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Prized Singapore

By       Message Linh Dinh     Permalink
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Singapore, 2015
(Image by Linh Dinh)
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Recently, I flew to Singapore to participate in its Writers' Festival. The Lufthansa captain bade us goodbye, "We wish you a successful stay in Singapore." Heading downtown, I became reacquainted with the lush rain trees amply shading the highway for many miles. "Lee Kuan Yew picked these himself," the cheerful cabbie explained. "They aren't native. I think they're from Africa."

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"So much landscaping!" I marveled. "It must be so expensive to maintain."

Plucking an unsightly pebble from the sea, Lee Kuan Yew blew his fragrant breath on it second by second, day by day and, wa lau!, it became not just a gleaming metropolis, but the world's most efficient, orderly and peaceful. Lee muscled Singapore into being, it is often sung. He turned a ramshackle, resourceless piece of real of estate into one of the most admired.

By the time of its independence in 1965, Singapore had long been a leading seaport, however, thanks to its strategic location and the stewardship of Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. Its GDP ranked third in Asia, behind only Japan and Hong Kong and five times greater than South Korea. No fetid fishing village, Singapore was the gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It's baffling that the Malaysians let it go. Maybe they thought they could snatch it back later?

Anticipating this likelihood, Lee Kuan Yew got surreptitious help from the Israelis to build up his army. Since British troops didn't leave town until 1971, it's not too farfetched to speculate that the UK had a hand in this Jewish wedding. It needed to maintain a friendly government at this most crucial spot. The US has also trained Singaporean soldiers and, today, 374 GIs are based here.

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Browbeating Malaysia, Singapore showed off newly bought tanks during its 1969 National Day Parade. Remembering this in 2015, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Yew's son, remarked, "In the mobile column, we had 18 AMX-13 tanks, which were appearing in public for the first time ["] Singaporeans cheered. Everyone understood what it meant, and it wasn't just Singaporeans who took note."

China's expanding encroachment into the South China Sea is often explained only in terms of oil, natural gas and fishing rights, but it's the sea lane next to Singapore that's most at stake. Without its navy nearby to contest that choke point, China is most vulnerable to disruption of oil deliveries from the Middle East. Trying to bypass, partially at least, the Strait of Malacca, China arranged to build energy pipelines through Myanmar but, guess what, Uncle Sam has managed to cozy up to the Burmese, so it's no coincidence that the Chinese oil pipeline, though completed, is still not functional.

Though often touting itself as a multicultural and multi-lingual society, Singapore had been essentially Chinese long before independence. The Chinese on the Malay Peninsula needed their own nation. It's perfectly understandable, for under the guise of anti-Communism, thousands of Chinese were rounded up and shot in Indonesia in 1965, and in 1969, nearly 600 Chinese were killed during a Kuala Lumpur riot. As recently as 1998, Indonesian mobs slaughtered thousands of Chinese and raped hundreds of Chinese women.

In his 1926 short story, "P. and O.," Somerset Maugham wrote, "Singapore is the meeting place of many races. The Malays, though natives of the soil, dwell uneasily in towns, and are few; and it is the Chinese, supple, alert and industrious, who throng the streets; the dark-skinned Tamils walk on their silent, naked feet, as though they were but brief sojourners in a strange land, but the Bengalis, sleek and prosperous, are easy in their surroundings, and self-assured; the sly and obsequious Japanese seem busy with pressing and secret affairs; and the English in their topees and white ducks, speeding past in motor-cars or at leisure in their rickshaws, wear a nonchalant and careless air. The rulers of these teeming peoples take their authority with a smiling unconcern."

In present-day Singapore, the whites you see on its streets are generally a cut above. Smartly dressed, relaxed and attractive, they are mostly moneyed vacationers or business executives. You won't find among them Honey Boo Boo with Mama June. Some bars are patronized almost exclusively by whites, and they carouse deep into the night. As for the Japanese, they're certainly not obsequious but confident and at ease, as befitting their long-earned First World status.

The aftertaste of conquest lingers forever. Since a British or Japanese tourist is aware his people subjugated Singaporeans and humiliated them, his steps have an extra bounce and his smile, in whatever context, betrays a reservoir of deep satisfaction. We kicked your asses! Though the Brits raised the white flag to the Japanese, who in turn had to bow down to the Americans, Brits and Japanese remember they had once punched their hosts in the face, and the punchee also remember. If an American peace activist, say, journeys to Hiroshima, he's still the representative and embodiment of the Bomb. His very appearance on Hondori Street is a victory parade.

Zooming by the gleaming towers, trucks and pickup trucks transport Bangladeshi, Tamil, Filipino and Burmese workers. Plopped on the darkened flat beds, these tired men occupy the lowest rung of Singaporean society. Foreigners are needed to do the lowliest tasks, and 38% of the people here don't have citizenship. To maintain Singapore's ethnic balance, however, immigration from the Indian subcontinent must be kept in check, and that's why the government is welcoming Chinese immigrants. In fact, many Singaporean Indian restaurants have been forced to hire mainland Chinese to staff their kitchens.

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For me, the greatest pleasure of Singapore is its many food courts, for here you can have an excellent Chinese, Indian or Malay dish for a small price. Since their communal setting must be off-putting to many of them, whites rarely enter one of these hawker centers. The offerings can also confound if not disgust. As you slurp your turtle soup, a stranger sharing your table is enjoying pig intestine rice gruel, while a third merely a plate of beef chow fun.

The busboys are often old, wizened men. I saw one stuff something into his mouth as he cleaned up a table. Chewing, he continued working. Like just about every other population save post-Depression era Americans, Chinese understand hunger. In the US, even our destitute casually toss away food. Once, I bought a homeless guy a beer, only to see him chug just over half of it, then pour the rest into a trash can.

Hectored and coached for several decades by Lee Kuan Yew, Singaporean Chinese are markedly different from all of their kin, for nowhere else will you find Chinese so considerate and civil. A Singapore Chinese in her twenties confided, "I'm most annoyed by the PRC Chinese. Although they look more or less like us, I can always tell them apart by their behaviors. They can be so crude, yet so arrogant. Once I heard a PRC say in a Two Dollar Store, 'This is where the poor Singaporeans go to shop!' Arghhh! Lots of people shop there. I shop there. The Vietnamese here don't stand out so much, so people don't mind them, but lots of people complain about the PRC Chinese."

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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