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Multiethnic Island Seems at Odds Over Its Identity

October 20, 2002|Regan Morris | Associated Press Writer

SINGAPORE — The first thing I noticed when I rode into downtown Singapore at 3 a.m. was the garbage-strewn field -- cans, cigarette butts, gutted cartons of take-away food.

Could this be Singapore? Squeaky-clean, litter-at-your-peril Singapore, where even chewing gum is outlawed?

The answer would come soon enough, and like much about Singapore over the next five years, it would surprise me.

Next morning, a more familiar Singapore lighted up under the equatorial sun -- shiny glass skyscrapers and British colonial beauties such as Raffles Hotel, host to Kipling and Conrad. The street names -- English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay -- reflected the multiethnic makeup of the city and its 4 million people.

The city was awash in red-and-white national flags celebrating Aug. 9, National Day. August is the only month when it is legal to fly the Singapore flag -- and almost everyone does.

This would be my home for the next five years, during which it lived up to all the stereotypes of cleanliness and schoolmarmish strictness, yet seemed forever at odds with itself over what identity to pursue in the 21st century. Now that we have wealth, Singaporeans seemed to be saying, what do we do with it?

Lost among the high-rises that house most Singaporeans, my neighborhood was one of the few remaining British colonial-era streets of breezy black-and-white bungalows with coconut, banana and frangipani trees in the lush, green yards.

My yard was often the venue for all-night parties where Malays, Chinese and Westerners would swill tequila off giant ice blocks, cutting loose against the many rules that governed them by day -- the ban on tabletop dancing in bars, or flying the national flag except in August lest it be subjected to indignities, or the incessant chimes that ring out in taxis whenever they exceed the speed limit.

There are government-mandated campaigns -- the Clean Toilet Campaign, the Courtesy Campaign -- and elevators in newer buildings that have urine sensors attached to alarms.

The aura of English suburbia mixes uneasily with the tropics. Toads, geckos, spiders and tree frogs invade shoes and closets. Cobras slither into gardens.

Snakes have become increasingly common in my old neighborhood this year because a huge construction site is destroying their habitat. "Biopolis" is a biotechnology research center that Singapore hopes will result in groundbreaking research using embryonic stem cells and other futuristic technologies.

Some grumble about sci-fi embryo doctors taking over the neighborhood, but others dream of a cancer cure discovered in their former backyard. Alan Colman, the Scottish scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep, has moved to Singapore and plans to do research on diabetes there.

Residents joke that Singapore's scientific ambitions include cloning the city-state's powerful founding father, Lee Kuan Yew -- who once vowed: "Even if you are going to lower me into my grave and I feel that something is wrong, I'll get up."

Authoritarian, outspoken and brilliant, Lee is largely responsible for making Singapore one of Asia's greatest success stories. He turned 79 last month and still actively wields power under the title of senior minister.

When Singaporeans make jokes about Lee or other political leaders, they do it quietly. Lee and his long-ruling People's Action Party tolerate little dissent. Two years ago, Singapore got a Speaker's Corner modeled on London's, but speakers must first register with police, and avoid taboo subjects like race and religion.

Racial harmony has long been a government passion. The race riots of the 1960s aren't forgotten. Now nerves are again on edge over the Sept. 11 attacks, and the arrest of 31 people suspected of plotting to blow up the U.S. Embassy and other targets.

At a National Day rally, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said that he was concerned many Muslims worldwide were becoming more extreme and that "some Singapore Muslims too have become more rigid in the practice of their religion."

Singapore society is carefully engineered. Eager to boost the middle class, the government pushes educated women to get married and have babies.

Every government apartment building is a microcosm of Singapore because occupancy must by law be about 75% Chinese, 15% Malay, and the rest Indian and other races.

In my first year in Singapore, I lived in a government housing block and was treated like royalty by my neighbors, who were intrigued to have an "ang moh" -- literally redhead, but meaning any foreigner -- in the building.

When I had dengue fever, a painful mosquito-borne illness, the neighbor I knew only as Auntie Lim would check on me daily to make sure I was alive and to bring me herbal soup and star fruit -- which I was too sick to eat. She would creep in quietly to avoid aggravating my pounding head and bones.

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