Thursday, June 04, 2009

They're good at this stuff. Really good. But now they propose to become
something else as well; a coherent city of information, its architecture
planned from the ground up. And they expect that whole highways of data
will flow into and through their city. Yet they also seem to expect that
this won't affect them. And that baffles us, and perhaps it baffles the
Singaporeans that it does.

Myself, I'm inclined to think that if they prove to be right, what will
really be proven will be something very sad; and not about Singapore, but
about our species. They will have proven it possible to flourish through
the active repression of free expression. They will have proven that
information does not necessarily want to be free.

But perhaps I'm overly pessimistic here. I often am; it goes with the
territory. (Though what could be more frightening, out here at the deep
end of the 20th century, than a genuinely optimistic science fiction
writer?) Perhaps Singapore's destiny will be to become nothing more than a
smug, neo-Swiss enclave of order and prosperity, amid a sea of

Dear God. What a fate.

Fully enough to send one lunging up from one's armchair in the atrium
lounge of the Meridien Singapore, calling for a taxi to the fractal-free
corridors of the Airtropolis.

But I wasn't finished, quite. There'd be another night to brood about the

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hard to say. And therein, perhaps, lies Singapore's real importance. The
overt goal of the national IT2000 initiative is a simple one: to sustain
indefinitely, for a population of 2.8 million, annual increases in
productivity of three to four percent.

IT, of course, is "information technology," and we can all be suitably
impressed with Singapore's evident willingness to view such technology
with the utmost seriousness. In terms of applied tech, they seem to have
an awfully practical handle on what this stuff can do. The National
Computer Board has designed an immigration system capable of checking
foreign passports in 30 seconds, resident passports in fifteen.
Singapore's streets are planted with sensor loops to register real-time
traffic; the traffic lights are computer controlled, and the system
adjusts itself constantly to optimize the situation, creating "green
waves" whenever possible. A different sort of green wave will appear if a
building's fire sensor calls for help; emergency vehicles are
automatically green-lighted through to the source of the alarm. The
physical operation of the city's port, constant and quite unthinkably
complex, is managed by another system. A "smart-card" system is planned to
manage billings for cars entering the Restricted Zone. (The Restricted
Zone is that part of central Singapore which costs you something to enter
with a private vehicle. Though I suspect that if, say, Portland were to
try this, the signs would announce the "Clean Air Zone," or something

Thursday, October 09, 2008

But still. And after all. It's boring here. And somehow it's the same
ennui that lies in wait in any theme park, put particularly in those that
are somehow in too agressively spiffy a state of repair. Everything
painted so recently that it positively creaks with niceness, and even the
odd rare police car sliding past starts to look like something out of a
Chuck E. Cheese franchise... And you come to suspect that the reason you
see so few actual police is that people here all have, to quote William
Burroughs, "the policeman inside."

And what will it be like when these folks, as they so manifestly intend to
do, bring themselves online as the Intelligent Island, a single giant
data-node whose computational architecture is more than a match for their
Swiss-watch infrastructure? While there's no doubt that this is the
current national project, one can't help but wonder how they plan to
handle all that stuff without actually getting any on them? How will a
society founded on parental (well, paternal, mainly) guidance cope with
the wilds of X-rated cyberspace? Or would they simply find ways not to
have to? What if, while information elsewhere might be said to want to be
free, the average Singaporean might be said to want, mainly, not to rock
the boat? And to do very nicely, thank you, by not doing so?

Are the faceless functionaries who keep Shonen Knife and Cosmo
anti-feminism out of straying local hands going to allow access to the
geography-smashing highways and byways of whatever the Internet is
becoming? More important, will denial of such access, in the coming
century, be considered even a remotely viable possibility by even the
dumbest of policemen?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Singapore is curiously, indeed gratifyingly devoid of certain aspects of
creativity. I say gratifyingly because I soon found myself taking a rather
desperate satisfaction in any evidence that such a very tightly-run ship
would lack innovative elan.

So, while I had to admit that the trains did indeed run on time, I was
forced to take on some embarrassingly easy targets. Contemporary municipal
sculpture is always fairly easy to make fun of, and this is abundantly
true in Singapore. There was a pronounced tendency toward very large
objects that resembled the sort of thing Mad magazine once drew to make us
giggle at abstract art: ponderous lumps of bronze with equally ponderous
holes through them. Though perhaps, like certain other apparently
pointless features of the cityscape, these really served some arcane but
highly specific geomantic function. Perhaps they were actually conduits
for feng shui, and were only superficially intended
to resemble Henry Moore as reconfigured by a team of Holiday Inn furniture

But a more telling lack of creativity may have been evident in one of the
city's two primal passions: shopping. Allowing for the usual variations in
price range, the city's countless malls all sell essentially the same
goods, with extraordinarily little attempt to vary their presentation.
While this is generally true of malls elsewhere, and in fact is one of the
reasons people everywhere flock to malls, a genuinely competitive retail
culture will assure that the shopper periodically encounters either
something new or something familiar in an unexpected context.

Singapore's other primal passion is eating, and it really is fairly
difficult to find any food in Singapore about which to complain. About the
closest you could come would be the observation that it's all very
traditional fare of one kind or another, but that hardly seems fair. If
there's one thing you can live without in Singapore, it's a Wolfgang Puck
pizza. The food in Singapore, particularly the endless variety of street
snacks in the hawker centers, is something to write home about. If you hit
the right three stalls in a row, you might decide these places are a
wonder of the modern world. And all of it quite safe to eat, thanks to the
thorough, not to say nitpickingly Singaporean auspices of the local
hygiene inspectors, and who could fault that? (Credit, please, where
credit is due.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Singapore, meanwhile, has dealt with its own sex industry in two ways: by
turning its traditional red-light district into a themed attraction in its
own right, and by moving its massage parlors into the Beverly Centers.
Bugis Street, once famous for its transvestite prostitutes - the sort of
place where one could have imagined meeting Noel Coward, ripped on opium,
cocaine, and the local tailoring, just off in his rickshaw for a night of
high buggery - had, when it proved difficult to suppress, a subway station
dropped on top of it. "Don't worry," the government said, "we'll put it
all back, just the way it was, as soon as we have the subway in." Needless
to say, the restored Bugis Street has all the sexual potential of
"Frontierland," and the transvestites are represented primarily by a
number of murals.

The heterosexual hand-job business has been treated rather differently,
and one can only assume that it was seen to possess some genuine degree of
importance in the national Confucian scheme of things. Most shopping
centers currently offer at least one "health center" - establishments one
could easily take for slick mini-spas, but which in fact exist exclusively
to relieve the paying customer of nagging erections. That one of these
might be located between a Reebok outlet and a Rolex dealer continues to
strike me as evidence of some deliberate social policy, though I can't
quite imagine what it might be. But there is remarkably little, in
contemporary Singapore, that is not the result of deliberate and no doubt
carefully deliberated social policy.

Take dating. Concerned that a series of earlier campaigns to reduce the
national birth rate had proven entirely too successful, Singapore has
instituted a system of "mandatory mixers." I didn't find this particularly
disturbing, under the circumstances, though I disliked the idea that
refusal to participate is said to result in a "call" to one's employer.
But there did seem to be a certain eugenic angle in effect, as mandatory
dating for fast-track yuppies seemed to be handled by one government
agency, while another dealt with the less educated. Though perhaps I
misunderstood this, as Singaporeans seemed generally quite loathe to
discuss these more intimate policies of government with a curious foreign
visitor who was more than twice as tall as the average human, and who
sweated slowly but continuously, like an aged cheese.