Friday, March 2, 2012

Singapore Is Just Not Cool

Singapore is generally a squeaky clean city, in all senses. It is physically clean: the roads, public spaces and buildings are scrupulously maintained, there is almost no trash or graffiti in any part of the island, and sanitation standards are in general very high. The air is clean, the tap water is drinkable (and tastes better than it does in Los Angeles), and even though it rains over 92 inches a year, all the sewers and drains work perfectly.

It is also clean in the metaphorical sense. The government is one of the least corrupt in the world (ranking up there with Finland), the citizens are for the most part highly law-abiding and honest, and the crime rate in general (in particular violent crime) is very low. Even the poor neighborhoods have almost no crime (Singapore doesn't really have scary 'ghetto' neighborhoods like the US does).

Personal behavior tends to be squeaky clean too: the vast majority of Singaporeans find out-of-wedlock births and divorce if the couple has children "unacceptable", for instance. Drug use is very strictly punished, so it's uncommon. Most Singaporeans work really long hours (among the longest in the world), live an intensely family-centered lifestyle, and count educating their children to a high degree and saving a lot of money as their main goals in life.

The bad part of all this cleanliness is that Singapore is kind of boring and uncool. There isn't much of a counterculture or cutting-edge cultural scene here, young people tend to spend their youth accumulating degrees and work experience rather than exploring themselves or the world, and there are very few people who "dare to be different". Compared to other large cities in Asia like Tokyo, Hong Kong or Shanghai, Singapore is sort of like the Midwestern cousin.

People here feel self-conscious about this (younger people will often describe Singapore as "boring" in conversation, for instance). So the government is always starting campaigns to make Singapore cooler. The picture above, of the Marina Bay Sands complex is an example. It's three skyscrapers interconnected by a boat-shaped structure covered in sand, so that you can sit on a fake beach and drink cocktails many stories above the city. That's to the left; to the right is the associated "luxury mall" and casino, including a Louis Vuitton store housed on an artificial island. (The odd-shaped building is a museum as an attempt to inject some culture.)

Unfortunately, Singaporeans just don't understand what makes something cool, so it's not a success in this regard. Maybe they need to import some Japanese or Americans for coolness advice.

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