SINGAPORE — Michael Fay was a 19-year-old American student in May 1994 when Singapore authorities delivered four strikes to his bare bottom with a rattan cane. Arrested nearly a year before for stealing road signs and vandalizing vehicles, Fay’s caning prompted an international debate about the fairness of Singapore’s justice system and an outcry about its “police state” tactics.
I knew two facts about Singapore before I arrived here. First was the debate about Michael Fay and Singapore’s strict rules of personal behavior and its global knock as a “police state.” Second is that Singapore has one of the world’s best freshwater supply systems, based on recycling, rainwater collection, and desalination.
Those two elements of life here are tied together by the island nation’s insistence on achieving order, providing a secure way of life, and demanding that residents play their part. In return government here has delivered a magnificent city, full of architectural gems, rising from a garden of flowers, shrubs and trees, remarkably safe, packed with public transit, and where the water is plentiful and clean. If this is the contemporary version of a “police state” America and much of the rest of the world should take notice.
How Singapore achieved its prominence as one of the world’s greenest, cleanest, safest, and most prosperous cities is a story of consistently able leadership, clear goals, and cultural persistence.
The city was occupied by the Japanese during World War Two, a period of extreme violence and hardship, especially for Singapore’s Chinese residents. When the Japanese occupation ended the island endured various long sieges of violence and joblessness as a Malaysian state. In 1965, following wicked disagreements with Malaysia, Singapore became an independent nation that could finally focus on a national plan. The city’s development strategy, like almost every other nation’s, was designed to employ its people, end poverty, and improve the quality of life. Singapore just did it better and stuck to its goals.
Water security was one feature of the plan. Environmental sustainability was another. A good portion of the island is protected forest that safeguards surface water reservoirs. High-tech manufacturing, excellent transit, housing, and education are priorities. Singapore’s streets are shaded in a beautiful urban forest. From a troubled backwater at the tip of the Malay peninsula, Singapore has become a jewel of Asia, not much talked about in the West, but highly regarded from Seoul to Tokyo to Sydney.
The trick to enjoying Singapore, as in any city, is to stay out of trouble. Good behavior, the kind taught by loving mothers, is rewarded by the good times visitors to Singapore have in the clubs, restaurants, parks, concert venues, and neighborhoods. Bad behavior can result in swift detention and punishment.
I didn’t see a single police officer during a two-day visit. But the police are said to be exceptionally diligent and tough. Michael Fay said the police beat a confession out of him, a charge that the police denied. The police also are aided by the bouquets of closed circuit television cameras that adorn lighting poles and are fixed in every public space.
The cameras form part of the basis of the police state knock on Singapore. The other is the comparatively severe penalties for violating civic rules like jaywalking, spitting in the street, graffiti, speeding, littering, eating on the subways. Michael Fay was initially sentenced to four months in jail and six strokes of the rattan cane. President Clinton intervened and the prison time and caning strokes were reduced.
Guess what? People follow the rules. The city is a hive of well-behaved residents. And from the good cheer expressed in the restaurants and bars we visited, Singapore’s people don’t seem to be irritated at all. Let me just say that as an American who’s come to scan crowds at public events, the clear measure of security in Singapore is a welcome virtue. In this city of 5.5 million people, nobody scans a crowd for the guy with a gun.
There’s no second amendment in the Singapore Constitution to aid gun manufacturers and gun-packing citizens who’ve lost their minds. Teachers aren’t armed. Massacres are unknown. Reason: Singapore has one of the toughest gun control laws in the world. Unlawful possession or carrying of firearms is punishable with imprisonment and caning. Using a gun while committing a crime is punishable with death. People support the law.
Those are the contours of a “police state” that many Americans would find undeniably attractive.
— Keith Schneider