61_G15_InFocus_Singapore

Global Issue 15

In Focus Singapore Subtle censorship Singapore’s cultural diversity comes with a political catch. The government of Singapore censors political, racial and religious issues, to a certain extent, through out-of-bounds (OB) markers that set boundaries on what is acceptable for public discussion. The term is used to distinguish between which issues are ‘sensitive’ and which are not, with the boundary between the two shifting depending on the political climate. As of 1 June, the government introduced new licensing rules which require news websites to pay a S$50,000 bond (approximately US$39,500) for an annual licence if they have more than 50,000 domestic visitors every month, and bars news sites from posting content that “undermines racial or religious harmony”. More than 2,000 activists staged a rally against the new rules, which have been viewed as an attack on freedom of expression, but the government maintains that the rules are necessary to maintain the delicate balance of a multicultural society. OB markers also cover the arts and cultural performances, most of which must be vetted by the government before public display. Race, religion, nudity and other forms of ‘obscenity’ are the usual points of contention, as well as any claims of corruption or nepotism in government. Jacques Human – Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Korean and Japanese; through Creole at the Holiday Inn and good British fare at the Elizabethan Grill at Raffles Hotel – Singapore is still full of surprises. It has its own Nonya cooking, a distinctive and delicious blend, often with a shrimp paste base and large prawns or lobster, found at Peranakan Place, the centre of What is really special about Singapore is its older districts, where developers have hardly touched Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street the unique Peranakan or ‘Baba’ culture and several other well-respected restaurants. Straits-born Chinese adopted many Malay customs; a charming style of architecture was one result; Nonya cuisine the other. Local food centres or ‘hawkers’ markets’ are where Singaporeans descend to sample an incredible variety of food at large noisy al fresco centres like Newton Circus or Rasa Singapura, particularly picturesque at night with their bobbing lanterns and electric atmosphere. Nowadays the food centres, with their neat little stands, are strictly inspected, whereas, not so long ago, the hawkers used to sell from barrows. Having cleaned up their city so effectively, the tourist authorities are now realising that while it may be less roguish and more sanitised, it’s a lot less exuberant than before. They are listening to the feedback from increasing numbers of visitors who want authentic history and original culture, not theme parks or reconstructions. Sentosa Island is one of these, extensively developed as a leisure complex, with a varied range of options, some commemorating World War II, like the melancholy Surrender Chamber. But there’s also a rustling, steaming, flowering jungle path on Sentosa called the Nature Walk. Despite its limited size, Singapore hosts a number of sporting events, even international cricket matches. It always comes as a bit of a shock to see immaculately dressed men and women on lush bowling and croquet greens set like islands in the middle of a sea of high rises. At the Singapore Handicraft Centre, culture really comes alive at its Pasar Malam, a night market of craft stalls for batik shirts, painted paper umbrellas or paintings on silk, which visitors can see being made. In the middle of all the haggling, and to add to the noise level of the bazaar, there’s usually a live performance of folk music going on, resplendent with dragon masks and fabulous costumes. The real Singapore is surprisingly still there – the culture of the real people, the product of their rich heritage. ● What is really special about Singapore is its older districts, where developers have hardly touched the slightly seedy (by Singapore standards), but fascinating areas of Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street. In 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles recognised the island’s strategic commercial possibilities, establishing not only a British maritime base and trading post, but laying the principles for the city’s development as a free port, which has now become a giant international market-place in Southeast Asia. Singapore’s 5.1 million people are composed of 77 per cent Chinese, 15 per cent Malay, six per cent Indian and two per cent Eurasian or European. None of the architecture is particularly ancient, but nevertheless, the ethnic areas have period charm, and photogenic architectural details. Outside the ‘shop-houses’ in Chinatown, painted in pretty pastel tones, street calligraphers are at work gilding strips of lucky red paper, craftsmen bend over theatrical masks and old men play Mahjong. Traditional Chinese pharmacists select powders used down the centuries from dozens of tiny inscribed drawers, while their partners draw in punters from the street by dancing around with a snake draped over them, sporting rhino horns or other equally outlandish gear. Some Chinese temples are large and ornately decorated, others are little more than one incense-filled room opening directly from the street. The oldest Hokkien temple is called Thian Hock Keng, or the Temple of Heavenly Happiness, and was built by grateful immigrants in 1841 to thank the Goddess of the Sea for a safe voyage from Amoy in China. Curiously, in the heart of Chinatown, next door to the Wet Market, there’s an elaborate Indian Sri Mariamman temple whose entire roof complex is covered with eye-wateringly colourful statues of the Hindu pantheon. In the area known as Little India around Serangoon Road, Tamil love songs float poignantly on the air, along with the perfume of flower garlands, and the aroma from red and yellow spices. Fabric shops are stacked high with shimmering saris; columns of glass bracelets glint in the sun, and goldsmiths’ shops glitter with elaborate bridal jewellery. Mounds of saffron rice and steaming food in huge aluminium pots allude to the gastronomic reputation of this small island. In Singapore, over 30 culinary traditions come together, so that every meal is a feast for the visitor and a national pastime for the locals. With every cuisine imaginable from every variation on the eastern theme global thi rd quar ter 2013 www.global -br ief ing.org l 61


Global Issue 15
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