Singapore: Culture Coma

posted by keeb January 16, 2013

Culture Coma by Samuel Melton

I’ve been trying to quantify the value of a kind of exchange between humans which for want of a better word can perhaps best be described as ‘warmth’. The cosy association of being centrally huddled around a camp fire springs to mind. Those of you who have been fortunate to have spent nights in the wilderness have all gazed into its embers and felt harkened back to a time where our ancestors were enraptured by legends told in dramatic tomes, of malevolent forces and tales of enemies overcome by great courage and good fortune.

They must have felt the warmth of knowing that whilst surrounded by the glow of the fire and warmth of their kinship that the malevolent evils, whether imagined or real would be kept at bay by the collective force of their clan. The glow that remained after the fire had died and children peacefully slept was the enduring sense of belonging, a sense of brotherhood ignited by the stories but perpetuated by the innate need to belong long after the fire had become ashes.

It’s a long time since fire became the central gathering point for early society, so what are the metaphorical fires we all gather around now? In tribal society where group cohesion and a sense of unity were the all important factors to ensure survival, the story-telling of myth and legend would surely contain some degree of creative license in order to captivate the clan sufficiently well enough, not only to continue storytelling tradition but to weave into the fabric of group identity such strong collective associations that when other rival clans became aggressive, the well-groomed instinct for group survival took over and ensured the best possible defense. A creative license with the best of intentions is surely a harmless tool, but what of the creative license of censorship, of the human right of free speech and self-expression?

Fast forward to the present. In the absence of any imminent threat of warfare and violence, ‘developed’ society steers the planet in a direction in which we are told to believe is for the common good of all. But what are the fires we are gathering around now, and who is telling the stories?

As I’m writing this I’m sitting in a cafe in central Singapore, a city established by the British and since become a hugely successful free market economy. Having spent the majority of my years in the UK, I can sense the similarity of its respective people’s characters immediately. The overriding business-as-usual countenance one encounters amongst Singaporeans is striking after having come from its nearest city in Indonesia, Jakarta where any opportunity of small-talk and respite of work duties is taken readily. Equally contrasting is the aversion of eye contact amongst strangers here reminding me of that saddest of awards given to that loneliest of cities in the world, London ‘The Loneliest City’. But the chill in my spine I experience upon setting foot in Singapore goes way beyond any observation of the country-wide decline the UK has recently been experiencing. Of the multitude of potential cultural values which could be loudly expressed, the extrinsic values of personal appearance and affluence are expressed loudest in Singapore. Walking around the city, the personal Mecca people seem almost hypnotically attached to is ‘high standard of living’. The near clinical standards of city-wide hygiene remind you of a neurotic parent bubble-wrapping their children against all and anything of perceived threat. In and of itself not a terrible quality perhaps, but the ideal isn’t bounded by hygiene alone, it extends outwards into the very human spirit itself. At what cost? If we closely relate a country’s culture with its art, what does the near-artistically void Singapore say about it’s culture? Widespread governmental censorship has created such a gaping lack of any appreciable art scene here that would-be artistic talent is effectively quashed before it’s barely had a chance to become anything remotely resembling the expression of a culture’s people.

This is of course completely intentional. With an obsessive focus on economic progress at all costs, the diminished human spirit only serves to inhabit another consumer, another number to be pushed through the system to contribute to its much lauded 9% average growth of GDP. It is the living enactment of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. A gross experimental catastrophe of a people with no choice but to conform. I am here to witness it, sit around its camp fire, and I can’t wait to get

Walking down any number of its lavish shopfronts and clinically spotless streets, I am struck by a complete lack of spontaneous social interaction amongst its citizens. Adherence to oppressive state laws mean that ad-hoc gatherings of artists and free-thinkers are punishable by law resulting in a complete lack of any vibrant arts-scene, an indicator of the culture coma Singapore is immersed in.

‘This is the cost of comfort and control’, it’s citizens say. A GDP which has risen on average of 9% year on year for decades would be proof of so much if only a measure of the human spirit were quantified in equal terms.

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