The Dual Nature of Singapore

Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl is set within the confines of Clearday Cosemetic’s headquarters, however outside the windows of the glass conference room, the city-nation of Singapore looms large, influencing the character’s cut-throat moves calculations. Explaining the resonance that Singapore holds globally and why she chose this setting over her native Australia, the UK, or the US—all markets similarly driven by whiteness—King said of Singapore; “It’s a liminal space and it exists at a really interesting nexus in the global economy and culture. And it’s a former colony,” making it the perfect place to explore late-stage capitalism, post-colonialism, and millennial corporate culture gone awry. 

A relatively new nation, Singapore became fully independent from the British commonwealth in 1965 under the leadership of Lee Kwan Yew. Lee adopted a controversial system entitled “authoritarian capitalism” fast-tracking progress and prosperity under tight regulations that left the government with remarkable control over both the economy and day-to-day life. Lee adopted seemingly utopian regulations, from strictly regulating and limiting car ownership to adopting low-tax rates that encourage business to relocate to Singapore, making Singapore into what he envisioned as an example of modernity. Western values such as competitive markets, meritocracy, pragmatism, universal education, and mastery of science and technology were all adopted; democracy was not. Lee claimed that “Singapore and other Asian countries, China included, aren’t ready for Western-style democracy.” 

Singapore has since adopted many policies that are authoritarian in posture, from classic totalitarian constraints such as state control and censorship of the press and media, to more unique laws like bans on the import of chewing gum to preserve Singapore’s picture-perfect streets. Behind the sweeping modern skyline and gorgeous architecture are strict laws with even stricter punishments to make sure Singapore stayed sterile and pristine. Blogger Alex Au, who was arrested for sedition against the government in 2015, explains, “Singapore likes to pull the wool over people’s eyes. It likes to say, ‘Oh, don’t we look like the West, with our glass and our skyscrapers, how developed we are.’ But it just serves as a mask.” However, human rights activists are optimistic that a new generation armed with the tools of social media and the benefits of globalization are posed to fight back against what Human Rights Watch has previously called“the textbook example of a politically repressive state.” 

Singapore’s regulation of racial inclusion and integration could be a policy of particular relevance to the multi-national leadership team of White Pearl. In 1960, fueled by the fear of racial tensions causing disorder, Lee’s government adopted this national pledge; “We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion.” With this, the government adopted the CMIO classification system which is shorthand for the four main ethnic groups in Singapore: Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and “Other.” As of 2018, the demographic breakdown of these groups was 74.3% Chinese, 13.4% Malay, 9.0% Indian and 3.2% other. Policies adopted by the  government (such as mandated caps on each ethnic group in public housing units) are aimed at integration rather than assimilation and attempt not to favor any one ethnic group. However, as the nation grows and Singapore becomes more and more multicultural, placing the population in easily checked boxes is becoming increasingly difficult and stifling for those who live there.

The is a unique Western fetishization of Singapore which King examines, “Singapore is a utopian version of Asianness” as it portrays the ideal version of exported Capitalism, rather than the force of exploitation seen in India, South Korea and Thailand. It does not hurt that English is Singapore’s official language. This decision, made by Lee during the country’s establishment, has its roots in Singapore’s colonial history as a British colony, and further maximized efficiency in the polyglot society by establishing a single, agreed-upon language to do business in. This early decision has proved quite fortuitous as Western business can look to Singapore as an Eastern, English-speaking outpost. However, most Singaporeans speak at least two languages, and regularly infuse their dialogue with words from Malay, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, and Tamil, speaking what is referred to as “Singlish” which Sunny Lee utilities in White Pearl

When many people in the West think about Singapore, they imagine lavish parties and ostentatious displays of wealth, thanks in part to the bestselling novel Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan and its cinematic adaptation (of which King is not a fan). For some, this is not too far from reality; the per capita G.D.P of Singapore rose exponentially from $500 in 1960 to $55,000 in 2013, 2.5% of the 6-million-person population are defined as millionaires and 0.4% are classified as part of the global 1%. Yet, the majority of Singaporeans are middle-class and many struggles to live in a city that now holds the global record for cost of living, with 23-26% of households living in relative poverty.  

There is not a monolithic experience of life in Singapore. For some, the regulation and order provide a sense of safety and security that allows them to lead fulfilling lives. For others, the city’s perfection is suffocating, and the lack of personal expression and freedom is exhausting. For King, Singapore was the perfect fit for White Pearl’s toxic late-stage capitalism: “These characters are behaving in insane, disgusting ways--maybe the best way to talk about it is capitalist realism – it’s about how capitalist conditions influence human behaviors.”

—Fiona Selmi