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Singapore's Modern Revolution

While efficiency and order have long been national virtues, Singapore’s modern revolution is welcoming the arrival of a cutting-edge art scene, celebrity chefs, mega-resorts, and even casinos.

By Guy Trebay

In shiny, happy Singapore, superlatives come at you with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Not two minutes after my arrival at Changi Airport, rated Tip-Top Number One Most Excellent Airport in the Universe (or something like that) by Skytrax, I was being regaled with tales of crackerjack government efficiency.

See the scarlet-flowered rain trees lining East Coast Parkway like a regiment of neon-green umbrellas! They are actually planted in tubs! At a word, superbly trained government workers appearing out of nowhere can swarm the asphalt and whisk the trees away in 30 minutes, converting the road into an emergency runway!

In Singapore—improbable geopolitical phenomenon, tiny banking and trade powerhouse, a nation transformed in a half-century from a scruffy, licentious port into the squeaky-clean economic heavyweight of Southeast Asia—the way is ever forward.

For the better part of the 20th century, the dynamics of Singapore’s futurist trajectory dominated the national narrative, and there is no reason to think that will change anytime soon. In the past several years alone, the island nation has poured billions of dollars into efforts to refashion itself as an equatorial Vegas, green-lighted the creation of two immense new “integrated resorts” with casinos at their heart, gone on a hotel-building spree that transformed many remnants of the colonial era into chic hostelries, like the brand-new Fullerton Bay, and renovated or else seriously rethought its institutions of culture, as if to rebuke those (and there are many) who have long griped that Singapore lacks soul.

These changes, unimaginable not so long ago, owe to a number of factors, not least of which are the irresistible incursions of the Internet, the return home of the country’s young and educated expatriate caste, and the first stirrings of cultural relaxation on the part of the social engineers who govern the place.

It’s not exactly as if Singapore’s dubious global reputation is altogether unwarranted. It remains in some ways the place its critics deride: vaguely sterile, overregulated—the so-called Asian Switzerland. It is still a country where press freedoms are scant; where both homosexuality and gum-chewing are highly restricted; where certain criminal offenses are punishable by the stroke of the cane. It is still possible in Singapore to lose days in the lightly chilled limbo of air-conditioned shopping centers, seldom encountering sunlight and yet rarely out of sight of Chanel.

But behind the gleaming palisades of glass and the modern office towers and malls, another Singaporean reality lies hidden in plain sight. “All those criticisms, the nanny-state thing, are outdated,” Kenson Kwok, the former director of the Asian Civilisations Museum, told me one afternoon at his early 20th-century terrace house near the city’s commercial center. “It’s a different country now. You’ve got politicians in their thirties and forties who will effect change.” Those politicians, like many among the country’s hyper-educated management set, must be aware of the costs of Singapore’s unsavory Big Brother reputation. So it is no coincidence that the country also seems suddenly eager to spotlight those parts of the cultural past thrown overboard as ballast during its race to modernity.

“Singapore is a tiny country, a tiny island,’’ Kwok said. “And the government, since independence, felt it first had to meet people’s material needs.”

Now that everyone makes a living wage and has cable, the government appears eager to promote the jumbled immigrant cultures—Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan, European—that in some ways render Singapore surprisingly less like Geneva than my hometown of New York City. This other Singapore is made up of funky gay bars, the wondrously humble culinary dreamlands called hawker centers, a nascent assortment of galleries displaying contemporary art, and brothels that, of all things, are sanctioned by the government. Once you manage to escape the dead zone of the banking district, it is easy enough to uncover a subtly different cityscape in the sinuous streets of the Muslim quarter, the noisome lanes in Chinatown, the leafy outlying districts that deviate altogether from the compact grid.

And in that transition you can occasionally find yourself slipping into the ghostly embrace of old Singapura. The spirit of a premodern city percolates quietly and surprisingly through daily life, whether on Serangoon Road, in Little India, where dour Brahman priests perform their time-honored devotions to the destroyer goddess Kali at theSri Veeramakaliamman Temple, or along the former cart paths off Pagoda Street—center in the 19th century of slaving, opium dens, and every form of crime and vice—that teem with food stalls called coffee shops and the trinket stores that signify Chinatown all over the world. The past settles around you as you wander the vaults of the venerable botanical garden, where century-and-a-half-old banyans rise from buttressed roots, where orchids are trained to grow into through-the-looking-glass archways, and where frangipani trees scatter their sweet-smelling blossoms all over, lending the place an air of floral deshabille.

A surprisingly rewarding dimension of a visit to Singapore is the discovery of so many hard-structure remnants from earlier times. The country appears to have retained more intact buildings from the colonial era than most cities in the region. In Vientiane or Phnom Penh or Hanoi, the little-cherished vestiges of the colonial past have generally been left to rot when they were not razed to make way for “progress.” Yet Singapore is still studded with old terrace houses, stucco riverside godowns (warehouses), neo-Gothic churches, colonnaded convents, and vast government buildings designed in what you might call the Anglo-bombastic style.

That old Singapore can be seen easily enough at the Singapore Cricket Club, a relic smack in the heart of the city. Ducking into the lobby of the club one afternoon to escape a driving rain, I surreptitiously jotted down the names of past club governors listed on a gilded signboard above a porter’s desk. There, in innocent patronymic sequence, hung a social and racial history of the former British colony formalized by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.

For the first century or so the roster of this exclusive institution was dominated by men with surnames staunchly representative of imperial Britain. Then—following the founding of modern Singapore, with its constitutionally enshrined policy of racial equality—names like Swettenham and Broadrick give way to those of people whose ancestors originated in southern Fujian or Tamil Nadu rather than Cornwall or Yorkshire. A club that was once frequented almost exclusively by whites became one that welcomed descendants of the brown- or yellow-skinned people who performed the back-breaking labor of building Singapore.

This is as it should be, of course, not least because a richly blended cultural mix has always been a central feature of this trade port propitiously situated on the Malacca Strait. It is geographic good fortune that Singapore is located where the Indian Ocean meets the South China Sea, and thus at the convergence of the great monsoonal winds that literally propelled early globalization. Traveling along east-west axes, every manner of material goods and also human flotsam fetched up in Singapore, creating the motley, dynamic, polyglot metropolis one would never imagine existed if all one saw on a visit was the city’s numberless malls.

And yet malls remain the first local feature every Singaporean is keen to flaunt. In particular, they can barely seem to contain their excitement at showing off a particularly retail-intensive stretch called Orchard Road, where an easy hour’s hike becomes the modern consumer’s equivalent of a trek through the jungles of Borneo.

In places like the Centrepoint Mall, the Far East Plaza, the Paragon, the Ion Orchard, the Orchard Point, the Far East Shopping Centre, the Orchard Emerald, the Orchard Towers, the Shaw House, or the Tanglin Mall, dense thickets of clothes and handbags and electronics and foodstuffs lure and assault the senses. Seeking shelter from the strike-you-dead heat of one summer afternoon, I hopped in a taxi to the Ion Orchard and passed the sandcastle spire of St. Andrew’s Cathedral on the way. I briefly considered stopping to visit but then remembered where I was and pressed on to the pagan temple of Prada instead.

It is doubtless this kind of philistinism that the government hoped to offset when it inaugurated a Renaissance City initiative a decade ago aimed at recasting Singapore as a global creative capital. Since then the fine, jewel-box Asian Civilisations Museum was opened in a colonial-era riverfront structure; the small Peranakan Museum, devoted to the fusion cultures of Singapore, was installed in a disused middle school; and Kwok Kian Chow, the former head of the Singapore Art Museum, was appointed to oversee the creation of a new National Art Gallery, which will open in the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings in roughly two years. The country recently hosted two well-received Singapore Biennales, created a duty-free and tax-free depot as a haven for international art collectors, and announced plans to launch Art Stage Singapore, hosting more than 80 international galleries, in the country’s bid to make Singapore a necessary whistle-stop on the global art-fair gravy train. Tellingly, perhaps, Art Stage Singapore will be held at the Marina Bay Sands resort, as impressive a monument to both tourism and expedient politics as you are ever likely to find.

It was also within the past decade that the government seemed to take a close look at the growing wealth of the mainland Chinese and deduce that banking alone might not suffice to ensure the island’s fiscal future. With typically Singaporean pragmatism, the country’s leaders reversed a long-term puritanical opposition to gaming and decided to turn the country into Vegas-sur-Mer. Never mind that the real Las Vegas was sliding toward oblivion, with unemployment at all-time highs and gambling revenue in the hole. The competitor that Singapore focused on was not situated in the Nevada desert but on a geographical flyspeck facing the South China Sea. Last year alone the gaming revenue from Macao’s 33 casinos outpaced those in Las Vegas, said David G. Schwartz, the director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

And it was likely the lure of all that mainland Chinese gambling money that prompted the government to shift its stance and welcome the importation of hundreds of gaming tables and thousands of slot machines, most of them located either at a brand-new “integrated resort” on Sentosa Island or at the glamorous Marina Bay Sands.

Only a week before my arrival, Diana Ross inaugurated the place, crooning “I’m Coming Out” at a party for 2,500 invited guests of the $5.5 billion resort. Unusually for Singapore, the casino opened behind schedule. All the same, its construction was a feat of some sort because, even in boom times, few countries—let alone one as small as Singapore—could allocate acres of space for the creation of an instant landmark or find the funds to erect on it a trio of 55-story towers topped with an aerial park that resembles an immense vessel stranded by the retreat of an ancient sea.

From the so-called SkyPark atop Marina Bay Sands, designed by the Israeli American Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, you can take in the harbor and the colonial quarter and the city center and the East Coast Park and, on a clear day, the Indonesian island Batam and Malaysia’s Johor state. Of course, most visitors to Marina Bay Sands are destined to spend their time gazing instead at the hypnotic glow of cherries or lemons cascading down the screens of one-armed bandits, but that’s beside the point.

At the Marina Bay Sands everything has been supersized, from the number of guest rooms (2,561) and the square footage of the adjacent convention center (1.3 million) to a quantity of retail space exceeding even that of Changi Airport. By the time of my visit, the resort was already logging 25,000 visitors a day, many presumably headed for the tables. What makes that statistic particularly impressive is the knowledge that the government imposes a 100 Singaporean dollar tariff on locals to deter them from blowing the rent on sic-bo or blackjack. And yet, as a Singaporean Chinese friend explained on my visit, “If you think another $100 is going to keep a Chinese person from gambling, you’re nuts.’’

That same friend, who had flown in from her current home in Munich to meet me, gazed around at the hordes cramming the colossal lobby of the Marina Bay Sands that first week and likened the place to an “intergalactic Bahnhof.”

So large are the spaces that even the ogling mobs seemed swamped in the air-conditioned vastness; huge elevator banks led to floors reserved for high rollers; huge art installations floated high in the air; a huge basin called Rain Oculus, by the American environmental artist and sculptor Ned Kahn, awaited the plumbing that would turn it into a fountain (or a big dentist’s rinse bowl, depending on your viewpoint) cascading through a pedestrian plaza and onto the retail center below.

The big culinary stars that are a requisite of every new tourist enterprise are naturally part of the scheme at Marina Bay Sands. Yet, where most hotels might content themselves with a single celebrity chef, Marina Bay Sands has seven: Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck, Santi Santamaria, Guy Savoy, Justin Quek, and Tetsuya Wakuda.

It may seem far-fetched to suggest that by installing slot machines and fancy guys wearing chef toques Singapore’s government is signaling a philosophical climate shift. But gaming is not the only indicator of a climate shift, the good kind, as a trip to the National Museum of Singapore made clear.

A smartly installed show there, “Singapore: 1960,” looked to evoke a time before the country was overtaken by the tumultuousness that led to its expulsion from the Malaysian states, a placid interlude between the bitter years of Japanese occupation and the wrenching creation of the modern city-state. As a brochure for “Singapore: 1960” was careful to explain, the show did not seek to “tell the political struggle of the political parties.” That would be a little dicey, even now.

Anyway, why bother, when that particular narrative has been drummed into every Singaporean’s head?

Instead, the exhibition slyly celebrated the politics of being Singaporean. It did this by assembling the stuff of daily life, objects as ephemeral as postcards, sarong kebaya dresses, news clippings, rock-and-roll records, and movie clips. More ambitiously it sought to summon up, through sound and smell, the atmospherics of a city—clamorous, redolent, and lush—that in its early incarnation was so entirely unlike the laboratory for social engineering that Singapore would become.

In one installation visitors were invited to squeeze an atomizer bulb beneath a glass tube, triggering the release of a specific smell. The aromas of street foods, of spices, of rubber set off no concrete memories for me, and yet any Singaporean above a certain age would recognize the ripe and earthy smells of the country as it was before mall-modernity covered it in an intoxicating consumerist cloud.

As it happened, there was also another show in town, an exhibition of the artist Ming Wong’s “Life of Imitation.” Like Wong Kar-wai, the Hong Kong director of tonal masterpieces such as the 2000 film In the Mood for Love, the Berlin-based Ming Wong is unapologetically affectionate for a bygone version of Asia. As Singapore’s representative to the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, Ming Wong set up shop in a maritime warehouse and showed videos that put inverted commas around the overheated Singaporean melodramas of the 1950’s. He also erected a series of movie-style billboards painted by the last surviving billboard artist of the era, Neo Chon Teck. At the Singapore Art Museum, Wong reprised the effort as a way of engaging the viewer in “questions related to roots, hybridity, and the politics of becoming.”

The politics of becoming were the last of my concerns on the final night of my stay, although I was curious about the delicious culinary contradictions set in front of me. My Singaporean friend and I had gone to dine at the open-air Lavender Street Hawker Centre, where we feasted on fish-ball noodles, prawn crackers with shrimp bits, and oyster omelettes, all washed down with cold Tiger beer.

Locals seated all around us at picnic tables were absorbed in their food—Singaporeans of all classes eat passionately, constantly, at any hour of the day and night—with a degree of concentration that bordered on reverence. No talk seemed to issue from our fellow diners beyond orders for more beer or requests to pass the incendiary chili sauce. My friend and I ordered a first course, and then a second, and then we decided to go for broke and finish up with bowls of assam laksa. The sweetish noodle broth of this classic dish is sometimes spiked with the mouth-watering piquancy of tamarind paste. A confetti of mint added a bright, cooling note. The unfamiliar hybrid elements were not easy to reconcile at first taste, and yet, as the flavors developed, it began to dawn on me that there was something Singaporean in the meal set before us, full of sweet and bitter contradictions that unfold on the tongue.

Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.