All Good No Bad

Markets may have made their peace with activism, rebellion, radicalism, revolution, change-agenting, hierarchy-questioning, sacred-cow-killing, power-seizing, apple-cart-overturning and everything else on the exciting menu of New Economy upheaval, but markets still have trouble reconciling themselves to democracy proper. Markets romp joyfully when word arrives that the vote-counting has been halted. Markets punish the bond prices of countries where left parties still attract a substantial vote. Markets reward countries where left parties have been induced to wind up their operations. To you Bill Clinton’s rightward triangulations may have seemed like rank hypocrisy or worse, since they deprived Americans of meaningful political choice, but in the view of markets the man who managed to kill off the New Deal is a statesman for the ages.

Above all markets love the country of Singapore. There was a time a few years ago when one heard this repeated so frequently that it became one of the great media clich? of the age. Singapore was an economic miracle, a land arisen from Third World to First in a handful of decades. Singapore was showing the world the way forward. Singapore had resolved it all: ethnic hatred, crime, social decay, good government. Singapore was the country with the most economic freedom in the world. Singapore was the best place to do business in all the earth. Singapore was more comprehensively wired than anywhere else. “Asian values,” as described by Lee Kuan Yew, the man who has effectively ruled Singapore ever since 1959, would inevitably prevail. And as proof you needed look no farther than a postcard of Singapore’s glittering downtown, at all the spanking new skyscrapers erupting from the earth in stern testimony to the market’s approval.

And what the market loved best about Singapore was what was absent: Politics. The country has quite literally traded politics for wealth, with its most prominent political thinkers endlessly reminding the world that “Asian values” prioritize economic achievement over civil liberties. But the trade-off between a lively political life and the blessings of the market is hardly a uniquely Asian phenomenon. Americans know the logic quite well. For ten years now we have labored mightily to convince ourselves that once we had hobbled unions and rolled back regulation and dropped antitrust enforcement and “reformed” welfare and stopped worrying generally, we would break free into a world beyond ideology and dread partisanship, a place of civility and simple pleasures, a utopia where watching the NASDAQ shower us with its blessings far outranked electioneering as an expression of our democratic ways. So acute was the desire in some circles to nail a final lid on politics that Thomas Friedman, the highly respected New York Times foreign affairs columnist, actually came up with a term for the glorious trade-off in his ecstatic 1999 book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: “the golden straitjacket.” Since all alternatives to laissez-faire are now historically discredited, Friedman maintained, all countries must now adopt the same rigidly pro-business stance. When they do, “your economy grows and your politics shrinks.” The pseudo-democracy of markets replaces the real democracy of democracy, the great multinational corporations nod their approval, and (some) people get fantastically rich.

I have no idea whether Friedman had Singapore specifically in mind when he came up with this formulation, but there can be little doubt that Singapore has come close indeed to realizing the “post-partisan” dream of New Economy ideologues everywhere. Many facts can be cited to illustrate Singapore’s exchange of democracy for wealth, but few are more poignant than the bankruptcy into which the country’s opposition MPs (at present there are three in a parliament of 84), are perennially thrown by ruling party lawsuits. Dissenting publicly can quite literally mean losing it all. As a result opposition politicians have learned, as X’ho, the ultra-arch Singapore punk rocker puts it, “Speak not, bankrupt not.”

Unfortunately, aggressive “depoliticization,” as Singaporean journalists refer to it, has pitfalls of its own. As the allure of public life recedes, the country may get rich, but who is to manage the public sector? So effectively has the ruling party punished the opposition and discredited politics generally that it now faces, ironically, a crisis unique among advanced nations: It has trouble recruiting gung ho young candidates to stand for parliament.

Nor do countries simply evolve into “golden straitjacket” postpartisanship by some natural process of popular enlightenment. Depoliticization is an achievement that requires effort. And building a depoliticized state in Southeast Asia was an accomplishment that took decades. The arduous story is told in precise, clinical detail by Francis Seow, one of the country’s best known dissidents, in his 1998 book The Media Enthralled. Running down the long, long list of Lee Kuan Yew’s battles with a once-feisty press, Seow tells us exactly what arguments and legal strategems Lee used from the 60s to the 90s to get his way in every single case, to force the more tractable publications to see things as he did and the recalcitrant sheets simply to disappear. Only rarely did the country have to resort to outright censorship. Warring with the Economist, Far Eastern Economic Review, the International Herald Tribune, and the Asian Wall Street Journal, Lee used a combination of lawsuits, anti-Western bluster, intimidation, and circulation restriction to ensure that these publications would practice “self-censorship” when describing events in his country. Turning to the local media, Lee came up with a plan whereby market forces did the work for him. Using the language of marketplace democracy that we all know so well from brokerage commercials and “New Democrat” reform efforts, Lee’s government simply required that all newspaper publishing operations be publicly traded rather than owned by families or private investors–and that crucial voting shares be held by politically reliable individuals. “Lee Kuan Yew has understood perfectly that the media business is, first and foremost, a business,” the canny Singaporean journalist Cherian George has written: “that a press allowed to make money out of a system will support that system; and that publishers value their bottom-line more highly than they do their editorial freedom.”

Described that way Lee Kuan Yew sounds like the kind of guy a traditional American press lord, thundering on behalf of the interests of the owning class, could do business with. But Lee tolerates very little thunder. He and his successors seem to regard the press as fundamentally illegitimate, an unelected interloper in the nation’s politics. In 1994 a writer named Catherine Lim made the mistake of violating an unwritten prohibition against criticism of government officials; in the official declaration that slapped her down it was announced that neither journalists nor anyone else could be allowed “to set the political agenda from outside the political arena. . . . People who seek to change the nature of Singapore politics and society cannot be allowed to do so from political sanctuaries.” No one could be permitted to comment on political issues except duly declared politicians–and everyone knows how the government deals with them. The results may be draconian, but the terms of the debate must seem very familiar to American readers, living as they have through thirty years of assaults on the “elite” media, always said to be foisting their “arrogant” concerns and their big city ways on the rest of us. And Lee Kuan Yew has achieved in Singapore what the American Right can only dream about: Freedom from the press–and along with it freedom from criticism and freedom from critical thought generally.

So what replaces politics? What fills the blank space left when a country has sacrificed criticism and intellectual life on the altar of the market? I went to Singapore to find out. Since the Asian economic collapse in 1998 we’ve heard very little about Singapore or the wonders of “Asian values” or the necessity of following Singapore down the paths of inevitability. No longer do intrepid New Economy ideologues bring us back bold stories from this land of the future. But there is still much to be learned from the land of Lee Kuan Yew.

I have before me a copy of the Straits Times, the country’s official newspaper, dated December 10, 2000. I have kept the paper in my files because it was my first clue that there was something amiss about this country. I remember reading it for the first time on a sunny equatorial morning in a twelfth story hotel room overlooking the city’s marina, a blimp advertising a local Internet service provider orbiting annoyingly outside my window. From its front page the Straits Times looked like a standard state-of-the-industry product, remininding one of USA Today maybe a little more than the New York Times. There were colorful photos and human interest stories, serious journalism about important topics like water reservoirs, all of it written in familiar newspaper English. It certainly looked inoffensive. Where things started to go wrong was in an account of protests at a college commencement in Hong Kong in which Lee Kuan Yew had been awarded an honorary degree. Although it was a news story, I had trouble discerning exactly why the students were protesting (this would have to wait until I was in Hong Kong a week later and came across the South China Morning Post’s coverage of the incident); the point of the piece seemed rather to be the foolishness and feebleness of protesters, and the contrasting nobility of Lee. Lee is said to speak in a “business-like” tone; to stand stoically while great waves of official flattery wash over him, “perhaps because he has received so many [accolades] over the years that they roll off him.” Of the protesters, it is noted that they are few in number, that there are many “outsiders” among their ranks; that they are “led by a man dubbed ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok Hung”; and that, given the opportunity, they will complain about nearly anything: “Another day, another protest.”

Protest may not earn a Straits Times journalist’s respect, but turning to the paper’s “Review” section, I discovered what did. There, in the place most American newspapers reserve for book reviews and think-pieces, I found a profile of the management guru who co-wrote the One to One series of marketing books; a column about the urgent need to adapt to waves of workplace “change” (you know, like “outsourcing”); an enthusiastic story about the new president of PepsiCo, a native of India who likes rock ‘n roll and reportedly studies videotapes of Michael Jordan’s greatest basketball moments in order to “catch insights about the value of teamwork”; a profile of the management guru who co-wrote The Individualized Corporation (“Power to the people is [his] motto”); a discussion of one of the paper’s more popular feature writers in which the concept of “the journalist as a brand” is used as a point of departure; and a review of one of those sweeping, pseudo-historical books so beloved of business readers that start out with the Neanderthals and end up affirming various contemporary management homilies about creativity and entrepreneurship. In the entire section, only a brief editorial and a lone column (deploring the persecution of the Chinese minority in Indonesia) addresses matters other than management theory.

Venturing out from my hotel I found that nearly wherever I went management talk–even the liberationist variety we hear so much of these days from the evangelists of the everyone-will-be-free Internet economy–blended easily with the depoliticized, prosperity-centric culture of Singapore. In the bookstores I could find no copies of the Baffler but collections of management theory so vast that they dwarf any I have ever seen in America. In the upscale Ngee Ann City mall I bought a copy of George Gilder’s long-anticipated Telecosm and thumbed through the alarming new installment in the Fifth Discipline series, Schools That Learn. From the windows of the offices of the Informatics Group bold advertisements instructed me to “Increase Your Market Value,” advised me to “Surf Ahead in Your Career,” and exhorted me to “Make it to the Top.” I was passed on the street by a rebellious youth whose sassy T-shirt derided those “at the bottom of the ladder.” In Suntec City, a combination mall and office complex that is billed as “Asia’s vertical Silicon Valley,” I walked through a corridor in which the spaces that are usually taken up by ads for commercial products were instead given over to testimonials from various jargon-spouting CIOs and SVPs from Oracle, Xerox, and Union Bank of Switzerland: “Networking for Success at Suntec City”; “Suntec City is positively future-proof”; “You’ve got to get connected.” Venturing further into the crowded complex I discovered that it was Microsoft Day at the “Fountain of Wealth,” the gigantic bronze ring around which the mall is arranged. I watched as fathers and sons, under the benevolent gaze of Bill Gates’s emissaries to Southeast Asia, slowly circumnavigated the fountain in the direction believed to maximize the acquisition of luck. For many, the presence of corporate PR officials and the banalities of American management rhetoric clearly made for a pleasant shopping experience. In fact, the line outside Suntec City’s Kenny Rogers restaurant was so long that I had to get my ribs from Tony Roma’s instead. (I could also have chosen a rib place called “Fat Daddy.”)

I do not mean to mock Singapore, like so many writers do, as some weird and brutal Asian regime. In fact, proceeding from these two crucial starting points–Singapore is very rich; Singapore tolerates no political criticism–it has become a country whose culture, superficially at least, looks a lot like our own. I did not find Singapore strange; I found it familiar. My objections to what I saw there almost all arose from the official media’s energetic recapitulation of bland American originals: management theory, fast food, pop music, Hollywood movies. Depoliticized but intensely successorized, Singapore is what America will be like if the “New Economy” crowd get their way for much longer. Christmas, for example, is celebrated with far more enthusiasm than it is at home–and entirely as a secular holiday. The displays of lights and dioramas on Orchard Road–including a two-story outdoor tableau of skiers complete with gusts of fake snow–are so elaborate they put one more in mind of downtown Vegas than Marshall Field’s windows. Their celebration of the holiday puts our own in the shade. Ads for the Takashimaya department store promised “A Christmas in Gold.” Those for another whispered unsarcastically of “The Glitz and the Glamour.” And the reach of the holiday cheer is astoundingly comprehensive: I heard the same soundtrack of maudlin Christmas favorites (including “The Little Drummer Boy” in a tearful minor key) in a supermarket, a gym, and in the underground bunker where British generals planned their ineffectual defense of the island in 1942.

I will admit that I found the music irritating. In my hotel dining room a top-of-the-line grand piano was used to produce unctuous renditions of “Yesterday,” Broadway favorites, songs by the Carpenters. Later I observed the same set-up and the same repertoire in effect in the famous Raffles hotel. And a third time in a mall whose name I have now forgotten. On the radio I heard an excited announcer hail the unbearably awful boy-band Westlife as “kick-ass.” At Changi airport I saw the private jet of the Backstreet Boys waiting to ferry its toxic cargo off to some other unfortunate burg.

But the weakness of public intellectual life was what struck one most sharply. History museums that deal in transparent party-line propaganda. TV dramas that interrupted themselves so the characters could advise viewers didactically on personal safety or civic responsibilities. And positive reviews as far as the eye could see. I understand how Lee Kuan Yew’s “hypersensitivity to criticism” (to use Seow’s phrase) has had a chilling effect on the country’s political discourse. What is less clear is the process by which this suspicion of criticism has been extended into the cultural realm. But this it has undeniably done. X’ho, the acidic Singaporean cultural observer, declares sarcastically that “unlike other countries, we are 100% good, and though we dare not outrightly say we are perfect, the non-existence of put-downs in public media and the constant self praising we do imply that, yes, we are absolutely fair and perfect.” From every magazine, newspaper, alternative weekly, or slick lifestyle supplement I came across arose a suffocating fog of affirmation. Helpful appreciations of that great new movie, Charlie’s Angels. Some fun facts about the career of that enchanting singer, Christina Aguilera. A great expensive new restaurant to consider for your Christmas feast. Where was that legendary Singaporean rudeness in the world of ideas? Could anyone here muster a simple, honest “no”?

I am pleased to report that at least one person can. Before leaving the country I managed to procure both a book and a spoken-word CD by the above-mentioned X’Ho, a former punk rocker who has of late moved into the broader field of cultural criticism. What first drew me to his book, Skew Me, You Rebel, Meh?, I admit, was its cover: The dayglo pink and orange background with ransom-note lettering that we all remember so fondly from the Sex Pistols days. Making it more attractive still was the plastic wrapper in which it had been germlessly encased, ensuring that casual shoppers wouldn’t be bothered by its contents. And for good reason. X’Ho turns out to be a scathing critic of the money culture of his native land. In “Singapore You’re Not My Country,” a poem by Alfian Sa’at that X’ho reads on his CD, we hear:” Singapore why do you wail that way, demanding my IC? Singapore stop yelling and calling me names. How dare you call me a chauvinist, an opposition party, a liar a traitor, a mendicant professor, a Marxist homosexual communist pornography banned literature chewing gum liberty smuggler? How can you say I do not believe in The Free Press autopsies flogging mudslinging bankruptcy which are the five pillars of Justice? And how can you call yourself a country, you terrible hallucination of highways and cranes and condominiums ten minutes’ drive from the MRT?”

In his own work X’ho seems to prefer, for reasons that should be very clear by now, to work through sarcasm, ridicule, irony, and double-speak (and also mainly through small rock magazines like Big O). The collection of poems and essays that he reads on his CD, Me All Good No Bad, are advertised as “Pro-Singaporean content.” He mocks such characteristically Singaporean initiatives as an ill-begotten drive to ban smoking simply by repeating them verbatim in his almost aristocratically correct English. He proposes as a national motto, “Say ‘Yes.’ It’s the Way to the Top. . . . Heaven is just a compliance away.” (On the other hand, there’s his exceedingly direct and irony-free chant, “Asian values suck.”) In America we are quite familiar by now with irony as an expression of privilege, with irony as salesmanship, with irony as Tory scorn. I had to go all the way to Singapore to have my faith in the arch restored.

%d bloggers like this: