On Friday November 13th a few hours before the Paris massacre a more innocent me wrote the text that follows. Then, I had thought Singapore’s social fears and archaic laws to be both naïve and ludicrous.
As the world weeps for Paris, a shift has occurred, and this little island’s formula for order – extreme cultural and religious tolerance combined with outlandishly draconian laws – now strikes me as considerably less foolish than it did two days ago.
Diwali began a few days back in Singapore. What a lovely surprise. Who would have thought that the Indian Festival of Lights would be a national holiday here? I’ve checked and Buddha’s birthday, Christmas, Good Friday, the end of Ramadan and the end of the Hajj are also official days off work. Chinese New Year gets two days off, normal New Year one, and there is Labour Day, National Day, Election Day and any other days the President wants. How lovely that a panoply of gods is appeased.
However, on such loose and unshaped days other rules apply, and one must be very very careful out and about in public places.
False urban legends abound. For example, it is commonly thought that the act of chewing gum is prohibited in Singapore. This is not true. Smuggling gum into the country gets you a year in jail and a $5,500 fine. If you can fashion your own gum in situ, then, in theory, you can chew away.
Vandalism is another no-no. And thank goodness. No graffiti, no litter, no cigarette butts, no unsightly signs on public property. However, if your cat wanders off and in sentimental shock you post his photo, an explanation, and your telephone number in your local park, you are looking at a potential $2,000-fine, 3-8 strokes of the cane and three years in prison. Fortunately, those of us over-50s are exempt from the flogging bit.
And then there’s the public transportation system with its no-drinking, no-eating, no breast-feeding rules. This is so no one slips and hurts themselves on spilled victuals. Probably best to keep the very young and the very old at home as spitting, vomiting, and forgetting to flush the toilet are also punishable public blunders.
In a popular restaurant at the tail-end of the Diwali holiday I overheard a conversation somehow connecting Singapore and North Korea. At that specific moment the man had in front of him a giant Häagen Dazs concoction—a tower of crêpes, ice-cream balls, whipped cream, sticky sauces, and sprinkles.
What a silly pudding! Everyone knows that they don’t have fancy ice cream parlours in North Korea. And if the Treason Police had overheard him he could have been detained without trial indefinitely.
I really do love this brave new world that is Singapore. With nary a cop in sight, I have a feeling that the dramatic laws are there to keep any potential tourist louts in line and to add a frisson of excitement for the rest of us. My Swiss half is in thrall at the litter-less streets, the spic-and-span sidewalks, and the graffiti-free walls. It was truly shocked when a very small dog on a rhinestone leash publicly peed in the botanical garden under the canna leaves.
My Canadian half, on the other hand, has a bit of a hankering after a spot of j-walking over to the 7/11 with a chewing tobacco chunk in my cheek. In this orderly, prosperous, utopic city state I have a small theory that John Savage might be lurking somewhere in the lilies.