Friday, October 13, 2006

Island In the Stream

Singapore has been in the news this week, what with its recent general election, and so I thought that a bit of a piece on Indonesia's oft-visited near neighbour might be in order.

The island calls itself the Republic of Singapore although, in comparison with its expansive neighbor Indonesia, it's really little more than a sandbar.

Despite its diminutive size though, Jakartans and Indonesians are constantly (if they've got any money to speak of) hopping back and forth to the island-state in order to shop, visit world-class hospitals and clinics and generally to enjoy a bit of first world standard infrastructure and law and order before heading back to the chaos of this fair city.

After a stint in Jakarta, Singapore can indeed be appealing, for a few days at least, and people fly there in droves from Jakarta to worship at the altar of Southeast Asia's economic miracle.

As an expatriate in Indonesia, my experiences in the city-state come when I have to renew my work visa at the Indonesian Embassy there.

The usual saga involves disembarking at Singapore's monumentally huge and high-tech Changi airport and taking a ride into the city on a local bus. After about an hour, I am thoroughly seduced by the clockwork order, efficiency and cleanliness of the place.

Traffic runs fluently, pavements are smooth and level, litter is unheard of and the whole city actually seems to have been laid out according to some kind of logical plan.

Then I arrive at the Indonesian Embassy and am immediately plunged back into the pell-mell chaos of the motherland as I try to fill out a visa application in the cramped building and then join the free-for-all queues in order to pay the embassy staff the requisite "extra" money needed to facilitate a speedy processing of my papers.

After all that's over, there's a chance to bowl up and down Orchard Road, shopping and eating some great food.

Yes, Singapore certainly has been a huge economic success over the past 50 years or so, and partly for reasons that this country could do well to emulate.

It opened up free trade zones and allowed foreign companies to set up shop completely tax-free. The strategy worked and contrasts strongly with the tortuous minefields of bureaucracy, bribery and sleaze that foreign investors usually encounter over here.

However, Singapore is also a place I don't think that I could ever live in for any period of time and this is for a number of reasons.

On my first visit there, I was casually extinguishing a cigarette on the pavement when I was accosted by a policewoman with such fervor that I could have been molesting a child.

"You don't do this in Singapore!" she screamed with a nationalistic vehemence that put me at a loss for words.

This is the other side of Singapore, the Big Brother breathing down its citizens' necks, the autocratic nanny state that inflicts corporal punishment (caning) and imposes lists of rules and regulations in their thousands.

It's this regimented social hegemony and mind-set that disturbs Westerners and Indonesians alike.

'False democracy'

The various Mr. Lees that have run the country through the People's Action Party (PAP) have turned Singapore into a democracy as false as Indonesia's was under Soeharto.

Take the recent election for example. The PAP won 82 out of 84 seats, 37 of which were uncontested by any opposition at all.

The reason for this is that opposition politicians are perpetually hounded, victimised and sued into poverty for supposed defamation by the bellicose politicians who run things.

Orwellian thought control is pervasive and Internet bloggers have become the latest victim of Southeast Asia's Big Brother.

Political discourse is discouraged and when the republic decided to set up a Speaker's Corner in one of its parks (inspired by the one in London's Hyde Park, in which people stand and speak whatever is on their minds), they decided to build it next to a police station.

Indonesia now seems like a democratic utopia in comparison (albeit one that barely seems to function).

This Big Brother/thought crime mind-set that exists in Singapore produces not only the lovely policewoman who pulled me up short, but also a lack of great thinkers or artists.

Certainly none are springing to mind as I write this and I guess that there is little room for artists to manoeuver in the strict political and social hygiene of Singapore.

Singapore also, despite the huge economic wealth generated there, has no welfare system to help out its poorest citizens.

No economy exists in isolation, especially these days, and perhaps Singapore's wealth is partly propped up, if not on the poverty of its own citizens, then on the poverty of surrounding countries such as Indonesia.

One example of this are the many Indonesians involved in corruption who have fled to the island because it won't extradite Indonesian criminals back home.

So I'm afraid it's Jakarta for me every time in all its dirty, stinking, rioting, impoverished, chaotic, grid locked, overcrowded glory. Viva le Republic.