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
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
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
"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.
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
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. …