I am stuck in a hotel in Singapore for three days.
If you aren’t into shopping for high end luxury brands and you’ve discovered that the cheap electronics that this place was once awash with are nowadays not-as-cheap-as-they-used-to-be electronics spending time here can be something of an ordeal.
In a world of low tariffs, where luxury brands can be found in Shanghai, Mumbai, Melbourne, Dubai or Delhi and where eBay and internet stores allow most things to procured anywhere for a price similar to what they are going for somewhere, I fear that the shopping mall state of Singapore may be losing the very thing that once made it distinctive. Singapore is the perfect fusion of global shopping mall and nation state. It may simply be a recipe for creating the most boring place on earth.
My perception of this place is captured in a handful of almost certainly unfair observations: the faux punk looking DJ playing easy listening music; the vaguely subversive tone to the crowd i saw rocking out to an American Idol star playing Helter Sketler – as though the idea of playing the hardest Beatles song is somewhere teasingly close to the line that is best not crossed; the menacing sense in The Straights Times (the local newspaper/ government mouthpiece) and in public service announcements everywhere that the nation is perpetually teetering on the abyss of anarchy, disinvestment, and collapse at even the slightest sign of polite disagreement with the government.
Singapore elevates even the most meaningless acts into signs of symbolic dissent. When i last visited here in a professional capacity it seemed that every artist i met took me aside and whispered that they were secretly a “performance artist.” Performance art – and no one was entirely sure what that meant – had apparently been banned in overreaction to an artist shaving his or her pubic hair.
I am told that the ban has now been lifted. This a very good thing. Not because the nation is improving its record on free speech (that is debatable) but for Singaporean culture more generally. In the unlikely event that this dissent thing ever took root that the ban risked elevating a swarm of mediocre performance artists to a status once reserved for the poets and playwrights of eastern Europe.
It makes me think that perhaps the arts community in Australia has it entirely about face. Instead of seeking funding, support and legitimacy perhaps they should invest their energy in seeking a series of rolling bans on various art forms. No Poetry Month could be followed by No Theatre Month followed by No Interpretative Dance Month followed by No Opera Month. If accompanied by the thrill of serious but sporadically enforced penalties (say $5,000 fines and three months weekend detention) the thrill of discovery would be reignited and the problem of how to attract young people would be solved.
As for Singapore a friend who lived here for some time before ultimately being driven out and driven slightly mad summed it up perfectly. He left Singapore for a job in Kabul, Afghanistan explaining in matter of fact terms when he got to his new war torn home that “this place is fucked but at least the people know its fucked”.
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