Field Notes: Corporate State-Building (and a Godawful Cocktail) in Singapore

Field Notes: Corporate State-Building (and a Godawful Cocktail) in Singapore

Singapore sunset, 2013 (Mac Qin / Flickr)

Over the past several months, Dissent editorial board member Atossa Araxia Abrahamian has been traveling around the globe, researching her forthcoming book on citizenship. In October, she began her trip in Singapore. For the first of a series of email dispatches that will be published on our blog, Abrahamian explores the Singapore created by Lee Kuan Yew, the city-state’s prime minister, who died this morningThe Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen will be published in November. —The Editors

On Oct 30, 2014 at 5:30 PM, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian wrote:

Hello from muggy Singapore! It’s five in the morning and I’m wide awake—a perfect time to deliver on my promise to email updates from the road. I wish I had something more exotic to report, but I’ve spent the past couple of days in airports, planes, malls, and hotels—sickeningly corporate spaces devoid of taste and culture that make me pine for small villages untouched by the scourge of brands, brands, and more brands. Have I mentioned I’m sick of brands? I’m in one of those phases. I don’t plan to ever actually live in a village.

I began my trip flying out of Geneva, and my first layover was in Dubai, where I spent three hours in the middle of the night wandering around figuring out whether it was time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner (the answer was an $8 cup of pineapple, which was surprisingly delicious). Because I read way too many sensationalistic articles about Dubai in college, I expected the place to be completely over the top—think How to Spend It, circa 2007—but it looked to me like every other airport, only busier at two in the morning than Times Square is at noon. Perhaps the airport’s relative blandness can be explained by the fact (or theory, really) that Dubai takes after the idea of the airport, not vice versa. But it wasn’t without its highlights: a shop selling what it claims is the most expensive wine in the world (Châteaux Margaux 2009) at all hours; a caviar breakfast dish named the Stalin Special; and two tanned young men dressed like Emirati sheikhs, giggling in perfect French, and skipping along the walkway holding hands. I don’t know who the hell they were or where they came from, but they fit right in.

If Dubai was a bit of a letdown, airport-wise, getting off the plane in Singapore after seven hours of fitful, Xanax-induced sleep felt like re-entering the womb: the air was so still, the music so soft, and the air conditioning so masterfully calibrated that it was almost unnerving—like getting your hair washed at an expensive salon and barely noticing the water run down your scalp for its perfect temperature. After the crowded, freezing plane full of chatty Australian grandmothers on their way to Brisbane, it was downright blissful—the only airport I haven’t immediately wanted to leave. I met my Airbnb host, who’s around my age, at the exit—he was arriving from Taiwan, which he described as “like Singapore, basically”—and we drove back. I fell asleep, went out for sushi, participated in a webinar, and crashed hard.


Singapore - English

Singapore - spirals

Singapore - pleasure


My first day here was spent conferencing at the Fullerton Hotel. The Fullerton has, at various times, been used as a military fort, a post office, a hospital, and swanky social club. This week, it hosted a conference put on by a firm that tells countries how to sell citizenship, and helps rich people buy it. I’ve been to a number of these conferences in the past, and they’re mostly dull as shit: picture a room full of lawyers, bankers, and accountants, most of them male and middle-aged, checking not one but two BlackBerrys while a speaker extols the virtues of the Maltese tax code or the Portuguese real estate market in halting management-speak. Listen closely, though, and you can pick out some curious tidbits. During a panel about Asian “global citizens,” for instance, I found out about an unusual new practice among ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWIs) in China: if a CEO wishes to take his or her company public on an overseas exchange without the bureaucracy and red tape that citizens of mainland China are subjected to, one possibility is to send off a son or daughter to procure, for several hundred thousand dollars, a Caribbean passport in order to bypass these regulations. The CEO gets to stay home and run the show behind the scenes; the kid gets an island adventure, at the cost of renouncing their Chinese papers (you can’t have two, officially, if you’re Chinese); and thanks to late capitalism and good old Confucian values, the whole family ends up rich and happy.

The first day ended in another delightfully antiseptic environment: the rooftop bar of an adjacent hotel, known for its view of Sheldon Adelson’s new casino-hotel-playground, the Marina Bay Sands, and its 8:00 p.m. laser light shows over the water. There, I learned that real Russian oligarchs stash their money in Monaco, not “downscale” Cyprus; was asked if I’ve renounced my U.S. citizenship yet (“good for you!” said one attorney, when I told him I had no U.S. citizenship to give up); and had a wonderful chat about John Rawls with a lapsed philosopher who studied at Berkeley but wound up in law school, then in offshore finance.

Then, an Estonian offshore tax accountant regaled me with tales from his yearly cruise from Miami to the Bahamas—“Christmas for adults, not family-friendly at all”—hosted by Kid Rock.

“Kid Rock’s an artist who has really developed in recent years,” the Estonian remarked.

Did I say this place was lacking in culture? I take it back!

More soon,

On Mon, Nov 3, 2014 at 12:16 PM, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian wrote:

Hello again from Singapore!

I’ve spent the last few days trying to wrap my head around what Singapore is. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the history, Singapore was occupied by the British, the Japanese, the British again, and the Malays before becoming an independent country in 1965 under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party (PAP). People like to say that it went from being a small fishing village to an international finance center in 50 years, which isn’t entirely accurate—there was more than a few fish back in the day—but it’s hard to talk to anyone around here without them mentioning how much it’s changed.

Because it existed in so many forms before becoming a state, Singapore is a culturally diverse place—almost three quarters of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, about 15 percent are Malay, and almost 10 percent Indian—but the consensus is that the Chinese run the show in the government, the army, and in business. There are also expats, aka “foreign talent” (not necessarily a compliment), who are known for living in condos, clubbing, and keeping to themselves; domestic workers, mainly from other Asian countries; and migrant workers, often Bangladeshis, who come on short-term work permits and build everything in sight for a pittance. The Singaporean government always emphasizes that it is a multicultural society, but everyone I’ve talked to says it’s quite divided—if not racially, certainly socio-economically. One law student said that Chinese privilege here is like white privilege in the United States.

What’s most interesting to me is how Singapore has forcibly crammed centuries worth of state-building into a few short decades, forming an army, cobbling together a national identity, and micro-managing everything from birth rates to economic development policies as best it can. It wants to be national and global, old and new, business-minded and culturally fulfilled: a twenty-first century country. Through sheer force of will it’s getting there, but the national identity part’s a bit tricky; whenever I ask someone what it means to be Singaporean, they make a face—even if they like being Singaporean.


Singapore - #BagDownBenny

Singapore - biryani


I’m having a great time exploring, but I’m not exactly in love with Singapore. It’s hot as hell—humid-hot, like a Russian bathhouse. A thick haze has hung over the skyline the entire time I’ve been here, sometimes to the point where the sun looks more like the moon at dusk. The weather makes walking around unreasonably taxing, and I’ve found that when I do wander, I usually end up in some sort of mall. I’ve made a habit of asking people I’ve met what they like to do in their free time, and nine times out of ten, they’ve told me they like to go shopping. A pessimist would say that this is a sign of a materialistic society; an optimist would celebrate the economic prosperity that allows for this behavior—a real triumph in 2014. A realist would agree with both assessments, but point out that whatever your take is on buying things, malls are heavily air-conditioned, and when given the option between sweating and not, any reasonable person would go with the latter.

It is immediately clear, though, why people say that Singapore is a country run like a corporation, and I’m not just talking about the technocratic leadership. You can feel it on the street. On Friday, during a climatic interlude at a mall on Orchard Road—Singapore’s Fifth Avenue, basically—I came upon a pizzeria named “Supply & Demand.” I saw people with T-shirts that read “I’m In Charge” and “A Better Me.” Advertisements in the subway for the Singaporean International Foundation, which “offers various services in support of Singapore’s globalization efforts,” boasted that Singapore’s citizen-ambassadors “make friends through good business.” You get the picture.

Of course, I’m citing evidence selectively—for every piece of overtly neoliberal signage, there’s a fruit stand or a coffee shop. Little India, where I spent most of the day with a group that provides meals for injured construction workers, is bustling and delightful, a million times friendlier than the parts of town I’ve spent most of my time in (I also ate a life-changing biryani). But one understands why Singapore has been proposed as a model for “charter cities” in Honduras, or floating city-states at sea. It can feel dehumanizing, sure, but you can’t say its regimented style doesn’t yield results—at least here, at least for a while.

Because despite its truly astounding rise Singapore is in some ways a victim of its own success. Take demographics: in the early days, the city-state discouraged people from having more than one or two kids by capping tax incentives and maternity leave at the second child. The program was called “Stop at Two.” In the eighties, it was replaced by “Have Three or More (if you can afford it)” (an important caveat!) and the government is now paying citizens to have more children, subsidizing fertility treatments, dispensing “baby cash,” and providing additional housing.

The bottom line is to increase productivity and build loyalty to a baby nation-state, formed just 50 years ago, at a time when doing so is difficult and confusing—particularly for a place with such global ambitions. The transactional nature of these actions, and of the relationship between the individual and the state, brings to mind the recent controversy over Facebook’s decision to subsidize egg-freezing, which was denounced by many as a way to extract more labor from workers in their prime.

Which leads us to a chicken and egg question: is Singapore run like a modern corporation, or are today’s corporations starting to take cues from Singapore? All that’s clear is that we are all chickens, now.


On Fri, Nov 7, 2014 at 4:21 AM, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian wrote:

The last couple of days I spent in Singapore were a lot of fun thanks to some excellent recommendations from friends and interesting meetings with strangers. I had no plans for Tuesday, so I ran on the treadmill in the condo gym (gyms are the same everywhere, in case you were curious) then visited Haw Par Villa, a sculpture park built by the inventors of Tiger Balm in 1937. Most of the sculptures are in a big garden on a hill and show scenes from Chinese mythology. But the main attraction is a dark tunnel in which garish clay figurines illustrate the “ten courts of hell.” Punishments for a variety of earthly transgressions are depicted in great detail: prostitutes, you might recall, don’t go to heaven—but did you know that they are fated to be “thrown into a pool of blood and drowned”? “Misuse of books” (whatever the hell that means) gets you “sawn in two”; waste food, abduct others, or curse, and risk getting thrown into a box of knives. The montage reminded me of the medieval torture museums in old European cities, only more . . . explicit. The tunnel is apparently immensely successful in getting small children to behave.

After the horror show, I got on the bus and rode to the east coast of the city, about an hour away, for some dinner and fresh air. It will shock none of you to learn that buses in Singapore are air conditioned, lovely, and smooth. This one was a double-decker that ran along a freeway past numbered public housing blocks (where the vast majority of Singaporeans live), clusters of modest malls and shopping districts, and enormous shipyards packed with towering cranes and blue and green containers. Men in yellow reflective vests crouched along the side of the road, carefully weeding the already-impeccable greenery. I suspect that the men weren’t Singaporean—locals apparently don’t like to do “dirty” work. I can’t even imagine what guest workers from Bangladesh must think of a country that imports labor to painstakingly landscape patches of land where only exhaust fumes—and, I suppose, foreign workers—go.

The front seat of the top deck of a public bus is an excellent vantage point from which to observe the Singaporean government’s efforts to instill certain values in its population. All over the city, the state has plastered posters of cartoon characters imploring Singaporeans to be more courteous towards one another. They have names like “Bag-down Benny,” “Move-on Marvin,” and “Give-way Glenda”—awful, ham-handed stuff, with hashtags to match. The images are, at worst, benign attempts to make people more empathetic and considerate, but the problem is that the figures transmitting the good word aren’t humans, but graphically-designed pill-shaped (!) creatures with big ugly faces.

Unsurprisingly, “Bag-down Benny” is universally scorned by young people—“it makes me want to be less polite, just seeing it”—one young journalist told me. Another artsy type compared the efforts to the city-building video game SimCity; one understands much better the objections to a “nanny state” upon seeing one behave exactly like a kindergarten teacher. Perhaps in the future, a Singaporean entrepreneur will build a haunted house dedicated to Benny, Marvin, Glenda, and their friends. It wouldn’t be the craziest thing in the world.

I arrived to the waterfront as the sun was setting (all I’ll say is that Tintin did not make up a damn thing about the red sunsets in Asia) and ate pepper crab at a touristy joint frequented mainly by businessmen and their carry-ons on their way to the airport. The waitstaff wore name-tags with their status—“full time,” “part time,” “temporary,” “admiral,” “captain”—and, in what I hope was perfectly reasonable protest but probably just house policy, charged me extra for napkins. It was nice to sit down for a meal after eating street food (also very good) at hawker centers for a week. That said, crab is harder to disassemble than Ikea furniture. Very inefficient!


Singapore - pool

Singapore - hell


My final destination for the day was Marina Bay Sands, a 600,000 square meter hotel complex designed by Moshe Safdie (an Israeli-Canadian-American who’s Dov Charney’s uncle and sometimes called the “man of the world”) and built—you guessed it—by exploited, imported, overworked laborers: the company claims it built four floors per day and rumor has it that 24-hour shifts weren’t unheard of in their rush to finish the thing. MBS also rests on reclaimed land, which means that the ground beneath it used to be just water. It resembles a sort of boomerang-shaped plaza supported by three tower-pillars, 55 stories high. There’s a very famous swimming pool on the roof, and a cavernous casino and shopping complex below ground (infinity pool above, infinity mall below). Earlier that week, a teenager tipped me off on how to get to the rooftop bar without paying the visitor fee, so I followed a beefy American guest in a tight-fitting green pastel polo into the elevator of the third tower, averted my eyes as he inserted his key card while grumbling about having to insert his key card, and snuck into the smoking section to check out the view.

The awesomeness of all big cities can only fully be appreciated from great heights, and this view was no exception. But it also confirmed what locals complain about constantly: that Singapore today exists to serve the interests of the penthouse suite, and little else.

As I stood on the edge of the roof drinking a godawful cocktail ($34!), I noticed a Louis Vuitton sign beaming up from down below. It was tilted at an angle that would make it imperceptible from the sidewalk, but fully visible from above—so people on this roof, in the night, could not even for a second forget who they were.


All in-line photos courtesy of the author.