My first taste of Singapore was a sweet corn bun. The bun was delivered as the plane whisked me away from the hot stink of Indonesia, separated from the flight attendant’s hand by a layer of plastic and a pair of tongs. It was hard to tell what was more food like: the bun or the plastic that encased it. The term sweet corn had been used loosely. It was more like sweet, corn infused foam. Later, I wondered whether the sweet corn bun and Singapore were one and the same.
Both were carefully packaged and sealed off from the rest of the world; both the products of globalisation, constructed with mind-numbing efficiency; both totally hygienic, devoid of anything natural enough to tempt disease. Most of all, both had achieved – through a hyper-controlled, production line attempt at creating something that looked, smelled, tasted, like real food – a product that was as far from real as possible.
Singaporeans are birthed from the womb of a shopping mall, born with plastic shopping bags for hands. Their skin has the pale hue of a people who spend most of their time shuffling between indoor spaces. Their bodies have softness similar to teddy bears. Every surface in Singapore gleams like a mirror, from the metal poles on public transport to the tar free slick of the busy roads. The spotless trains operate with an efficient whip. A tart British voice-over directs passengers where to stand, where not to stand, what to do, what not to do – thank you very much.
Mess is vigorously micromanaged, the effect being efficiency so extreme it seems, ironically, a waste of time. An omnipresent advertising campaign filled the subways, announcing to passengers, “When it comes to the flu, sharing isn’t caring,” before providing the helpful advice: “Cover your mouth when you sneeze.”
The train was a familiar sea of closed faces and iPod headphones. I had almost forgotten this stark symbol of Western individualism. I had just come from Indonesia, where personal space is rare as cool relief is from the sun’s relentless beat. Yet by placing a tiny white bud in both ears, every man could instantly become his own island, projecting around him a wall of privacy that repelled strangers. I watched self-conscious eyes dart from one person to the next, never lingering long enough to risk impoliteness – or worse – confrontation. Those fearful eyes revealed trapped souls, unable to escape the loneliness their perfect society had ensnared them in.
With the uncomfortable throb of Indonesia still embedded in my brain, I saw with fresh eyes the damaging potential of such a culture. One could choose never to rise from their slumber and face the discomfort of daily existence, wrapped forever in the solitary cocoon of a home. But it was in this discomfort – in the loud, hot, jammed streets of Yogyakarta, or Surabaya – that the possibility for real human connection existed. The Singaporeans’ bid to recreate the best aspects of Western society had instead concentrated its most heinous flaw: isolation.
Thousands of kilometres away from Singapore I got a very different view of its culture. In a dirty Hanoi alleyway I cooked my own meat and ate it sizzling hot, the sauce drizzling over my hands. It was here I met an Australian expat working as an international schoolteacher in Singapore. He fed two small children while simultaneously beating off my lighthearted jibes at Singapore. I was about to get a lesson of my own.
I asked him what it was like to live in a country that banned chewing gum. Singapore is a very efficient country, he replied, a very successful country, a place where – against all the odds – living standards are high. Its people continue to put their trust in the same men, time and time again, because those men continue to deliver very high quality education, health, and transport.
Singapore, he boasted, lives beyond its means – an island living the life of a continent. And let us not forget its precarious position between Malaysia and Indonesia; rejected by one and often threatened by the other. Singapore’s success, he concluded, was made more incredible and commendable by the odds against which it had succeeded.
My train sped out of Singapore with the same efficient whip that brought me there. I searched the eyes of passengers for some further sign of perversion, a glitch in the perfect system. I imagined someone might instantly combust if I struck up a conversation. Alas, they only looked away shyly – a demure reaction, but not an abnormal one. They were, after all, using the same invisible walls first built in the West.
I noticed the dull glaze in their eyes, lit only by the muted light of electronic devices. Perhaps they were soulless, wired with the same circuitry that powered their limb-like gadgets. Perfect, but empty. As I dashed for the last empty seat, a Singaporean woman did the same. We looked up and met eyes before she noticed my large backpack and pulled out of the race with a quick sheepish smile, pretending to have been destined for the handrail.
Her eyes had left me already, the wall had gone back up, but it was a human moment all the same – a kernel of real corn hidden in an artificial bun.