The Reign of Order Singapore Pays Price to Become `Nation of 2 1/2 Million Boy Scouts'

Article excerpt

JAY BRANDT LEARNED a lesson about Singapore the day he climbed onto his motorcycle without first donning his helmet.

On Brandt's trip from his house in a Singaporean suburb to a gas station three blocks away, at least six Singaporeans stopped their cars, waved to get Brandt's attention and pointed to his head.

The message was as obvious as it was insistent: Wear your helmet!

Brandt and other St. Louisans who have traveled to Singapore have encountered a society that behaves like those half-dozen Singaporeans, a society that demands that its members live up to a standard.

St. Louisans in Singapore have seen a country where the government forces citizens to save four out of every $10 they make, where grade-school kids spend three to four hours a day on homework, where time-and-temperature phone lines carry lessons on punctuality.

"This is surely the most socially controlled . . . society in the world," said Michael Sherraden, a Washington University professor who has studied Singaporean social policy.

St. Louisans have discovered that although Singapore looks like a rich American suburb from the ground up, its cultural foundation makes it as different as east is from west.

"The Westernness is a very thin coating on a Chinese culture," Brandt said U "If you don't understand that, you can't judge it."

The spotlight of the press has been shining on Singapore recently because of the case of Michael Fay, the American teen-ager sentenced to a caning for spray-painting cars in Singapore.

His mother, Randy Chan, and other members of his family say that Fay is innocent. Fay and his mother formerly lived in St. Louis.

St. Louisans who know Singapore say that wire-service dispatches offer only a sketch of the country. Caning is only a tiny part of what makes Singapore Singapore, St. Louisans say.

Singaporean society is orderly and safe. Singapore is a wealthy country where more than nine out of 10 families own their homes. Singapore has so many jobs that it has to import workers from other countries.

But it's not just caning that makes it so.

From Pith Helmets To Suits

St. Louisan Stanley Spector was there as Singapore was emerging from British rule and becoming an independent republic.

Spector, now a retired Washington University professor, was in Singapore as a scholar and as a writer for news magazines in the 1950s. In the '60s, '70s and '80s, Spector shepherded groups of Asian-American scholars to study in Singapore.

Spector saw the country transform from a jungle-choked colony where Europeans wore pith helmets to a modern city-state where natives dress like Manhattan bankers.

Today, Singapore looks like downtown Clayton with tropical plants. Skyscrapers of glass and white stone and polished steel rise from the island. The streets are clean. And, in the humid atmosphere, taxi drivers keep their air conditioners on high.

Singapore's government is a republic. A one-house parliament is the legislative branch; the executive branch is comprised of prime minister and a cabinet.

Singapore is an international stew. Most of the citizens are of Chinese, Malaysian and Tamil, or Southern Indian, descent, but people from other ethnic groups are in the mix as well.

Singapore has four official languages: Mandarin, Malay, English and Tamil. Other common languages include Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochow and Hakka.

When the country gained its independence, Singaporeans elected Lee Kwan Yew as the republic's first prime minister.

Penalties For Drugs And Hair

After his election, Lee and his ministers reshaped Singaporean society and gave it their own conservative and penny-wise attitudes. They established a forced savings program, prohibited spitting and wearing long hair, and imposed harsh penalties for breaking the law.

To keep society orderly, Singapore reaches deeply into what Americans see as personal liberties. …