
deeply paternalistic government is prepared, at any cost, to hold at bay
the triple threat of communism, pornography, and drugs.
The only problem being, of course, that it isn't 1956 in the rest of
world. Though that, one comes to suspect, is something that Singapore
would prefer to view as our problem. (But I begin to wonder, late at night
and in the privacy of my hotel room - what might the future prove to be,
if this view should turn out to be right?)
Because Singapore is one happening place, biz-wise. I mean, the future
here is so bright.... What other country is preparing to clone itself,
calving like some high-tech socioeconomic iceberg? Yes, here it is, the
first modern city-state to fully take advantage of the concept of
franchise operations Mini-Singapores! Many!
In the coastal city of Longkou, Shandong province, China (just opposite
Korea), Singaporean entrepreneurs are preparing to kick off the first of
these, erecting improved port facilities and a power plant, as well as
hotels, residential buildings, and, yes, shopping centers. The project, to
occupy 1.3 square kilometers, reminds me of "Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong"
in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, a sovereign nation set up like so many
fried-noodle franchises along the feeder-routes of edge-city America. But
Mr. Lee's Greater Singapore means very serious business, and the Chinese
seem uniformly keen to get a franchise in their neighborhood, and pronto.
Ordinarily, confronted with a strange city, I'm inclined to look for the
parts that have broken down and fallen apart, revealing the underlying
social mechanisms; how the place is really wired beneath the lay of the
land as presented by the Chamber of Commerce. This won't do in Singapore,
because nothing is falling apart. Everything that's fallen apart has
already been replaced with something new. (The word infrastructure takes
on a new and claustrophobic resonance here; somehow it's all
Failing to find any wrong side of the tracks, one can usually rely on a
study of the nightlife and the mechanisms of commercial sex to provide
some entree to the local subconscious. Singapore, as might be expected,
proved not at all big on the more intense forms of nightlife. Zouk,
arguably the city's hippest dance club (modelled, I was told, after the
rave scenes in Ibiza), is a pleasant enough place. It reminded me, on the
night I looked in, of a large Barcelona disco, though somehow minus the
party. Anyone seeking more raunchy action must cross the Causeway to
Johore, where Singaporean businessmen are said to sometimes go to indulge
in a little of the down and dirty. (But where else in the world today is
the adjoining sleazy bordertown Islamic?) One reads of clubs there having
their licenses pulled for stocking private cubicles with hapless
Filipinas, so I assumed that the Islamic Tijuana at the far end of the
Causeway was in one of those symbiotic pressure-valve relationships with
the island city-state, thereby serving a crucial psychic function that
would very likely never be officially admitted.
Singapore, meanwhile, has dealt with its own sex industry in two ways: by
turning its traditional red-light district into a themed attraction in its
own right, and by moving its massage parlors into the Beverly Centers.
Bugis Street, once famous for its transvestite prostitutes - the sort of
place where one could have imagined meeting Noel Coward, ripped on opium,
cocaine, and the local tailoring, just off in his rickshaw for a night of
high buggery - had, when it proved difficult to suppress, a subway station
dropped on top of it. "Don't worry," the government said, "we'll put it
all back, just the way it was, as soon as we have the subway in." Needless
to say, the restored Bugis Street has all the sexual potential of
"Frontierland," and the transvestites are represented primarily by a
number of murals.
The heterosexual hand-job business has been treated rather differently,
and one can only assume that it was seen to possess some genuine degree of
importance in the national Confucian scheme of things. Most shopping
centers currently offer at least one "health center" - establishments one
could easily take for slick mini-spas, but which in fact exist exclusively
to relieve the paying customer of nagging erections. That one of these
might be located between a Reebok outlet and a Rolex dealer continues to
strike me as evidence of some deliberate social policy, though I can't
quite imagine what it might be. But there is remarkably little, in
contemporary Singapore, that is not the result of deliberate and no doubt
carefully deliberated social policy.
Take dating. Concerned that a series of earlier campaigns to reduce the
national birth rate had proven entirely too successful, Singapore has
instituted a system of "mandatory mixers." I didn't find this particularly
disturbing, under the circumstances, though I disliked the idea that
refusal to participate is said to result in a "call" to one's employer.
But there did seem to be a certain eugenic angle in effect, as mandatory
dating for fast-track yuppies seemed to be handled by one government
agency, while another dealt with the less educated. Though perhaps I
misunderstood this, as Singaporeans seemed generally quite loathe to
discuss these more intimate policies of government with a curious foreign
visitor who was more than twice as tall as the average human, and who
sweated slowly but continuously, like an aged cheese.
Singapore is curiously, indeed gratifyingly devoid of certain aspects of
creativity. I say gratifyingly because I soon found myself taking a rather
desperate satisfaction in any evidence that such a very tightly-run ship
would lack innovative elan.
So, while I had to admit that the trains did indeed run on time, I was
forced to take on some embarrassingly easy targets. Contemporary municipal
sculpture is always fairly easy to make fun of, and this is abundantly
true in Singapore. There was a pronounced tendency toward very large
objects that resembled the sort of thing Mad magazine once drew to make us
giggle at abstract art: ponderous lumps of bronze with equally ponderous
holes through them. Though perhaps, like certain other apparently
pointless features of the cityscape, these really served some arcane but
highly specific geomantic function. Perhaps they were actually conduits
for feng shui, and were only superficially intended
to resemble Henry Moore as reconfigured by a team of Holiday Inn furniture
But a more telling lack of creativity may have been evident in one of the
city's two primal passions: shopping. Allowing for the usual variations in
price range, the city's countless malls all sell essentially the same
goods, with extraordinarily little attempt to vary their presentation.
While this is generally true of malls elsewhere, and in fact is one of the
reasons people everywhere flock to malls, a genuinely competitive retail
culture will assure that the shopper periodically encounters either
something new or something familiar in an unexpected context.
Singapore's other primal passion is eating, and it really is fairly
difficult to find any food in Singapore about which to complain. About the
closest you could come would be the observation that it's all very
traditional fare of one kind or another, but that hardly seems fair. If
there's one thing you can live without in Singapore, it's a Wolfgang Puck
pizza. The food in Singapore, particularly the endless variety of street
snacks in the hawker centers, is something to write home about. If you hit
the right three stalls in a row, you might decide these places are a
wonder of the modern world. And all of it quite safe to eat, thanks to the
thorough, not to say nitpickingly Singaporean auspices of the local
hygiene inspectors, and who could fault that? (Credit, please, where
credit is due.)
But still. And after all. It's boring here. And somehow it's the same
ennui that lies in wait in any theme park, put particularly in those that
are somehow in too agressively spiffy a state of repair. Everything
painted so recently that it positively creaks with niceness, and even the
odd rare police car sliding past starts to look like something out of a
Chuck E. Cheese franchise... And you come to suspect that the reason you
see so few actual police is that people here all have, to quote William
Burroughs, "the policeman inside."
And what will it be like when these folks, as they so manifestly intend to
do, bring themselves online as the Intelligent Island, a single giant
data-node whose computational architecture is more than a match for their
Swiss-watch infrastructure? While there's no doubt that this is the
current national project, one can't help but wonder how they plan to
handle all that stuff without actually getting any on them? How will a
society founded on parental (well, paternal, mainly) guidance cope with
the wilds of X-rated cyberspace? Or would they simply find ways not to
have to? What if, while information elsewhere might be said to want to be
free, the average Singaporean might be said to want, mainly, not to rock
the boat? And to do very nicely, thank you, by not doing so?
Are the faceless functionaries who keep Shonen Knife and Cosmo
anti-feminism out of straying local hands going to allow access to the
geography-smashing highways and byways of whatever the Internet is
becoming? More important, will denial of such access, in the coming
century, be considered even a remotely viable possibility by even the
dumbest of policemen?
Hard to say. And therein, perhaps, lies Singapore's real importance. The
overt goal of the national IT2000 initiative is a simple one: to sustain
indefinitely, for a population of 2.8 million, annual increases in
productivity of three to four percent.
IT, of course, is "information technology," and we can all be suitably
impressed with Singapore's evident willingness to view such technology
with the utmost seriousness. In terms of applied tech, they seem to have
an awfully practical handle on what this stuff can do. The National
Computer Board has designed an immigration system capable of checking
foreign passports in 30 seconds, resident passports in fifteen.
Singapore's streets are planted with sensor loops to register real-time
traffic; the traffic lights are computer controlled, and the system
adjusts itself constantly to optimize the situation, creating "green
waves" whenever possible. A different sort of green wave will appear if a
building's fire sensor calls for help; emergency vehicles are
automatically green-lighted through to the source of the alarm. The
physical operation of the city's port, constant and quite unthinkably
complex, is managed by another system. A "smart-card" system is planned to
manage billings for cars entering the Restricted Zone. (The Restricted
Zone is that part of central Singapore which costs you something to enter
with a private vehicle. Though I suspect that if, say, Portland were to
try this, the signs would announce the "Clean Air Zone," or something
They're good at this stuff. Really good. But now they propose to become
something else as well; a coherent city of information, its architecture
planned from the ground up. And they expect that whole highways of data
will flow into and through their city. Yet they also seem to expect that
this won't affect them. And that baffles us, and perhaps it baffles the
Singaporeans that it does.
Myself, I'm inclined to think that if they prove to be right, what will
really be proven will be something very sad; and not about Singapore, but
about our species. They will have proven it possible to flourish through
the active repression of free expression. They will have proven that
information does not necessarily want to be free.
But perhaps I'm overly pessimistic here. I often am; it goes with the
territory. (Though what could be more frightening, out here at the deep
end of the 20th century, than a genuinely optimistic science fiction
writer?) Perhaps Singapore's destiny will be to become nothing more than a
smug, neo-Swiss enclave of order and prosperity, amid a sea of
Dear God. What a fate.
Fully enough to send one lunging up from one's armchair in the atrium
lounge of the Meridien Singapore, calling for a taxi to the fractal-free
corridors of the Airtropolis.
But I wasn't finished, quite. There'd be another night to brood about the
I haven't told you about the Dutchman yet. It looks like they're going to
Man Gets Death For Importing 1 Kg of Cannabis
A MALAYAN man was yesterday sentenced to death by the High Court for
importing not less than 1 kg of cannabis into Singapore more than two
Mat Repin Mamat, 39, was found guilty of the offense committed at the
Woodlands checkpoint on October 9, 1991, after a five-day trial.
The hearing had two interpreters.
One interpreted English to Malay while the other interpreted Malay to
Kelantanese to Mat Repin, who is from Kelantan.
The prosecution's case was that when Mat Repin arrived at the checkpoint
and was asked whether he had any cigarettes to declare, his reply was no.
As he appeared nervous, the senior customs officer decided to check the
Questioned further if he was carrying any "barang" (thing), Mat Repin
replied that he had a kilogram of "ganja" (cannabis) under the petrol tank.
In his defense, he said that he did not know that the cannabis was hidden
The Straits Times 4/24/93
The day they sentenced Mat Repin, the Dutchman was also up on trial.
Johannes Van Damme, an engineer, had been discovered in custody of a
false-bottomed suitcase containing way mucho barang: 4.32 kilograms of
heroin, checked through from Bangkok to Athens.
The prosecution made its case that Van Damme was a mule; that he'd agreed
to transport the suitcase to Athens for a payment of US$20,000. Sniffed
out by Changi smackhounds, the suitcase was pulled from the belt, and Van
Damme from the transit lounge, where he may well have been watching
Beaver's dad explain the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts on a wall-mounted Sony.
The defense told a different story, though it generally made about as much
sense as Mat Repin's. Van Damme had gone to Bangkok to buy a wedding ring
for his daughter, and had met a Nigerian who'd asked him, please, to take
a suitcase through to Athens. "One would conclude," the lawyer for the
defense had said, "that either he was a nave person or one who can easily
be made use of." Or, hell, both. I took this to be something akin to a
plea for mercy.
Johannes Van Damme, in the newspaper picture, looks as thick as two bricks.
I can't tell you whether he's guilty or not, and I wouldn't want to have
to, but I can definitely tell you that I have my doubts about whether
Singapore should hang him, by the neck, until dead - even if he actually
was involved in a scheme to shift several kilos of heroin from some
backroom in Bangkok to the junkies of the Plaka. It hasn't, after all, a
whole hell of a lot to do with Singapore. But remember "Zero Tolerance?"
These guys have it.
And, very next day, they announced Johannes Van Damme's death sentence. He
still has at least one line of appeal, and he is still, the paper notes,
"the first Caucasian" to find his ass in this particular sling.
"My ass," I said to the mirror, "is out of here." Put on a white shirt
laundered so perfectly the cuffs could slit your wrists. Brushed my teeth,
ran a last-minute check on the luggage, forgot to take the minibar's
tinned Australian Singapore Sling home for my wife.
Made it to the lobby and checked out in record time. I'd booked a cab for
4 AM, even though that gave me two hours at Changi. The driver was asleep,
but he woke up fast, insanely voluble, the only person in Singapore who
didn't speak much English.
He ran every red light between there and Changi, giggling. "Too early
They were there at Changi, though, toting those big-ticket Austrian
machine pistols that look like khaki plastic waterguns. And I must've been
starting to lose it, because I saw a crumpled piece of paper on the
spotless floor and started snapping pictures of it. They really didn't
like that. They gave me a stern look when they came over to pick it up and
carry it away.
So I avoided eye contact, straightened my tie, and assumed the position
that would eventually get me on the Cathay Pacific's flight to Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong I'd seen huge matte black butterflies flapping around the
customs hall, nobody paying them the least attention. I'd caught a glimpse
of the Walled City of Kowloon, too. Maybe I could catch another, before
the future comes to tear it down.
Traditionally the home of pork-butchers, unlicensed denturists, and
dealers in heroin, the Walled City still stands at the foot of a runway,
awaiting demolition. Some kind of profound embarassment to modern China,
its clearance has long been made a condition of the looming change of
Hive of dream. Those mismatched, uncalculated windows. How they seemed to
absorb all the frantic activity of Kai Tak airport, sucking in energy like
a black hole.
I was ready for something like that. . . .
I loosened my tie, clearing Singapore airspace.
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