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THE JAUNDICED EYE

Is Singapore the Template for New York? Uh-oh!

March 15, 1998|Toby Young | Toby Young is a playwright and journalist who has written for the Spectator and Vanity Fair

NEW YORK — What's come over New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani? Apparently, the Disneyfication of Times Square is not enough. Now Hizzoner wants to eliminate jaywalking, ban lap dancing and force teachers to wear proper attire in the classroom. Did the mayor forget to take his Prozac?

Giuliani's preferred term for his latest set of initiatives is "restoring civility," though he still throws a hissy fit every time a reporter asks him a tough question. Most commentators here see it as part of the mayor's long-term plan to become "fussbudget in chief." When he throws his sheriff's hat into the ring, he wants to be known as the man who cleaned up Gotham.

His role model would appear to be Lee Kuan Yew, the Southeast Asian politician who has ruled Singapore with an iron fist for almost 40 years. Senior Minister Lee, as he's known, succeeded in transforming a lawless port controlled by the Chinese mafia into the most prosperous, law-abiding city in Asia. He trained as a litigator and his tough, no-nonsense brand of politics appeals to the city's jaded, multicultural electorate. Indeed, if it wasn't for his haircut, his style would be identical to Hizzoner's. Lee is one of the few Asian leaders not to sport a comb-over.

Like Giuliani, Lee is a firm believer in enforcing the letter of the law. Since the mayor announced his clampdown on jaywalking earlier this year, only a handful of offenders have been fined, but we only have to look at the Singapore example to see what New Yorkers have in store, for there, as well, it all began with laws against jaywalking. In the future, the rattan cane may be employed, as it was against Michael Fay, the U.S. teenager caught spray-painting cars in 1994. The short-fused mayor, who's been dubbed the Hall Monitor, might even be persuaded to wield the cane himself.

If Giuliani is serious about enforcing New York's 30-miles-an-hour speed limit, he may also be planning to follow Lee's lead. In Singapore, taxis and commercial vehicles are equipped with sirens and flashing lights that automatically activate if they exceed the speed limit.

When it comes to dealing with his critics, Hizzoner need look no farther than Lee. When an U.S. lecturer at Singapore's National University wrote a mildly critical op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune, Lee sued him for libel and, thanks to his control of Singapore's judiciary, won. No doubt Giuliani will shortly be taking Jennet Conant to court for reporting, in last September's Vanity Fair, that he was having an affair with his spokeswoman.

On the down side, Lee's stern, forbidding style hasn't succeeded in immunizing Singapore from a bout of Asian flu. True, the country that has been called "Silicon Valley with better-than-average Chinese takeout" has fared better than its Southeast Asian neighbors, but its currency has still lost 15%-20% of its value against the dollar. On the plus side, this makes it easier for U.S. tourists to pay the hefty fine if they're caught trafficking in chewing gum. That's right, selling gum is against the law in Singapore.

Is this all fanciful or is it possible that Giuliani really has been studying his Singapore counterpart? One valuable lesson the New York mayor may have learned from the senior minister is that his severe, authoritarian style has struck a deep chord on the right of the Republican Party. In 1996, Lee received the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom's "Architect of the New Century" award.

As a politician with at least one eye on the GOP nomination in 2000, Giuliani wants to preserve his reputation as a tough guy. He can do that by creating a new class of citizens to bully. Consequently, he's turned his attention to jaywalkers and improperly attired teachers. Who knows, perhaps traffickers in chewing gum are next.

This strategy is not without its risks. Lee recently acknowledged that Singapore needs to generate some "buzz" if it's to be recognized as a truly energized, first-class city. Most residents describe Singapore as sterile and antiseptic. The senior minister recently unveiled a new slogan in the hope of relabeling the city: "Singapore: So Easy to Enjoy, So Hard to Forget." It's a far cry from, "Our city can kick your city's ass."

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