The price of authoritay

“This train goes to Tanah Merah Interchange. If you are going to Tanah Merah Interchange, please board this train.” On the one hand an innocuous announcement at the Changi Airport MRT station. On the other hand, with your head held sideways and a certain squint to your eyes (or perhaps your ears), you can hear the voice of paternalism. Not only will we tell you where this train is going, we will gently push you in the right direction. Don’t stand here. Get to Tanah Merah.

Of course, if you are looking for it you see it. But, even apart from the absence of chewing gum (they say they are reveiwing the law, but why would you want wads of salivated-on sticky stuff attached to the currently squeaky-clean pavements, MRT floors and (presumably, although I never checked) school desks?), there are lots of other little reminders that your Singaporean government will be looking out for you if you are not.

I guess this is just the classic conflict between individual freedom and societal control being played out in equatorial Asia. Aldous Huxley said it best, not that I can remember what he said (or wrote, actually) but basically his point was that freedom of choice must include the freedom to choose to do stupid or self-destructive things.

So you might get annoyed at the discontinuity of censored movies (it makes you realise how violent a flick is when it ends 10 minutes sooner in Singapore than elsewhere, or when you can not follow the plot for all the cuts and jumps), or you might start to wonder whether you really needed to see the bad guy so gruesomely dispatched to learn the intended moral lesson and feel safe and happy in your home.

You might snigger behind your hand at the government-run dating service to encourage the population to breed (mostly this is a Chinese issue – Malay still have huge families), or at the big signs encouraging everyone to be courteous. Or you might think how much better it would be if everyone just drove a little bit more conscientiously.

You definitely have to laugh at the prohibition on bartop dancing (don’t let your customers groove up there, you will lose your licence). And giggle even more when the Prime Minister announces that the ban will be lifted, reasoning that the kind of crazy, innovative, dynamic environment engendered by allowing dancing at another level will boost the production of goods and services in the economy. Um, okay, maybe.

Someone described Singapore as a company town. As in, if a company built a town it would be like Singapore. Warm, quiet, clean, ordered, safe, sensible, controlled. The best five day stopover in the world. Long enough to enjoy the cheap shopping. Not long enough to sail to the edge of the world.

It is always a sobering moment crossing the border from Malaysia and seeing the impounded cars of drug traffickers. I wonder what they do with them, apart from letting them gather dust for a while. The owners have no further need for them, I guess. Who would be mad enough to traffick drugs between two countries that have the death penalty for possession?

So here we are waiting at Tanah Merah Interchange. It is a sultry night (as usual). The quiet heat of the suburban tropics. Lights are blinking in the distance. People are waiting. Blinking. Six minutes. The tv over there is obviously designed for a more train intensive time of day. The endless repetition of its one track message seems vaguely menacing. A glitch in the matrix? It happens when they change something. Is big brother watching back there, perhaps?