By Sharon Chen
Singapore is a city of contradictions. Is it a bustling metropolis? An exotic tropical island? A ruthless Asian Tiger? It’s impossible to sum up the unique country in a single phrase, but we can separate the truth from exaggeration. Here’s a look at 10 common misperceptions.
1. Singapore in China.
Yes, Singapore is 74% Chinese. No, it’s not a part of China. In fact, Singapore is located in Southeast Asia, just south of Malaysia, 3,801 kilometers from Shanghai. While Chinese culture is a big part of Singaporean life, it’s just one aspect of its vibrant mishmash of multiethnic local traditions. Chinese New Year is a big deal, but so are Hari Raya, Deepavali and Christmas.
2. Singaporeans can’t speak English.
Non-Singaporeans are frequently astonished when they discover that Singaporeans can speak fluent English. In fact, English is the primary language of business, government and instruction here. While Chinese, Malay and Tamil are commonly used as well, almost everyone is bilingual to some extent.
3. Singapore is run by an authoritarian regime.
The People’s Action Party dominates elections, government bureaucracy and the media. There is little chance of any opposition making a serious impact on institutions and policy. This may have been true in the past, but Singapore’s socio-political landscape is changing rapidly.
The recent general and presidential elections are the best testaments to this. Newly elected President Dr. Tony Tan faced fierce competition despite strong support from the PAP and was elected by the skin of his teeth. Most dissent used to take place online and was often tinged with self-defeatist resignation. Today it is quickly spilling into the mainstream and demanding serious consideration by the powers that be.
4. Singapore is a nanny state.
You can’t chew gum, smoke weed or graffiti public transport for fear of caning or death by hanging. US comedian Seth Rogen got quite a few Singaporeans riled up when he painted the city as a “barbaric… and frightening… benevolent dictatorship” in an interview with Conan O’Brien.
While there is harsh corporal punishment for crimes involving drugs, rape, murder, vandalism and so forth, the idea that Singaporeans are living in blissful ignorance under the iron fist of totalitarianism is false. Singaporeans are well aware that the restrictions placed on them are excessive compared with other countries, but generally agree that the safety and cleanliness they enjoy are a worthy pay-off. The average law-abiding citizen would have no reason to be concerned with the cane or noose anyway.
As for visitors, they are made well aware of the rules before they enter the country and it makes sense that they should be expected to follow them – just as any Singaporean should be expected to abide by the rules of whatever country they are in. Also, it isn’t illegal to chew gum here, just to import and sell it.
5. Singaporeans are uptight.
They can’t take a joke – look how they overreacted to that hilarious Seth Rogen video! This seems to stem from a perception that Asians in general lack the ability to laugh at themselves. I beg to differ. Take a look at this popular blog and website for Singaporean self-deprecation at its finest.
6. Singaporeans are apathetic and uninformed.
There is a big difference between indifference and ignorance. It is almost impossible in this day and age to be completely oblivious to the news of the day, especially when controversial issues arise. It might be true that Singaporeans are less likely to speak up for fear of sanction, but that should not be mistaken for a lack of concern.
Some might say that the lackluster showing at the attempt to “Occupy Singapore” is a symptom of passivity, but there are many other ways to achieve constructive change. The fact that such a protest was attempted, no matter how ineffectively, is proof that Singaporeans are anything but apathetic, much less uninformed.
7. Singaporean kids have no fun.
Is Singapore full of Tiger Mums (and Dads)? Well, one couple did make it onto an episode of “World’s Strictest Parents.” Singapore’s education system definitely places a strong emphasis on grades, especially since children start taking standardized tests at the tender age of 12. But children all over the world are facing increased pressure to excel in school, and parents can be equally strict everywhere. There are “cram schools” in India, China, the United Kingdom, the United States… the list goes on. Children here are just like their counterparts in other countries. There are those who study way too hard, and those who hardly study at all.
8. Singapore has no local Arts scene.
Singapore is sterile and boring – it’s only concerned with economic growth. No one is going to make a living as a singer, actor or painter. Local artistes certainly do have a tough time competing against the wave of Hollywood movies, TV shows and music that have consumed the island. But they are an ever-growing presence.
Pick up a copy of Juice, Singapore’s premier “indie” magazine, for a look into the not-so-underground world of local music. Playwrights like Dick Lee and Alfian bin Sa’at are household names. TV shows like The Pupil, Singapore’s first legal drama, and The Noose, a hilarious satirical fake-news program, are light-years ahead of previous locally produced fare.
In 2010, Singaporeans took part in an average of 92 arts- and culture- related activities everyday. It looks like that number is poised to increase as more young people choose to go to schools like the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LASALLE College of the Arts over traditional universities.
9. Singaporean men are whipped.
I blame this on articles like this. Somewhere along the way, a caricature of Singaporean men as metrosexual, handbag-carrying wimps has emerged. We are talking about men who have had to spend two years in mandatory military training. They know how to fire guns, survive in the jungle and scale really high walls. In all seriousness, there is no way to prove or disprove this charge. To each his own.
10. Singaporean women are materialistic.
They are more interested in finding a man who can provide for them than “true love” (whatever that means). They want designer handbags, luxury cars and beautiful houses. Sarong Party Girls are constantly on the prowl for rich Caucasian men who can introduce them to the high life. There are those who argue that there is a fine line between materialism and pragmatism. I tried to get a response from Singaporean women but none of them could be reached. Prada had just announced a 50% storewide discount.
Sharon Chen is a Regional Representative for Asian Correspondent based in Singapore. You can follow her on Twitter @thisissharons