Upon my arrival in Singapore in the 1990s I was often met with the refrain, 'Welcome to Disneyland.'
Disneyland is a magical kingdom where many delightful events occur. However, Disneyland is an artificial construct with little semblance to the real world.
Expats may live in Disneyland but Singaporeans live in the real world. In fact, Singaporeans have a reputation for complaining. From the cost of living, immigration to cycling on pavements it's all on the Singaporean conversation agenda.
Several factors contribute to Singapore's characterization as a real world Disneyland.
There is the 'nanny state' perception. The idea that the government can and does manage social behaviour closely, witness the ban on chewing gum. Complement social controls with new and well planned physical infrastructure on a small island and you have an 'urban village.'
Village life is nice. Everyone knows each other. There is an order maintained by traditional authority but also by socially sanctioned peer pressure. Most importantly, people in villages generally trust each other because they are not transients. They are permanent.
To the many heads of state that gathered in Singapore for the recent APEC summit the city-state must have appeared like a Fantasyland. The government always makes sure of that for visiting dignitaries.
Nevertheless, to an urban cynic, villagers are naive country bumpkins. And from time to time, the clash between the real world 'doubting Thomas' and Disneyland's fairy tale figures is visible.
Consider the letter in the Straits Times comparing the APEC summit to the Happy Families card game. (I am unfamiliar with the card game but the title is self-explanatory.)
The letter is well written. It demonstrates knowledge of topical global issues. It is optimistic about the future. It celebrates the progress made by Singapore in the last four decades.
Yet, it is self-laudatory about Singapore and its leadership. It is deferential towards authority. It addresses issues superficially at best. At times, the sentiments expressed are naively optimistic.
Of course, in order to have a letter published in the Straits Times it must be all of these things. I reread the content of any letter I submit to the Straits Times many times before hitting the send button.
It is important that I not get sued for defamation or sedition by the state apparatus!
I guess you can call it social intimidation. Although when one compares it to outright physical assaults for expressing ideas in certain other countries Singapore is really not that bad.
But I digress from the letter to the Straits Times. The letter subtly reminds us we live in a Disneyland of our own making. The social contract is sacred. Each of us has our stations in society. The leadership leads and villagers follow. The distinction is clear.
Of course, Disneyland has modernized itself to survive in the new world. 'Red China' is getting its own Disneyland located in Shanghai. Lilo and Stitch have emerged as new Disney characters.
In order to survive, even Disney's Fantasyland has to change with the times.
The entire text of Mr. Clinton Lim's letter has been reprinted as the previous post.