This article was first published in Sussex University’s international development magazine, ‘Poda Poda’ in 2007. It explores the unseen and unreported current of resistance inside Singaporean society. Notoriously presented to the world as a passive and obedient populace, myself and Pia Dawson tried scratching beneath the surface to find out what people really thought of this unique authoritarian state before nearly getting deported ourselves!
‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’.
We wrench loose an MDF board covering the once grand entrance, before slipping inside, avoiding the rusty nails. Our feet crunch over broken glass as we peer into the gloom. The ticket booths, smashed to shit, still welcome Mastercard and Visa and still dispense mouldy, discoloured maps. Plastic statues slump, their plastic heads scattered on the floor. ‘I love sex’. ‘Get out’. ‘Bobby and Pris wuz here 99’.
The ceiling is falling in, the lights exploded. The tropical undergrowth is slowly reclaiming this misguided business venture. The mosquitoes have returned to these stagnant lakes. Giant pink paper horses and blue paper elephants, frozen mid-motion, aflame and collapsing in upon themselves.
Perhaps this freakish fairytale was doomed to fail from the start. A tourist attraction designed for Chinese tourism and themed around ancient Chinese imperial history, elaborately carved from plaster of paris and plywood, built in 1980s Singapore, now stands closed a decade later and erased from the national memory.
Like so many Singaporean transgressions, ‘Tang Dynasty City’ remains very much present, but obscured from public view. On the surface, this highly successful city-state embodies the image its government seeks to project: it is clean, obedient, polite, orderly and well-planned. Gays, prostitutes, transvestites, the homeless, political dissidents, governmental corruption and national failures –all these get swept under the carpet of state-sanctioned discourse.
The same may be said of the higher education system. When we first started studying here, we were shocked and bemused by the attitudes of the Singaporean students. The learning culture is totally at odds with what we’ve come to expect from our experiences at a British university. In Singapore, we said to each other with a mixture of bemusement and reproach, the students just don’t question anything. They don’t question their lecturers and they don’t question the way the university is run. They don’t question the texts they read, and they shy away from questioning each other. They are excessively respectful of authority, they study too hard and hardly ever go out, and they ‘strive for excellence’ rather than seeking to critically interrogate established modes of thinking.
Dr Chee Soon Juan, a former neuropsychology lecturer at NUS, recalls his frustration with his students. On one occasion he came to class and told them that he was just going to stare at them. So he sat there, and stared. After fifteen minutes of uncomfortable silence, in which not one student challenged him or asked him to begin teaching, he simply got up and left.
Of course, having been in Singapore for over three months now, this characterisation of ‘the Singaporean Student’ – as compliant, submissive and unquestioning – has revealed itself to be somewhat simplistic. There are definitely both public and hidden transcripts at work here, as there are in Singaporean society more broadly. In public, it’s fair to say that the majority of Singaporeans are passive and conformist. Decades of authoritarian rule combined with generally decent standards of living and state-controlled media will tend to do that to a society. But in private spaces, Singaporeans still think; they still feel discontent and have that nagging sensation that all is not quite as it appears. However, these hidden transcripts of dissent tend not to manifest themselves in immediately visible ways. Thus our new self-appointed task has been to delve under the carpet and search out this undercurrent of opposition.
Our clandestine visit to ‘Tang Dynasty City’ was just one stop on an alternative 24-hour tour of Singapore, run by a PhD student here who delights in showing both foreigners and young Singaporeans alike the ‘seedier’ sides of the city. Most of our activities were illegal. We spent a couple of hours in a gay club, snuck around a disused, decrepit hospital, wandered through a Chinese burial ground, discovered the red-light district, and broke into an indestructible house with a mysterious curse hanging over it – all in the dead of night. It opened our eyes to the kinds of alternative narratives hidden under Singapore’s carpet of orthodoxy. The gay bar was far more open than we had expected – considering homosexuality is illegal in Singapore – and the haunted houses we visited were clearly also frequented by local ghost-hunting enthusiasts and graffiti-spraying youth. We realised there is unorthodox activity going on here but it has its designated place, out of the sight of foreign visitors, and indeed, of many Singaporeans.
What we saw on the tour seemed an apt metaphor for Singaporean ‘resistance’. As we were shocked to discover upon our arrival here, public protest, spontaneous gatherings and political dissent are among those things illegal under Singaporean law. Furthermore, the government invests significant time and resources in manufacturing and maintaining a climate of fear, ensuring that all but a few dissenters are either too scared or too apathetic to voice their dissent. People are unhappy with how their government runs the country, but virtually no one is willing to speak up. We met with one of the few Singaporeans who does speak out, at great personal cost, whenever he can.
Dr Chee used to teach here at NUS. As soon as he became involved in opposition politics, however, he was fired. But this, after all, is the National University – the University where ex-Prime Minister (and now ‘Minister Mentor’, a position of authority without precedent in any other professed democracy) Lee Kuan Yew has an entire school named in his honour; where his son (and current Prime Minister) Lee Hsien Loong studied; and where his son in turn and countless other state officials studied. Criticism of the government has been erased from the curriculum. Since his dismissal, Dr Chee has not relented in his mission to make Singapore the functioning democracy its leaders claim it to be. His party, the Singapore Democratic Party, is marginalised from mainstream politics despite having considerable (though often covert) support; he has personally suffered the abrupt ending of his academic career, repeated imprisonment, bankruptcy and continued fines for his political activity, and total demonisation from the state-controlled media. Through making such an example of one man the Singaporean government is able to maintain its society in a state of fear.
Even more frightening than this, however, is that the generation who have grown up in Singapore during the last quarter of the twentieth century have no living memory of what society was like before. They don’t remember the 60s and 70s, when student rallies could number in their thousands and to question the government was natural rather than prohibited. An atmosphere of fear, secrecy and restraint pervades many popular recollections of this period. The leftist nationalist movements that undeniably played a part in Singapore’s formal independence are reduced to comedic asides in lectures.
By now, the focus of civil society has shifted – and education is a prime example. As Dr Chee noted, the point of education is to question. And yet students in Singapore are programmed from an early age to compete with each other in the quest for ‘excellence’, rather than question authority. This can lead to some paradoxical scenarios: in one of our lectures (a Political Science class no less), the lecturer at one point broke away from the topic to state: “I’m sorry to break it to you, but Singapore is another example of an authoritarian government.” Whilst this might not appear a particularly controversial claim, it is extremely unusual in Singapore to hear such a sentiment expressed by a person in a position of authority – especially at NUS. We were surprised, then, to find that the class spontaneously burst into applause. Clearly such political sentiments are widely-held, but can’t be expressed without first being sanctioned by a figure of authority.
The paradoxical character of dissent here demonstrates that when conventional protest is proscribed, most people seek other ways of expressing their politics. What might seem like a taxi driver merely bemoaning his lot, takes on new significance given the fact that thousands of taxi drivers have had to attend a government training course instructing them to have neat hair, no BO, and to not talk to customers about “sensitive issues”. A sarcastic aside by an NUS lecturer carries great weight in an academic environment that stifles the free exchange of opinion. What might seem a slight matter, of whether or not to turn up to a peaceful vigil held outside the Burmese embassy becomes a decision of great consequence, between silence and massive social transgression.
Small acts may have enormous consequences, and the fact that much discontent is hidden does not mean it isn’t there. It only means you have to spend a bit of time unearthing and exposing it.
Written by Oliver Laughland and Pia Dawson
Filmed by Oliver Laughland and Pia Dawson
Edited by Oliver Laughland
Music by Tom Marriott
All by Alex Jimenez