Looking For Culture In The Malls Of Singapore

Suppose the Asian city-state is the experiment that will survive

March 23, 2015 in Strait of Malaca | Comments (1)

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Shopping for cameras in Singapore would be a cultural experience, I thought, a story to take home like eating in a hawker market or posing among the eerie manikins depicting the Japanese surrender in 1945. I thought I might discover that salesmanship is a cultural thing, that sales techniques vary with cultural diversity, if there is any such thing in global merchandising. All this helped me rationalize the intention to resist buying a fine Lumix camera made in Japan.

Our first stop was luxurious Orchard Road, where the Ion complex features designer franchises (Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dior, Armani) with men in black suits at the doors and Takashimaya, a Japanese department store with a fine expansive international book store. The cameras were across Orchard in the many small shops of Lucky Plaza, a less exclusive mall, where salesmen in white shirts watched professionally for, I suppose, a telltale gleam in the eye of a wandering tourist. They were team players, quick to display the merchandise and ask opportunistic questions – How long you been in Singapore? This your first visit? How long you going stay? – tests of naiveté and finality of purchase. These places were too like Times Square in New York, I thought, no ethnological material here.

But now I was in the Jurong area on the southwest part of the island at the camera counter of a big retailer that served local people (it has its own rapid rail station, a bus terminal, and expressway access, against a backdrop of high colorful new residential buildings. The amiable and studious young sales clerk watched helpfully as I toyed with the camera. Her name tag said (probably) Ling Hong. She was Chinese.

Chinese? Singapore, off the tip of the Malay peninsula and across from Sumatra, is not anywhere near China and Ling was speaking English, not Mandarin. Identifying her with cultural certainty would require knowing “whatever it is that defines identity in borderless capitalism and the global village.” These were the words of the late Clifford Geertz of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, an alarming cultural anthropologist whose essay, “The World In Pieces,” I had been studying. If he didn’t know, after a lifetime of study, what defines culture, how in the world could I? Still, if you study history rather than anthropology it’s clear that discrimination came easy for Singapore strangers, among them:

The British. When Sir Stamford Raffles of the East India Co. stepped off the boat and bought the port from a local sultan, he established separate Chinese, Malay and Indian districts separate from his own kind. Singapore became the heart of the British Empire in Southeast Asia, succeeding the Portuguese-then-Dutch colonial city of Melaka on the Malay coast, and the discrimination of masters and subjects was fundamental throughout.

The Japanese. During their military occupation of Singapore from what Churchill called “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history” in February 1943 to the Japanese surrender to the Allies on Sept. 12, 1945, fierce and ruthless soldiers sorted out and executed perhaps 100,000 “Chinese” men. This estimate comes from Lee Kwan Yew, who in his early twenties narrowly escaped one of the Japanese firing squads. “Millions died in Japanese-occupied territories in Southeast Asia,” he wrote. “Prisoners of war, British, Dutch, Indian and Australian alike, rotted away or were worked to death.” (More of Lee in a moment.) The trauma of that occupation is marked by elaborate exhibits in two military parks in Singapore, as it is elsewhere in the region.(In Sandakan we saw a simple pavilion in remembrance of 1,700 Australian soldiers who died in a Borneo death march.)

The Malayans. Two years after the agonizing 1963 creation of the Malaysian federation, its leader in Kuala Lampur divorced Singapore. The island’s demographics (75 per cent Chinese, 14 Malayan, 9 percent Indian) posed a mathematical threat to political domination by ethnic Malayans despite their favored treatment in the federation’s constitution. Lee recalled the separation, ordered by the Tunku (a hereditary leader) as a calving off, as in a glacier. (Geertz, uninformed, called it a “velvet divorce.”) Suddenly the island was deprived of its hinterland (Lee’s word) holding all the resources including water that normally sustain a city. Singapore overnight became a sovereign city-state, cut off and on its own, and Lee at age 35 became the undisputed leader of more than 2 million distressed Singaporeans.

The “Chinese” themselves. Determining who’s who by “whatever it is that determines identity” is confusing in Singapore. A taxi driver was playing Mandarin lessons. Another told me that Jesus was Lord and the salvation that began in the Middle East and moved West was finally reaching Asia. Surely Ling here at the camera counter would know her ancestors, probably migrants from southern China. Lee wrote, with pride in the accomplishments of a prosperous, anglicized population: “We, the Singapore Chinese, were descendants of illiterate, landless peasants.” But Chinese identity was dangerous after the war. Many Singaporeans were inspired by the communist revolution in China under Mao. Communists began to organize in the Chinese community, provoking ethnic conflict with the Malays.

Communism was sweeping aggressively through decolonized Southeast Asia. The British imposed a state of emergency from 1948 until Singapore’s independence in August 1957. In Indonesia reaction to a communist coup resulted in massacres in Bali, Java and parts of Sumatra and brutal repression by Suharto’s troops in East Timor and New Guinea. In rural Malaya, communist guerillas were terrorizing and kidnapping the urban bourgeoisie. And, as Americans know, a war was beginning in Vietnam and (secretly) in Laos. But in tiny Singapore the struggle took a different path under the strong leadership of Lee Kwan Yew.

Son of a middle class businessman, Lee grew up speaking English and graduated from Raffles College. After the war he went to England and was awarded a law degree from Cambridge. On his return he set up a successful law practice in Singapore, often representing leftist political defendants. He and some colleagues formed the non-communist People’s Action Party in 1955, and in the 1959 general election under the new constitution they won 43 of the 51 seats in parliament. They claimed victory dressed in white shirts and pants to represent their intent to clean up Singapore. Lee was named prime minister.

But there was a party revolt, as certain PAP members resigned to form a pro-communist opposition. Lee wrote that the period from late 1962 to the September 1963 election just after creation of Malaysia was “the most hectic of my life.”

It took hard work, detention of a few adversaries, and basic Western politicking, to defeat the communists, regarded as violent agitators. (There were strikes and riots.) Lee campaigned in all neighborhoods, shaking hands, talking from a bullhorn from an open Land Rover (despite hecklers). The PAP used television, introduced in February 1963, with apparent success against their opposition. “Their techniques were those of the mass rally, where the speaker bellowed, grimaced and exaggerated his gestures in order to be seen by those at the back of the crowd. Captured on the screen with a zoom lens the speakers looked ugly and menacing,” Lee recalled. The PAP won back complete control of the government, and Lee would be prime minister for the next 27 years, retiring at age 66 in 1990.

When the “men in white” consolidated their power under Lee, Singapore was a mess, socially and environmentally. Murderous clashes between Chinese and Malay Muslims in 1964 may have helped prompt the separation from Malaysia. The students at the Chinese-language Nanyang University were in constant revolt. And, Lee recalled looking out his office window and seeing cows grazing on the Padang (the colonial-era soccer pitch that still defines central Singapore).

As the government appropriated rural property and old neighborhoods for development of apartment complexes and industrial parks, it broke up ethnic enclaves, integrating the population by law. Nanyang University was converted from Chinese to English instruction. (The message implicit in today’s touristy Chinatown, colorful Little India and exotic Arab Street is somewhat misleading.) Similarly, economic integration did away with potential slums. Criminal penalties including corporal punishment (caning) were instituted under a principle Lee wrote that he learned from the Japanese occupation, namely that severe penalties do deter crime.

One of the first tasks in modernizing the infrastructure was to clean up the Singapore River and all the streams and ditches that drained into it. The water is now so clean that a reservoir is being built at the mouth of the river – an ingenious project that will displace sea water with fresh water behind a levy. The powerful Housing Development Board was instructed in architectural diversity. Lee planted trees in ceremonies to reinforce the goal of making Singapore a garden city. (Which it now is — a separate department is assigned to take care of trees, among them the imported rain trees spaced along expressways and valued at $50,000 each, in case you destroy one in a motor vehicle accident.)

Lee and his party experimented with new forms of social reform. About 10 years after sovereignty the government created a tax on wages to go into a Central Provident Fund, begun as individual savings for retirement. As the CPF grew, its investments included the municipal rapid transit system (which actually became profitable), and individual accounts were made available for health care and home ownership. About 80 per cent of Singapore citizens live in apartments built by the government, and 95 per cent of these own their residences under 99-year leases. This novel counter against inflation of housing prices in growing economies has helped reduce poverty in Singapore to near zero.


Singapore, in view of its background and the risky directions that the revolt against colonialism took elsewhere, is a surprising free-market, consumerist economy. More important, according to official American assessments, it is remarkably corruption-free for a nation that was regarded as “Third World” 50 years ago. Per capita gross domestic product is greater than $50,000 per person, higher than most developed countries including the United States. Unemployment at the end of 2009 was 3 per cent despite the global financial crisis. The economy depends heavily on exports, including consumer electronics, information technology products, and pharmaceuticals. Financial services have become a growing part of the economy.

Now it’s a city state of nearly 5 million, including guest workers. Because the 214 square miles of the main island are entirely urban (the last rural village was torn down for development two years ago), its population density is among the highest in the world, about 18,000 per square mile. But with stunning new office buildings, preserved landmarks, immaculate apartment complexes, 60 parks and five nature preserves, it is a pleasant place to live and to visit. With its state-of-the-art infrastructure, including efficient light rail systems, frequent buses and well-regulated taxis, it is efficient and workable. It is about to become the first country to have total fiber-optic communications.

Singapore has one of the best health care systems in the world, as reflected in World Health Organization ratings of life expectancy and infant mortality. Combined with a low birth rate, these have produced a high median age of 39 years (which could forewarn problems in the future).

While China was going through the Cultural Revolution, Singapore was both redeveloping urban areas and reclaiming and developing previously uninhabitable areas such as Jurong Industrial Township, where we were staying. When Lee first visited China in 1976, in the last days of Mao, he and his wife, Choo, “never felt more un-Chinese,” he wrote. Things changed under Deng Xiaoping, whom he admired.

In 1992 Lee visited Suzhou, sometimes called the Venice of China. “It was in dilapidated condition, with its canals filthy and polluted,” Lee wrote. Yet his imagination was struck by the former glory of its gardens and mansions, still preserved, west of Shanghai. He took up a proposal by Chinese officials to do for Suzhou what had been done for Singapore, and two years later signed an agreement to begin an industrial park.

But soon local Chinese officials became a problem. In Lee’s analysis they wanted the Singapore hardware (buildings, roads, communications) but not the Singapore software (a pro-business climate). For example, he wrote, “Singaporeans take for granted the sanctity of contracts,” but Suzhou authorities seemed to operate on the idea that contracts “can be altered – reinterpreted with changing circumstances.” They still adhered to what Lee called “traditions of the imperial mandarate.” The principle of “Better Red than expert,” he wrote, “was a fallacy, a fraud practiced on the people.”

Now, I was shopping for a camera in a monument to everything Mao hated (He is reputed to have an aversion to touching money.) The Jurong Point Mall is indistinguishable from the newest and largest shopping centers in the West: the franchise names, the boutiques, the multiplex, the food courts, the escalators, the promenades, the views from upper tiers. And so I faced salesperson Ling with a Western consumerist attitude, namely, price is everything. But she was not discounting. Not only that, the non-negotiable price was slightly higher than the internet quotes, all remarkably similar. I prepared to make my excuses and say goodbye, ending this dubious cultural experience. But to my surprise she kept adding accessories to those on the counter (two 8 gigabite cards, a card reader, lens cleaning kit, camera case, camera bag, 100 free prints). Ling added a tripod. “No, No,” I said, waving off the stuff. “Too much money.”

Then came the cultural experience. “No charge,” she said, gesturing at the accessories with a smile. Oh. I was catching on. Well, but what about the sales tax (7 per cent)? No problem, she said, it was included in the price and I would get a refund. I was skeptical. Canada has a sales tax refund program for tourists, but it requires filing an application and documentation and waiting weeks or months for your money. Not here. Ling would give me all the documentation I need, and I would present it at the airport with my passport and get cash back, on the spot. Hmm. About $200 worth of stuff was on the counter, along with the fine Japanese camera and lens I wanted, in the original box. “How about an extra battery?” I asked. She added it.

Done deal.

As I thought about it later, the transaction took on more and more cultural meaning. In Singapore the accessories were incentives, free. In most U.S. transactions the accessories are where they screw you, often at list price. In other words, you negotiate the final offer, then the salesman says that, of course, batteries are not included (nor the SD card, the case, the extra battery, etc.) – accessories are extra.

I watched this same generous sales technique in another, cheaper, purchase in another mall store. So it seemed to be general practice. And I learned that including the sales tax in the price was also the practice in Singapore, contrary to the U.S., where 6 or 8 percent is added at the cash register. “For the governor,” U.S. sales people sometimes quip, separating themselves from the substantial add-on.

I drew two cultural conclusions.

First, the free accessories were consistent with a tradition of hospitality. I knew from experience that it was customary in Japan and Taiwan to welcome visitors with gifts in addition to entertaining them with food and drink. By contrast, in North America, the dinner guest, for instance, shows up with a bottle of wine or some other gift. It’s an implicit quid pro quo, something which on a higher level in business or politics is looked upon with suspicion.

Lee’s memoirs, by contrast, describe many instances where he and his officials went to great lengths to welcome manufacturer scouts from the West. (Constructing a temporary high voltage electrical line overnight, for example, so that an American corporate official could ride the elevator in an incomplete building rather than walk up six flights of stairs to view prospective office space.) I wondered what the late French anthropologist Marcel Maus would have said about generosity in Singapore. He is the one who made the famous study of “potlach” among Pacific Coast tribes – the mandatory (and excessive) sharing of good fortune with others.

My second conclusion was about the practice of including the tax in the price, contrary to the U.S. practice of separating the two. In most states sales taxes are actually gross receipts taxes, levied on the merchant not the customer, but both sides like to regard the tax as an imposition by government. The implication of including the tax in the sticker price is complicit, an acceptance of the cost of government (and of government itself). I thought of the American “Tea Party” and the long tradition of revolt against taxation (and against government itself).

During five weeks in Singapore over the past two years I met no Singaporeans who expressed unhappiness with their government.
Of course they might be aware of the risk of protest in view of post-war history. The “men in white” fought communism aggressively – but not in the American way (Vietnam, domino theory, assassinations, homeland paranoia) – and they won power in a country where a majority began by identifying with China. They did it without a war, without any apparent lingering hatred. And the result was Singapore now. A garden city. A clean city. No air or water pollution. Smooth transit system. Few traffic jams (cars are limited). Very little crime. Negligible unemployment. Excellent health care. Pride of ownership. Architectural diversity. And tourism is growing.

Lee observed that city-states do not have a very good record of survival. But in the world of the post-colonial-revolution, Singapore might be the experiment that actually works and survives. Criticism of harsh criminal penalties, obsessive cleanliness, insufficient press freedom and one-party rule is so common in the Western press as to constitute a rote exercise in political correctness. Perhaps Lee’s answer is in the preface of his second memoir volume. He wrote that (in 50 years) his rare city-state has left behind its problems of Third World poverty, adding: “However, it will take another generation before our arts and culture and social standards can match the First World infrastructure we have installed.” Hardware, software. Language of a new political philosophy. . .