Welcome to Singapore. Nothing you see is real.

Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten. – Walter Ulbricht

Nobody has the intention to build a wall. These were the famous words from the Chairman of the GDR State Council in 1961, just two months before the Berlin Wall came into being. Time marches on. Since Germany’s reunification in 1989,  the most shameless walls in the world are now those built to hem in Palestinians (of which one was partly broken down dramatically last week between Gaza and Egypt). We are of course dealing here with a nation that indirectly resulted from Nazi Germany’s persecutions, that interestingly, has adopted a similar approach as the Nazis with ideals of a nationality based on pure ethnicity. It has inspired British graffiti artist Banksy to spray-paint art works on the West Bank barriers in 2005, defying Israeli gunpoints, including an image of children trying to dig a way out; recently, he has also done similar works in Bethlehem.

But let’s turn away from such heavy stuff and cut to some comic relief in a sunny little island nation at the tip of the Malaysian peninsular. There I was sitting on a bus the other day when images of some fragments of the Berlin Wall came on the mobile television. It’s a feature on an infotainment programme about 4 panels of the Berlin Wall being donated to Singapore, to be placed at a reservoir park. They are to stand as an ‘ode to freedom’, the report said. I was so bemused and amused that I immediately messaged a friend and we started discussing what the hell that should mean – is Singapore being commended for its efforts in fighting against communism all these years, or is it for the sheer quantity of ‘freedom fries’ consumed here?

Now the Berlin Wall has long been torn apart for traffic instead of standing substantially as an exemplary instance of architectural conservation. If you ask an East German, you will be told that all the kitschy appeal of the Berlin Wall today (not to mention the over-dramatised tourist trap called Checkpoint Charlie) represent basically perspectives of the West Germans because people in the GDR never had the luxury of beautifying the walls. Anyway, among sections of the Berlin Wall which have exchanged hands in the international market, four panels painted with figures dubbed ‘kings of freedom’ are destined to be part of some recreational area in Singapore. On this topic, the foreign minister even went on that infotainment programme to be interviewed by a comedian who is like Singapore’s very own Priscilla Queen of the Desert, in a rather embarassingly minute of airtime. Incidentally, one of the other show hosts of this same programme is a former beauty-queen-turned-nominated-MP, the term NMP referring to something invented by the Singapore government years ago to convince its people that they don’t need to elect opposition party members into the Parliament, since the the ruling party can pick other people to do the job of giving alternative voices. So you get an idea of how fuzzy the line is between Singapore politics and show business? Here is more: the ruling PAP actually made some of its MPs in their 30s attend hip hop dance classes to perform a minute at last year’s Chinese New Year parade, in order to demonstrate it has some young blood, for voters who are suckers for that presumably. And just two months ago, the CEO and staff of Singapore’s Media Development Authority went on youtube and made it to top 20 of The Guardian’s Viral Video Chart with what is aptly described as a ‘completely cringe-worthy rap video’, with lines like “Nothing but the best service for our customers/Fees and fines we make it a lot easier”. But just in case you are seriously impressed by the Singapore government’s new-found sense of humour, think again. Just over last weekend, an Asian premiere of a show at the Singapore Fringe Festival ’08 called The Complaints Choir Project, originally promising to let Singaporean weave their complaints into songs with foreign performers, was cancelled due to licensing problem. It had to be turned into a private event due to some regulation similar to that for Singapore Speaker’s Corner, which requires registration and does not allow non-Singaporeans to perform. 

It is interesting to think about those walls which will be standing in the middle of nowhere in some corner of Singapore. On which side should you find freedom? Singapore’s political history in the Cold War years have curiously been something like a mirror image of the GDR. The witchhunt here was for communists among the Chinese-educated, students and teachers alike, during the 60s and 70s. Even a prominent editor of a Chinese newspaper would be jailed and never heard of again. (All newspapers in Singapore soon became merged under one corporation, the easier to monitor.) The founder of Nanyang University, a Chinese university built by means of donations from people literally of all walks of life – notably trishaw riders, was robbed of his citizenship, and the university became downgraded into a technological institute. (This was just before China opened up its economy and the Chinese language began to become lucrative.) And Singapore held one of the longest-serving political prisoners in the world, one Chia Thye Poh who was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act, the gist of it being that he refused to confess to being a communist. He was imprisoned for 23 years, followed by 9 years of house arrest. It seems Helmut Kohl played some part in Singapore softening the stance towards him, and perhaps it was when Nelson Mandela visited Singapore that the country realised there is one world record it does not want to be known for.

By the way, unauthorised graffiti is against the law in Singapore. (Just recently, an arts school here expelled a student who attempted graffiti art on the spanking new walls of the campus.) Its Vandalism Act was originally passed in 1966 to curb the spread of communist graffiti, but what everybody would remember is of course the American youth who was caned here, despite Clinton’s clemecy appeal, for spray-paint vandalism. Well Singapore may be one country that would gladly support the fight against Al-Qaida and the Taliban, but its does share with Middle Eastern countries a culture of punishment by flogging. Call it the art of a fine balance, just like the way Singapore embraces capitalism while extolling Asian values in rejection of western-style democracy. Singapore has a Speakers’ Corner, it is just that no demonstration is allowed. And it does not always ban foreign magazines critical of its government, sometimes it only limits their circulation. Of course there are also cases like Financial Times which was sued last year for alleging nepotism in Singapore. That is not so harsh considering that the most hardcore politicians of opposition parties here have been sued to bankruptcy or have fled the country. I think I should have nothing more to say about the dynasty of rule which has been in place for close to half a century here. Singapore has long been under the shadow of one who belongs to the same generation of pro-Western Asian leaders as Indonesia’s Suharto who just passed away, but people would say that it is a country that works well. You can’t say there is no graffiti here at all; the authorities will not let you say that, because they can show you it does exist in designated areas.

Well, we can rest assured that there will be no boring art in the social-realism style of GDR on Singapore’s own Berlin Wall panels; those Chinese artists doing social realism paintings or leftist woodcuts in Singapore in the past would remain lying low today if they are still alive. Always trust that the government knows how to stake its money on giving the city an aesthetic beauty. This is after all a government which has announced some years ago that it has very concrete plans to allow its people to have ‘spontaneous fun’. If it is importing a piece of freedom now from abroad, you best believe it will look better than the real thing.

Further reading: Disneyland With the Death Penalty, by William Gibson.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Welcome to Singapore. Nothing you see is real.

  1. You have nicely summarised the essence of the Singapore ruling regime’s attitude and practices toward treating “freedom” in the last 40-odd years or so (since the country’s independence), with regard to the Communism and the leftists. Appropriate, since the main idea/theme here is about the panels of the Berlin Wall donated to S’pore.

    About the regulations affecting the Complaints Choir Project: I’m not exactly sure what the actual laws are, but there seems to be a new twist in the law or its application in this incident. First, we know for sure that this kind of performance has been ‘gazetted’ or deemed as a political event.

    The twist is this: usually the law has been applied to only public events organised by S’poreans where no foreigners are allowed to speak, as no foreigners would likely organise ‘political’ events that would be seen as ‘meddling’ in domestic politics and would require the application of this law anyway; there doesn’t seem to be such a precedent in S’pore, ever – so we can rule that out (unless it’s meant to support the ruling PAP, like the IMF-World Bank 2006 meetings, hahaha). But this time, it is an arts event that obviously has political overtones or meaning to the powers-that-be, one that is primarily a foreign-driven event, no less.

    So by applying the law in this manner. the authorities have:
    1) Treated it as though it were organised by locals with some foreign participation – instead of vice-versa, which is the actual case!
    2) ‘Penalised’ these foreigners – who are the main drivers of this arts event – for supposed ‘meddling’.

    I really wonder how far the law(s) go and how widely they can be interpreted and applied to cover arts performances, foreign-driven events etc. This incident is a new variation I haven’t seen before. How far can people push, or rather how far will the authorities go to persecute – sorry, prosecute – groups or individuals who are deemed to have infringed the laws?

    By the way, the permitted invitation-only, closed-door performance can be viewed here: http://rinaz.net/2008/01/complaint-choir/

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