I shop, therefore I am

If Descartes were Singaporean, it would be enough for him to shop to confirm that he exists.  There is probably no country in the world that has more shops per person than this Southeast Asian city-state, a reality that has prompted one prominent Indian architect to liken Singapore to “one gigantic shopping bag.”

I stopped going to Singapore after the Flor Contemplacion affair.  So I was quite unprepared for the awesome structures that have filled up this country’s skyline in the last 5 or 6 years.  This week my wife and I spent 3 days in this small island-nation, staying in a hotel just across a newly developed section of the city called Suntec City.  Five interlinked towers, resembling the fingers of a hand, dominate this landscape.  Adjacent to them is the low-lying but massive International Convention Center.  All of them house offices and function rooms, but their lower floors are all shopping malls.

I realized there was hardly anything else a visitor could do in a place like this but to eat and shop.  Every attempt to stroll out of the hotel leads directly to a mall.  Even the air-conditioned underground walkway to the metro rail is lined with shops.  The malls are interconnected with one another.  So, where one ends, another begins in what seems like an endless maze of corridors expressly made to trap the passerby into buying.

Strangely, the effect of this incredible concentration of shops in one place is a sensory saturation that inoculates one against purposeful buying. The upscale Suntec city malls are among the nicest shops I have seen anywhere, but going through them made me feel like I was being softened for a disadvantageous transaction. In self-defense, I held tightly to the little money I changed at the airport.  If I had bought anything on impulse, it would have been for no better reason than because there was simply nothing else to do.  Yes, it would have been just to confirm that I existed.

It is the same feeling you get when you patrol the shops of any major airport.  It is an hour before boarding time.  You’ve checked in early hoping to find a quiet corner in which you can read.  But now you are besieged by the thought that you have some unspent local currency in your wallet.  It’s not much, so converting it back to US dollars seems a hassle.  Moreover, you just hate losing in the exchange. You end up looking for things that are priced within the reach of your disposable money.  I have bought many bottles of shaving lotion, watches, pens, battery-operated shavers, and boxes of chocolate in this state of mindlessness.  It’s absolutely irrational, but you do it anyway.

The irrationality is even sharper in the light of Singapore’s inflated prices.  The strong Singapore dollar is a disincentive against buying almost anything, except maybe electronic goods. On a broad range of items, Singapore prices are nearly at par with those in Tokyo.  They are definitely higher than those in Bangkok or Manila.

But if there is one important reason why tourists would continue to come to this place, it is the food. We encountered it everywhere, and the prices are not a good indicator of quality.  The best meal we had cost one-tenth of our first dinner at the hotel.  But the most delicious food we found not in the hotels or restaurants for expatriates and tourists but in the old neighborhoods and markets of the locals. The merry blend of cultures in this multiracial society has produced some of the most unique and fabulous experiments in Asian cuisine.

“Hainanese chicken” is not a recipe from Hainan, China.  It is completely a local invention, and Singaporeans call it “ginger chicken.”  The best is served in the noisy and steamy restaurants along Balestier Road.  So is fish-head curry not from India.  It originates explicitly from the kitchens of the Indian restaurants near the old Singapore racecourse.  These recipes have not changed over the years.

What has changed is the whole self-definition of modern Singapore. It has positioned itself as a global society, a melting pot of various cultures, a secure haven for global firms.  But culture is local, whereas modernity is universal.  As it exiles its locals to the city’s periphery, global Singapore is fast becoming a society without cultural anchor.  It is a safe and comfortable place with all the amenities of a modern capital.  But where is local Singapore?  You could look out from your hotel room and not be able to tell if you are in Singapore or London.

Singapore has been extremely successful in engineering itself into a developed society.  But the authoritarian developmental state has been unable to deploy its immense power to enrich its own cultural base.  A society needs memory to achieve this, and memory resides in people.  When the local is taken out in favor of the global, the result is often Disney-style “theme-parkism.”

My friend, William Lim, the maverick Singaporean urban architect and planner, expresses a view that is clearly not popular in his country: “Official history tends to reflect what the rich and powerful have chosen to remember.  In developing economies, memories of the poor and the marginalized can often be seen as counter-productive to the quest of attaining a western-based modernity.  Such is the case in Singapore during the ‘70s when the young nation was singlemindedly determined to become a global city.”

In the last 30 years, Singapore has willed itself into becoming a society without a past and without a context.  It is definitely a prosperous and orderly place – but its thinking citizens want it to be a little more than a shopping mall.


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