13 September 2003
It is 11pm and on the bar of Coyote Ugly in Singapore a revolution of sorts is taking place in the lithe form of Angel See, a 20-year-old barmaid.
She is dancing, her high-heels planted on the narrow wooden bar amid half-empty glasses and the elbows of admiring male customers.
Six weeks ago this mild form of self-expression could have earned her a 300 fine, but in a slackening of regulations previously as tight as Angel’s sheath dress, the police pronounced that bar-top boogie-ing was permitted.
The announcement, which made front-page news, came amid a positively giddy rash of relaxations in the prim city-state.
Cosmopolitan magazine, banned in 1982 for “purveying promiscuous values”, has been removed from the long list of forbidden publications, although it will have to be sold wrapped in plastic.
Singaporeans will also be free to watch Sex and the City, television’s complement to the magazine.
Chewing-gum, banned for decades to keep streets clean, will be sold, if only for therapeutic purposes and with a note from a doctor or dentist.
After officials discovered a study showing that America’s most gay-friendly cities were also the most creative and affluent, the prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, disclosed that the government had quietly been hiring gays and lesbians. In a society where homosexuality remains unlawful, gay saunas and bars have sprung up.
“If we want our people to make more decisions for themselves, and if we are to encourage a derring-do society, we must allow risk taking, and a little excitement,” Mr Goh has said. His remarks and the relaxation of petty rules were, however, born not of generosity but necessity. Singapore is in trouble and in need of re-invention.
In the Asian tiger era, it reached full employment and changed from a seedy port into a highly efficient developed nation of spotless skyscrapers and orderly housing estates. But unemployment hit a record 4.4 per cent last year and is expected to rise again, possibly to six per cent, while wages are being cut or frozen.
The economy was still nursing wounds from the 1997 Asian financial crisis when it was afflicted further by the American recession, September 11, regional terrorism and Sars. Most alarmingly, the multi-nationals whose output accounts for two-thirds of the economy are moving manufacturing to cheaper locations such as China.
Analysts fear that the remarkable accomplishments of the 38 years since the city won independence from Britain could evaporate.
Now the traditionally heavy-handed authorities have recognised that to compete with New York, London and Hong Kong, the nation needs not only bold dancers but bold thinkers. Official speeches are loaded with terms such as “entrepreneurship”, “innovation” and “knowledge-based economy”.
After 40 years of being firmly guided in what education and career to follow, and even whom to marry, Singaporeans are being told to alter their character radically.
Philip Jeyaretnam, a lawyer and member of the Remaking Singapore Committee, said: “It certainly requires an adjustment in mindset. People have to think of new ways of making money, rather than just looking for a slot which they fit into.”
Sceptics contend that the People’s Action Party, which has ruled unchallenged since independence and always stifled dissent, is incapable of accepting that economic liberty has to be accompanied by political liberty.
Chee Soon Juan, secretary general of the opposition Democratic Party, said: “You can’t say ‘be entrepreneurial’ and at the same time want to keep all these controls. I am seriously worried this government doesn’t have the will to change.
“When growth was at 10 per cent people were willing to look the other way on civil liberties. That contract is approaching an end,” said Mr Chee, who has been jailed for speaking in public without a permit.
He also faces bankruptcy, and disqualification from standing for parliament after being sued for defamation by the prime minister and Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and senior minister, for questioning the wisdom of a 6.2 billion loan to Suharto’s Indonesia.
The PAP insists that it can manage a “paradigm shift”. Having moved from heavy industry towards high-tech manufacturing in the 1980s, it is now promoting services such as banking and law. It has thrown 1.75 billion into investments and incentives to develop biotechnology.
To fill the gaping hole in its talent pool, it is grabbing foreign intellectual capital, including Prof Alan Colman, a pioneer of the Dolly sheep-cloning project. He leads a stem-cell research team at the National University – which he had to fill with foreigners – seeking a diabetes cure.
“The facilities and equipment are excellent,” said Prof Colman. “There is an appetite for investment in long-term research that is absent at home. But getting people to improvise and think laterally is somewhat difficult.”
Back in the nightclubs, it turns out that the only bar-top dancers at Coyote Ugly are the female staff. Among the punters, only a Briton, Peter, joins them for a one-song wiggle.
Nearby, at Cheeky Monkeys, which boasts “the sexiest bar toppers in town”, the only girls dancing on the bar are foreigners.
“It’s only ever us that does it,” says the daughter of a Yugoslavian pilot, descending to her stool. “Singapore girls don’t have the guts.”