Tuesday, 2 August 2011

City of geckos

I arrived yesterday for the first time in Singapore and muddled my way from the airport to the university by public transport. That night I lay awake with the time difference, gradually becoming conscious of the incessant hum of the air conditioning unit in my room, yet after switching it off I noticed the sound of yet more units everywhere, creating a permanent orchestra of temperature and humidity control. Since there was little chance of sleeping I went outside and wandered along neon-lit walkways expecting to find every light surrounded by night-flying insects but the pristine white surfaces were oddly deserted of life. I realized after a while that every light fitting had its own resident gecko, ready to dart out and feast on any unlucky visitors. Looking out at the city itself everything seemed shrouded in a humid haze rendering shapes and distances indistinct.

Earlier that evening I had left a restaurant and one of my colleagues remarked on the absence of the homeless: poverty does exist in Singapore but it has become relegated from the public realm. Visible signs of social inequality or exclusion are more subtle: the lone figure at a bus stop who never leaves their seat or the sun-wizened faces of labourers weeding the university lawns.

Like Hong Kong, Singapore plays a complex and largely hidden role within the global economy, its networks and connections significantly shaped by its colonial history. With its separation from Malaysia the city-state of Singapore has had to build its wealth almost entirely on the basis of human capital and from its role as a global entrepôt for trade and finance. Yet Singapore forms part of an ambivalent zone where capitalism and democracy are only nominally connected: if anything or anyone should unsettle the status quo the political geckos of state power are ready to spring into action.

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