The Silence of the Lions

In US, Singapore students, unlike others, have no issues, make no stand, live silently on the fringes of American consciousness. E Leung, Sintercom.
Jun 11, 2005

Whenever I ask my American friends what they know about Singapore, I draw mostly blank stares.

Here in the United States where I’ve lived for over two decades, most are terribly uninformed about The Lion City.

They may remember an American boy caned a while back or cite its ban on chewing gum or praise their experiences with Singapore Airlines.

But almost nobody is aware of Singapore’s role as America’s ninth largest trading partner, or that the two countries conduct joint military exercises or that President Bush lavished praise on Singapore for being a staunch ally on the war against terrorism.

I’d be surprised if half can even find Singapore on a map. The few Americans who volunteer additional impressions of Singapore usually express one of two extreme positions.

Some say Singapore is a medieval dictatorship where an evil sultan enforces his will with chains and torture chambers.

Others, particularly those who have visited, claim Singapore is an idyllic bastion of democracy, freedom and rule of law. “Disneyland with the death penalty”, a Los Angeles Times writer once put it.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.

Singapore is undoubtedly governed by a one-party dictatorship led by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

But unlike authoritarian regimes elsewhere, there are no surly government thugs kidnapping dissidents in the dead of night breaking bones and extracting confessions.

In the Lion City, Americans would find a more sophisticated form of dictatorship, a sort of dictatorship with a double latte. Dissent is crushed not with violence on the streets but with verdicts in the courtroom.

Opposition candidates rarely garner enough votes because Singaporean law, written by PAP legislators, renders it easy for government officers to sue their own citizens for slander – a concept laughable in genuine democracies.

Understandably, most Singaporeans prefer to remain silent (or at least temper their criticisms) than risk having their lives ruined by PAP-initiated lawsuits adjudicated by PAP-appointed judges.

But intolerance for dissent silences more than just the lions in Singapore. It also renders Singaporeans invisible abroad.

Singaporeans I’ve met here in Los Angeles are mostly good-natured people, speaking unaccented English and enjoying successful lives.

But while exemplifying the American dream, they’re also a people who seem painfully ordinary and unwanting of attention – like those desperately trying to avoid eye contact.

I remember my walks to class as a university student at UCLA a few years ago and passing recruiting booths for various student associations.

Almost every nationality had some sort of organisation: Hong Kong Student Union, Korean Student Association, Filipino Union, etc. That is, every nationality except Singapore, despite the several hundred Singaporeans enrolled there.

There was even one for Macau, a country with barely one-eighth of Singapore’s population.

Elsewhere in American society, Singaporeans seem equally invisible.

In the legendary Asian communities of Los Angeles, many Asians flaunt their ethnicity and wave their homeland flags with pride.

Most adopt a hyphenated label (“Taiwanese-Americans”, for example) to stress one’s heritage along side their American identity.

They may march against injustice inflicted on their people in street demonstrations.

Some even run for political office, touting their nationality and immigrant status as an asset. Asian-American pride can be boisterous, omnipresent and even controversial.

But not from Singaporeans. In the United States, they remain silent, going about their business on the fringes of American consciousness.

In all my time in America, I cannot remember ever seeing a Singaporean flag or political activity involving Singaporean issues. No wonder Americans don’t know anything about Singapore.

Perhaps Singaporeans appear absent because there are fewer of them in America than, say, immigrants from Hong Kong.

But it isn’t just a matter of less Singaporean pride in America. It’s a matter of NO Singaporean pride.

But this is hardly surprising. Most in Singapore also seem to choose apolitical and unnoticed lives.

This tendency remains a legacy of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s dictatorial Founding Father who engineered a nation of people domesticated through intimidation and force.

“If you don’t fear me, then I’m meaningless”, he once boasted (let’s see an American president try to get away with saying that).

Even today, Singaporean sheepishness remains so stubbornly in place, the government must coax citizens into activism, like the Youth Consultation Exercise earlier this week.

Granted, it’s arguable Singapore’s apolitical nature contributed to the volcanic rise of Singapore’s economy.

But that was a different era, before the advent of globalized economies and when communism and despotism infested half the planet.

Today, almost all nations agree that true democracy, freedom and capitalism form the tripod for a happy, prosperous and enduring society. It’s an agreement that seems to fall upon deaf ears amongst PAP elites.

So while Lee succeeded in erecting a first-class city, he also succeeded in engineering a submissive population afraid to assert individuality, whether at home or abroad. And that’s unfortunate.

Their culture has much to offer here in the United States, with its exotic blend of East and West with a pinch of Islam.

A Singaporean stitch would be a treasured addition to the American cultural fabric – if only Singaporeans would cease hiding behind it.

(This will be my only essay for Sintercom. My blog is located at www.xanga.com/nathanroad)

(via LittleSpeck)

5 Responses to “The Silence of the Lions”

  1. HUICHIEH LOY Says:

    Strange. 1. There was a Singapore (or Singapore Malaysia) society in Berkeley. And they even tried recruiting me (I wasn’t interested). 2. Why go all the way across the oceans so that you can stick together with people from home in the first place? 3. Blaming the US students’ lack of knowledge about Singapore is disingenuous–Americans are notorious for being apathetic about the world at large, let alone Singapore. Blogged about this on July 4.

  2. Justina Says:

    HuiChieh:

    I kinda get what you are saying, about travelling all the way across the oceans and sticking with your own people. But joining the Singapore Student Association doesn’t automatically mean that that will happen. It only happens if that’s all you really want.

    I guess coming from a Uni with almost no Singaporeans (There’s like two left in school and a bunch stayin there when I left), we desperately tried to keep our association alive. We bonded really well as Singaporeans, and yet mixed very well with everyone else. It wasn’t like the case where only Singaporeans were hanging out together.

    On the contrary, having an association actualy helped in some ways, cause foreigners (locals and internationals) who were interested in finding out more about a certain country actually the means to do so. Associations should act as a jumping board to meeting other people, and not bunching up together like hydrophobes in water.

    I’ve met members in other associations who wished they didn’t join the association because they found out that they ended up hanging out with the people from their own country. But it’s not the joining of an association per se that causes one to be closed, because I known of a lot of other members in that same association who are very well socialized with people from outside. I guess we each set our own involvement/comfort level.

    I guess I just like the idea of meeting Singaporeans and actually meeting up on occasions like Chinese New Year for steamboat, or celebrating certain occasions. On occasions, you actually hear about news from home which you might have missed out, like *ehem* Singapore shares. Heh.

    Americans are really sheltered. Enough said. A lot of Americans are afraid to travel because all they ever hear of the world is that of bad news (thru the media). They are absolutely positively sure that if they go to another country, they are going to be targetted by terrorists :p

  3. HUICHIEH LOY Says:

    No, you are right. As you said, a lot depends on how each individual is motivated. An important reason why I didn’t join is because members are mostly undergraduates–who have different interests, consider rather different things fun. I guess I’m too old for that stuff now… 🙂

    I don’t know. I suspect I will end up behaving much more like how you did if I had gone to a place like Oaklahoma. But Berkeley–the place is 40-50% Asian!

    I remember just before I left for the US, I spoke to an American couple. They found out that I was bound for California and told me that I should be ok–there are lots of Chinese/Asians there. I replied: then why am I going there when I can see Chinese/Asians every day just by staying put. I was being cheeky, of course.

    Once, I was just on my way to the library in the Berkeley campus and overheard an open house group. The leader was telling the prospectives about how diverse the student population was, and how, in fact, her roommate was from Singapore–you know, that mysterious place in the east where they cane you for chewing gum, much to the “ohhs” and “ahhs” (and “awesome’s”) of the visitors. I almost burst out laughing right there and then.

    And everytime a Singaporean friend comes through and we meet up, we end up speaking loudly to each other in English with a Singlish twang, much to the bewilderment of people around us. Or we will talk about where we can buy pandan leaves, or trade recipes, or I will get chided for not using Chee Seng brand (made in Singapore) sesame oil, etc., or I will complain that I can’t seem to find the dark sauce for popiah anywhere.

  4. this side of paradise Says:

    When even grassroot leaders keep quiet at National Agenda discussions, you know that there’s no rat around who’s going to put the bell on the cat.

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