Social Control in Singapore

All of the reasons I give for never again wanting to live in a city just don’t apply in Singapore: There are virtually no traffic problems, virtually no crime, no hypodermic needles or feces on the sidewalks, everything is clean and well-maintained. Everyone is gracious and polite, most buildings are beautiful. Everything smells either delicious or fresh, homelessness is virtually non-existent, public transportation is the cleanest, quietest, and best-organized I’ve seen in any city… In many ways, Singapore is about as close as you get to a metropolitan utopia.

But these advantages come at a price, in the form of limited free speech, government-recommend behavior, heavy surveillance, strong police presence, and laws that some westerners find oppressive. No vaping is allowed period, cigarette smoking is heavily restricted, no chewing gum allowed (technically it’s legal to chew, but illegal to buy or sell), etc. And if you want to protest something, you have to apply for a permit (guess who gets to approve or deny your permit?).

And be careful about criticizing politicians , which can get you sued or jailed for libel. We didn’t see anyone being arrested for trafficking in Hubba Bubba, but we did see examples of heavy police presence, clusters of surveillance cameras everywhere, and lots of signage designed either to reassure citizens about police activity or to “guide” behavior. Messaging that would raise more than an eyebrow in the U.S. is just part of daily life in Singapore, and no one seems to mind. And the citizens are eager to remind and suggest about correct behavior – while half of Americans seem oblivious about which side of the escalator to stand on, every Singaporean will instantly but politely remind you to stand on the left (they drive on the left). There’s also a strong “snitch” culture – everyone is encouraged to rat out their fellow citizens for transgressions.

I shot pics of a lot of the signs we saw, and I’ve collected some here. In the end I’m not sure how I feel about all of this, but this was a big part of what we wanted to see and experience – the trade-off between heavy social control and its net effect.

Many more from this photo set can be seen in this Flickr album.

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