If you replaced the movie industry with financial services, within ten years LA would become Singapore.
It was warm when we stepped off the ship, hot by the time I met a friend by the Chinatown metro, and blazing by the time we stumbled across a street filled with worshippers.
I was happily stuffed with rich, savory, spicy chicken and rice (Singapore’s specialty) piled on top of a breakfast of thick sweet coffee and kaya toast, which is, let me tell you as an expert on eating a lot of things, the best breakfast I’ve ever had. Toast is thickly buttered and then smeared with generous portions of kaya, a kind of coconut and brown sugar jam, and then dipped into soft boiled eggs. It’s buttery, fat, rich and unspeakably good. It shows little restraint, it isn’t particularly into your welfare, but it’s grand at the time. It’s Singaporean.
As we watched thousands of worshipers with burning sticks of incense wait in orderly lines, my guide – a dear friend’s colleague – ducked with me into a smaller temple along the side of the street. He laughed when he saw where we were. This, he told me, was normally a shop. They’d just taken the price tags off the Buddhas and were using them for worship instead. The store would have to be closed for New Year anyway. By Monday the price tags would be back in place.
Here, let me offer this revised edition: if you replaced all of the arts with the financial services industry, within ten years, LA would become Singapore.
Sitting over a beer in the Raffles Hotel, the grand old pile named – as nearly half the city seems to be – for the Brit who first colonized the island, we were talking politics. We had opted for beers since they were merely $13 US dollars. It didn’t take much persuading for me not to try the original Singapore Sling – mine for a mere $22.
We were talking specifically about one of the don’ts: homosexuality is still, technically, a capital offense. But Singapore is open for business, and they know the West isn’t fond of draconian homophobic measures. So they have announced that they will not be enforcing this one of the million rules and regulations on Singapore’s books.
Why, he asked a Singaporean colleague, wouldn’t they just get rid of the law altogether? Well, the colleague explained, he’s a tax payer, which is to say, he’s paying Parliament to make his life better. So why would he want them wasting their time removing old laws when it doesn’t affect his wellbeing at all? That’s just a waste of his money.
Okay, wait, I’ve got it, here’s the theory: if you replaced absolutely everything with the financial services industry then within ten years, LA would become Singapore.
There are benefits to this approach: it’s one of the safest cities on earth (canings for minor infractions of the law will do that) where an incredibly diverse population gets along with very little friction, and where even the poorest have a fairly high standard of living compared with neighboring countries.
But there’s a price to be paid. And the price can be seen everywhere. Each neighborhood feels like a Disney version of itself: Arab Street with its gilded mosque and streets of backpackers smoking houkka on cushions on the sidewalk, little India with groups of workers on six month visas spending their day off smoking in front of shops selling Bollywood magazines, and Chinatown with its strings of red lanterns.
The government has realized that Western investors like the arts and are struggling to get a lively cultural scene going – a tough slog when arts education is almost unheard of, and censorship is rife. When one of my best friends moved back from Singapore I remember she told me that the arts scene was a little dry. It’s hard to get interesting theatre, she explained, when the government shuts down every other play.
So they’re trying other methods. They have one of the world’s greatest zoos, one of it’s largest aquariums, and stunning botanical gardens, laid out over an area that must be twice the size of Kew, teaming with life and free to the public. Their transportation is quick, efficient, and clean. Rules are posted everywhere (I created a 30 photo collection of Singapore telling me what to do: no durian fruit on the subway, no crossing outside crosswalks, please stand here, don’t sit there) and are followed. It is all ostentatiously, inarguably nice. Clean. Safe. Polite.
But… Well, but dull.
On the second morning I cheated. I broke all my travel rules. I skipped local foods for breakfast and went to a coffee shop full of Australians who had just finished bike rides and wealthy British mums with their well-dressed infants. I had a quinoa and beet salad. I drank juice from a vintage milk bottle. The coffee alone was $5.
Across the street was a bookstore that I’ve seen on dozens of lists of the greatest bookstores in the world. It, if anything, promised to give me that jolt of intellectualism, of culture and art, that I hadn’t found the day before.
Finally at 11:30 it opened. I downed by coffee, squeezed out between chatty South Africans in yoga clothes, and ambled across the scorchingly hot street. Inside the shop was cool and quiet, with a small white cat that darted past my feet and nestled on a top shelf. In front of me was a table displaying Singaporean literature. Here it was: here was the voice of Singapore, the art scene, the literary world. I picked up the first book I saw. It was a collection of recent Singaporean plays, tied together by one common thread:
They’d all be banned.