Valentine’s Day is not as big a deal here in Singapore as it is in the West. Still, strolling past the neighborhood restaurants, I spot more than a few couples canoodling through their facemasks.
It’s the first night since the Wuhan virus arrived that restaurants look semi- crowded. The ubiquitous malls, typically central to Singapore life, remain barely half-full. Quite a change for a town where, it’s often claimed. there’s little to do besides eating and shopping.
Heaven, as the Talking Heads song had it, is a place where nothing ever happens. If that’s true, Singapore must be pretty close to paradise. Conveniently situated out of the path of earthquakes, volcanoes, cyclones, and tsunamis, blessed with never-ending summer, with, thanks to its equatorial location, sunrise and sunset times that hardly vary all year, the days can glide by almost indistinguishable from one another.
Singapore hasn’t always been this tranquil, of course. A few folks are old enough to remember the Japanese invasion and occupation of the 1940s, and people my age experienced the former colony’s tumultuous and not always peaceful path to independence, first from Britain, then Malaysia.
Since then, however, it’s been onward and upward, with the ensuing 55 years having seen a sharp, steady rise from a poverty-stricken backwater riven by racial tensions to one of the richest, most stable and successful countries in the world.
It’s not an easy place to categorize or characterize. Touted by American and British right-wingers as the embodiment of laissez-faire (cutthroat if you prefer) capitalism, Singapore also guarantees health care, housing, and excellent public transportation to its citizens. 80% of the population, in fact, lives in public housing, much of which looks like luxury condos compared with the often nightmarish projects and council estates in the US and Britain.
It quickly becomes evident that Singapore’s government is motivated less by ideology than by the more obvious metric of “whatever works.” Some things look very much like socialism, others like the most ruthless form of capitalism. As with the various religions (discrimination or intolerance is not merely discouraged here; it’s illegal), differing philosophies of governance co-exist side-by-side, and often in close cooperation with each other.
But (you knew there had to be one coming, didn’t you?), Singapore has its critics. My friend Han, a lifelong, passionately loyal Hong Konger, gives a little sniff when I mention coming here. “Don’t you,” he’ll ask, “find it a little … boring?”
Personally, I don’t, but that might be because at my age, I can get by with far less upheaval and menace than I thought necessary as a young man. As a 20-something, I was eager to live in cities where violence and urban decay were an inbuilt part of daily life; now, in my 70s, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for simple joys like being able to walk to the store without worrying about getting shot.
For example, a friend in Baltimore complained the other day that his city was being put in a bad light by media reports that, with less than a month and half gone by in the new year, there had already been 40 homicides. Singapore, with almost ten times Baltimore’s population, and which is even more racially diverse, has had, as far as I know, zero.
“But isn’t Singapore a police state where they whip people for graffiti and execute them for chewing gum?” Americans ask. That’s slightly – ok, more than slightly – overstating it, but it’s true that law enforcement here is a bit more serious than what you’re used to in the USA.
Mostly, though, people police themselves. It’s not unusual to see cops on the subways or in other public places, but it’s rare – in fact I haven’t seen it happen yet – for them to question, let alone arrest anyone. There’s virtually none of what we in New York might call random assholeism: the guy sprawled across three subway seats playing a loud radio and cursing anyone who looks at him, or who pushes his way through crowds yelling obscenities and racial epithets, or who seems to go out of his way to make life miserable for his fellow citizens anyway he can, just because he can.
True, the police would swiftly intervene if anyone did behave like that, but it’s almost never necessary. Some Americans might find this stifling; their idea of “freedom” includes the right to be an obnoxious jerk. But Singaporeans, especially younger ones who’ve grown up in a largely crime-free environment, seem to have concluded that life works better for everyone when people simply show a decent amount of respect for each other. For the few who haven’t learned that lesson yet, yes, penalties can be pretty harsh.
If you’re a foreigner concerned about running afoul of the law, however, I offer the same advice I give to people visiting China: “Don’t do drugs, don’t try to overthrow the government, and you should be fine.”
Singapore differs from China in many ways, but the two places have one thing in common: citizens are willing to cut the government a lot of slack because they trust it to deliver a constantly improving quality of life. Another common feature is that in a conflict between individual rights and the collective good, the collective usually wins out.
Coming, as I do, from the land of anti-vaxers and crystal healers, I wondered how Americans would react if they were forced to have their temperatures taken before entering public buildings or could be involuntarily quarantined, as is currently the practice here. “What would happen,” I asked a Singaporean friend, “if someone refused to be vaccinated or to be tested for the coronavirus?”
He regarded me with the slightly bemused expression he reserves for any mention of American peculiarities. “They would be taken for vaccination or treatment, of course. We can’t put the public health at risk because someone got some bizarre ideas from the internet.”
With that in mind, a few weekends ago I started feeling like I was coming down with something, not a pleasant sensation when you’re in the midst of an epidemic. It was mostly the sore throat and general lethargy that precedes a cold or the flu, but having had a cold only a few months ago, I didn’t think I was due for another (my average is once every year or two).
I didn’t feel bad enough to see a doctor just yet; nor did I want to risk being quarantined or deported. At the same time, I didn’t want to take a chance on infecting others, so I stayed indoors and avoided contact with people for a few days until my symptoms disappeared as rapidly and mysteriously as they arrived.
When I ventured out again, the temperature-takers were everywhere. You could hardly enter a public building without being checked. Even though I felt fine, I worried that my temperature might suggest otherwise, so I stuck to the streets, until one night I decided to attend a lecture in a small community center.
There was nobody at the gate, but when I got into the lecture hall, a government functionary was recording everyone’s details (name, phone, have you been to China?) and taking their temperatures. Mine came in at 35.6° (96.1° Fahrenheit), which means I’m either exceptionally cold-blooded, or that the guy wasn’t too adept with a thermometer. I don’t think a low body temperature is a sign of good health the way low(ish) blood pressure can be, but I decided to interpret it that way, and relaxed and enjoyed the lecture.
Since then I’ve resumed a more or less normal life. I haven’t begun wearing a facemask, though my Chinese landlady called to reassure me that there was a box of them in the cupboard (they’ve been sold out in the shops for weeks). Long before the epidemic, the facemask was widely worn by Chinese and Japanese people, not just, as I assumed, for self-protection, but by the sick, out of consideration for others. It’s a good feeling, a sense of “we’re all in this together,” that is often lacking in America except during times of natural disaster or 9/11.
I’ve postponed, maybe canceled, my trip across the river to Malaysia for fear a sudden change in the rules might not allow me back into Singapore. In the meantime, I’ve been watching a lot of Chinese TV. Contrary to what you might have heard, their coverage, even if obviously controlled by the government, is more thorough and reliable than what you’ll get from American sources.
Supposedly respectable outlets like the New York Times or CNN hardly let a day pass without some version of “Virus crisis shows the intrinsic weakness of the Chinese system.” Trumpocrats like the odious Wilbur Ross crow that by damaging the economy, China’s epidemic could be good for business in America.
Why, I wondered, do they never run headlines like “Puerto Rico hurricane / Flint’s poisoned drinking water / disease-and-crime-ridden shantytowns / tens of thousands of gun violence fatalities reveal the flaws in America’s system”?
Whether or not mistakes were made (in the early stages of a crisis, they almost invariably are), you don’t kick a person or a country when they’re down, let alone try to exploit their misfortune for your advantage. From what I’ve seen, China is doing the best it can, and (knock on wood) seems to be turning the corner.
It would be interesting (and/or terrifying) to see how the anti-science, anti-expert Trump administration would handle a similar outbreak in the United States. It would probably depend, too, on whether the virus took hold in a Democratic or a Republican state. Let’s hope we never have to find out.
Though I’m much closer to ground zero of the epidemic, I feel safer here than I would back home in New York, and have more confidence in the government’s ability to deal with whatever happens. Singapore’s system, though not nearly as pervasive and powerful as China’s, leans more in that direction than toward the chaos and corruption Trumpism has unleashed on the United States.
I’m not allowed to march around with a “Down with the government” poster (you literally need a permit to protest here), and while there are multiple-party elections, only one party ever wins. Yet I can count on being looked after by a medical system that is available and affordable to all, and my chances of not being murdered or assaulted on the way to the hospital are astronomical compared with most American cities. A couple of freedoms not to be sneezed at, even by someone who, like me, was born and bred in the so-called land of the free.
It’s not a bad feeling during a time of danger. I’d feel similarly if the crisis involved a military invasion or a hurricane or earthquake.
It’s also, at the risk of sounding sentimental, an example of actual love. Ensuring that the fewest possible people are harmed while the overall society is protected is what you expect of parents, who do what is best for their kids whether or not the kids like or agree with it. That’s not to say that adult citizens are the equivalent of “kids,” but when it comes to knowledge of medical science and public health systems, yeah, they kind of are.
Anyway, that’s me signing off from Singapore. If you don’t hear from me again for a while, I may have been carted off to the internment center, or, more likely, am lounging down by the pool.