May 31, 2020
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Singapore Diary

I felt I was passing through a gigantic mall. The city was an extension of the airport. Consumerism feeds nationalism

Singapore Diary

Mall Nation

Within minutes of landing in this island nation, I felt I was passing through a gigantic mall. The city was an extension of the airport. I lowered the taxi window to let the wind whip my face and suggested that the driver turn off the air-conditioning. After all, it was a lovely 30 degrees. He grunted and made me roll up the window. I was soon to realise that every indoor space in the city was air-conditioned. That evening, I was told by a friend about the work of Cherian George, a local academic and author of Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation (2000). Seems Lee Kuan Yew believed that the tropical climate made people lazy, and decided ACs would make them productive, efficient. Not just the air, everything here is conditioned. I gaped at trees that appeared too reticent, too conscious of spreading their branches. I was hosted by the National University of Singapore where I was to give a few lectures, on Ashis Nandy’s recent utterances, the Ambedkar cartoon and suchlike. I began one of my presentations with a lesser heard sound bite from Nandy at the same Jaipur festival where he otherwise mouthed nonsense: “The only country which I know is close to zero corruption is Singapore and that’s not part of my concept of utopia, it can be very much a part of my concept of dystopia.” A few days in Singapore reinforced this perception.

Nothing to crow about

As I walked the city, I kept drawing the attention of my friends to things that did not seem odd to them at all. I was fascinated by how Singapore treated its trees—they reflected the spirit of this atrophied nation. Many trees were supported by three strong poles triangulated to keep them straight. Initially, I thought they did not want their trees, like their citizens, to be wayward. Both had to learn to walk the straight and narrow path to damnation. But not really. I was told that fully grown trees were imported and replanted. Hence they needed support on new soil. Tending to a sapling and seeing it grow over the years was too much of a hassle. Moreover, only such trees were imported that did not shed too many leaves or yield silly fruit. (As I write this, I am looking at the blooming shahtoot-mulberry tree outside my Delhi office window with renewed love—they indeed leave a beautiful gooey mess on the street below. They attract flies.) Here, trees must decorate; not mess the streets. This seems connected to Singapore’s decision in 2006 to exterminate all house crows, for these were declared a menace. Some 1,50,000 of them were culled or shot down by the Singapore Gun Club in a few years. Dense trees where they could roost were felled. So they shipped in pretty, unfussy trees lacking in character. Also banned is the “smelly, stinky” durian fruit in all indoor spaces—the metro, theatres, malls, cinemas, auditoriums. Once upon a time, this island, nestling in mangroves (13 per cent cover in 1810, 0.5 per cent now), had tigers and crocodiles. These only appear in children’s books and folktales now.

Only death frees you

Singapore is a hub. Nothing is produced there. Everything—milk to fish—is imported and consumed. Money is the state religion. This is the capitalistic other of Cuba. The Gini coefficient—income inequality levels—is among the highest in developed nations. Every 25 years, old buildings are razed, and new highrises erected. This needs labourers, and slaves are imported from Tamil Nadu and Bangladesh. They live in tin sheds. They’re ferried in open trucks, like cattle. Not really, since cattle (imported of course; there are fewer than 800 goats in Singapore’s only dairy farm; no cows or buffaloes) are carried in air-con comfort. The men are drenched by humidity and intermittent rains. Sometimes they are flung out as trucks skid, and are run over by speeding vehicles. The humanitarian state decided, some three years ago, that these trucks must have railings workers can hold on to. These drudges form the backbone of this thriving economy. Singapore also imports a lot of underpaid, overworked maids: Filipinas, Indonesians, Myanmarese, Indians. Some fall to their death from highrise apartments. Sounds a bit like India, no?

An iPad for your effort

How do you get citizens to conform? Like in Israel, conscription, called the National Service, is compulsory for all men who turn 18. It lasts two years. That takes care of half the population. The rest fall in line. In fact, in 1965, the newborn nation approached India for help with military training. India refused, and they secretly turned to Israel. I was told by a friend’s 18-year-old son that every recruit now gets an iPad. Consumerism feeds nationalism.

A friend took me to Little India...

The streets were messy. The Tamils even had a Tasmac wine shop and open bars. I felt at home.

Former Madras correspondent of Outlook, Anand is publisher, Navayana; E-mail your diarist: anand AT


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