Dilemmas for Singapore

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The strengths of Singapore are known: strong supporting factors such as good IT and telecommunications infrastructure, being a multicultural society with a bilingual policy, having a cosmopolitan and well-educated population, a well-developed arts and cultural infrastructure, its closeness to the huge Asian market and its new focus on 'translational' research which stimulates collaboration across disciplines. Its problem areas are its small local market, high costs of land, the relative weakness of soft infrastructure invest ment and the perception that Singapore is a highly regulated place which is not very tolerant of divergent views. The latter may have an effect on attracting certain types of talent.

Let's use attitudes towards gays as a weathervane for Singapore's tolerance dilemma. For four years from 2001, Singapore consented to a more liberal policy towards gay lifestyles, stirred by research, such as that of Richard Florida, showing that cities with an active gay community had more creative and productive societies. The attractions of the 'pink dollar' should also not be underestimated. The annual public gay Nation Party held on Nation Day on 8 August was emblematic of that change. The events were sponsored by Fortune 100 companies like Motorola and Subaru. Yet the gay community was shocked when in early December 2004 the licence to hold an event called Snowball 04 was rejected:

Observations at a previous Ball ... showed that patrons of the same gender were seen openly kissing and intimately touching each other. Some of the revellers were cross-dressed, for example, males wearing skirts. Patrons were also seen using the toilets of the opposite sex. The behaviour of these patrons suggested that most of them were probably gays/lesbians and this was thus an event almost exclusively for gays/lesbians... Several letters of complaint were received from some patrons about the openly gay acts at the Ball. The police recognize that there are some Singaporeans with gay tendencies. While police do not discriminate against them . the police also recognize that Singapore is still, by and large, a conservative and traditional society. Hence, the police cannot approve any application for an event which goes against the moral values of a large majority of Singaporeans.

In April 2005, the licensing division faxed a rejection of the application to hold Nation 05 - the Nation Party had become Asia's most acclaimed gay and lesbian party - citing the event to be 'contrary to public interest'.27

Some associate the decision by Britain's Warwick University to abandon plans for a Singapore campus with worries about academic freedom and Singapore's stance against the gay community.

Singapore's loss has been Thailand's gain. Fridae.com, an event organizer, transplanted the annual Nation Party, now stylishly renamed Nation.V, to Phuket, Thailand. 'Singapore has a way to go in maturing as a society, where Thailand has a long history culturally of accepting gay lifestyles,' noted Stuart Koe, who runs Fridae.com.28

Some are concerned that the issue might set back efforts by the city state to attract top Western universities in its quest to become a 'global schoolhouse' and ideas of Singapore becoming the 'Boston of the East', with a cluster of top universities like Harvard and MIT and a regional hub for higher education. The government wants education services to account for 5 per cent of gross domestic product, up from 3.6 per cent, within the next decade.

Further evidence of relaxation was extended licensing hours, allowing bar-top dancing, the setting up of a Crazy Horse from Paris and creating the Clark Quay development where tacky, sexist outfits like 1NiteStand Bar or Hooters go about their business unquestioned and especially attract the ex-pat crowd.

Another dimension of the easy money over substance debate was the decision to develop two 'integrated resorts' in Marina South and Sentosa, which combine casinos within a leisure resort. Aimed at attracting tourists, especially from China, and increasing tax revenues, there are, however, restrictions. The Singapore leadership acknowledged the downsides and promised there would be safeguards to limit the social impact of casino gambling, such as restrictions on admitting the local population into the casinos. For example, family members of a patron may block them from entering and gambling. The very high entrance fee of SGD100 per entry or SGD2000 every year are prohibitive. A system of exclusions includes not being allowed to extend credit to the local population. As the large US casino and retail developers hover over Singapore, they promise:

the creation of an experientially compelling entertainment destination at Singapore's Marina Bay ... a unique opportunity to extend our popular media brands and assets into a whole different realm... The development presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to create multiple flagship stores housing the world's top luxury fashion brands within one unified shopping and entertainment environment.29

In the process, other 'cultural brands' like the Centre Pompidou are being brought into play to project an element of class.

Does an integrated resort contribute to the creativity potential of Singapore? The pre-digested brand experiences proposed offer little if anything to Singaporeans to shape and create things authored by them rather than a foreign corporation. Do integrated resorts (IRs) attract the creatives? Probably not. Indeed they might repel them. The IR concept may indeed decrease the city state's creativity potential as the creative cutting edge looks elsewhere for places to explore and discover. In fact it would have probably been creative for Singapore to have said 'no' to IRs, as it would have been for Hong Kong to have said 'no' to Disneyland or Osaka to have rejected Universal Studios. The latter both increasingly disappointed with the results and effects. Singapore stands at a cusp. Does it want to be a 'tourist city', a 'fantasy city' or a 'creative city'? While not completely mutually exclusive, they are stark choices as the trajectories for each development path are different.

Singapore's strengths embody its weaknesses. The advanced industrial model it excels in implies instrumental rationality, linear and convergent thinking. It aims at replicability and clear process. This makes the city state good at urban hardware, metros, buildings and the technology to match. It is better at creating the containers rather than the contents, the hardware rather than the software. And it is more than competent at replicating already existing innovations. However, the trick is to continually explore new possibilities rather than reproduce that which has been done before. Such divergent exploration will, of course, be held in check by physical, logistic capabilities. It will either be possible to replicate new ideas and projects or not. But the virtue of a creative idea can only be measured if it is realized. The creative mind is open or closed as appropriate to context. Uncertainty in this context is positive but is stifled in a risk-averse culture.

Singapore therefore oscillates between constraint and creativity. It is more relaxed to operate in comfort zones and with more control than in unknown territory. It has a desire to plan creativity as against creating the conditions within which creativity can occur. It accepts its multifarious diversity, yet does it also engage with difference? Its wish to pre-empt the consequences of risk and focus on security and predictability can curtail its possibilities. Perhaps there is a sense of angst, even a fear of insight, which makes being a 'happy robot' more appealing. The city's pragmatism may lead to a narrow economic calculus, such as in the IR debate, so losing out on the broader accounting Singapore's values and ideals imply.

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