Imagine you could remove all the daily irritations from the city in which you live. No one pushing or talking loudly on the efficiently run public transport system; no rubbish or sticky gum to be trodden underfoot on the well-kept, clean streets. And virtually no crime.
Such a city would, probably, resemble Singapore, one of the wealthiest per capita metropolises on the planet – a city-state that gleams with abundant material goods. “Nothing goes wrong here,” says Eric, a German expat. “Which sort of means that nothing really happens here.”
Singapore, once swampland, is now a multicultural hub of commerce. The old colonial facades remain – such as Raffles, the hotel where you gulp SingaporeSlings in a nutshell-strewn bar among superannuated cruise ship tourists – but it’s the glitz that catches the eye.
The huge Prada store on Orchard Road is capitalism in steel and electric form, while the Marina Bay Sands hotel dominates the skyline, looking like a boat has been carefully dropped upon it. There is colour and bustle in Chinatown, with its handsome temples and excellent food, but otherwise Singapore feels like it’s been scrubbed to within an inch of its life.
Day-to-day life is famously governed by a series of rules that maintain this clean, well-ordered city. The import of chewing gum is banned, therefore globs of the stuff aren’t found on the street. There are fines for irritating people with a musical instrument or your own drunkenness. Uttering an obscene song lyric or obstructing someone as they walk carries the threat of jail.
The result is a low-crime, scrupulously run city – with none of the incomprehensible, exciting chaos of cities found in neighbouring Indonesia or Malaysia. Aspects such as Singapore’s “intelligent” congestion charge system are held up as triumphs of urban thinking – but such achievements are made altogether easier by the authoritarianism that is evident as soon as you scratch the surface of life here.
“If you grow up in a first world country, you make the automatic assumption that economic development and basic freedoms go together,” says Alex Au, a Singapore-based writer. “But as you can also see in China, they are two separate things. Singapore likes to pull the wool over people’s eyes. It likes to say, ‘Oh, don’t we look like the west, with our glass and our skyscrapers, how developed we are.’ But it just serves as a mask.”
Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, launched legal action against Au last year for comments made about the government’s integrity on Au’s blog, called Yawning Bread. Despite making a retraction, Au is still being pursued through the courts.
It’s a fate that also befell Leslie Chew last year, who was arrested and charged with “sedition” over the content of his cartoon strip, called Demon-cratic Singapore. Yet another man, Roy Ngerng, is being sued by the prime minister for defamation over a blog. Ngerng was recently fired from his job at a local hospital, a dismissal he claims is politically motivated.
The effect of all this is a kind of semi-freedom. According to the Freedom House watchdog, Singapore, ruled by the same party since 1959, is only “partly free”. The government doesn’t drag people off the streets, but the populace acts as if it could be a possibility.
“I wouldn’t criticise all the rules in Singapore,” Au says. “If you step on dog poo on the pavement, you’d appreciate a rule against that. If anything, we should ignore the little things and talk about the censorship of the media and the arts. That creates a climate of self-censorship that wouldn’t be obvious to a tourist.”
There are other rules that may surprise the outsider. It’s difficult to buy public-adminstered housing in Singapore unless you’re married or over 35, which presents a further barrier on top of the high cost of dwellings in the city. Car ownership is also banned, unless you purchase one of a set number of expensive permits first.
“You can’t buy a flat if you’re single, which my generation isn’t too happy about,” says Samantha de Silva, a 31-year-old entrepreneur. “You feel you have to get married to get a flat, which is a strange economic transaction.”
De Silva said she felt quite oppressed when growing up, never quite sure how far she could push seemingly arbitrary authority before it pushed back. Things are changing now, however.
“Social media has changed a lot; it’s changed everything really,” she says. “Kids now see things differently; they don’t have the fear of the older generations. They are used to expressing themselves – there are quite a few poets and fiction writers now. People have a real passion for creative things.
“A friend of mine teaches in a polytechnic and he said these kids dream big. He asked them what they want to be when they grow up and they say ‘a Korean pop star’. The other kids don’t laugh at that. They don’t feel any limitations.”
Some do feel the heavy weight of state sanction, however. Chew, the Demon-cratic cartoonist who was charged with sedition, had his computers seized, his passport frozen and spent three months in detention.
“I have long suspected that the ruling party was a bunch of power-abusing hypocrites, and that encounter merely confirms the notion,” Chew says. He likens the control of the media as similar to that of North Korea. The wealth gap is getting worse, Chew says, fuelled by an “open door” approach to immigration.
“Day-to-day life gets harder and harder,” he says. “We are now one of the most expensive countries in the world with the highest cost of living, and no minimum wage to ensure that a person who puts in a honest day work can afford even the basic sustenance.
“We have elderly scavenging cardboard to sell for 10 cents a kilogram to make their next meal. The woes faced by the common folks are endless. There are just too many examples. Life is a horror if one does not belong to the rich.”
“It’s all about the money,” says De Silva.“I think we are way too materialistic as a nation. If you are a barista or waitress, you could be proud in other places for being the best in your job. Here it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a waitress.’ I’d like to see a Singapore where you aren’t judged by how much money you make.”
Others would like to see further changes. Au, who is gay, would like to see homosexuality decriminalised and the government remove itself from the ownership of the media, for starters. But he accepts that a Hong Kong-style uprising isn’t imminent.
“It depends on your horizons,” he says. “If you keep to yourself, life is very comfortable here. But if self-expression is important, you will be stymied at every turn.
“Increasingly, young Singaporeans are finding that the comfortable life is not enough, and they are rubbing up against those structures. It’s a Faustian deal. Some citizens are prepared to make that deal. Some are not.”
• This article was amended on 6 January 2015 to correct a statement that it is “forbidden to buy property in Singapore unless you’re married”. To buy throughSingapore’s public Housing and Development board, you must be at least 21 and purchasing with someone in your “family nucleus” – such as a sibling or spouse – or at least 35 if you are single. There are exceptions for orphans and the widowed.