Friday, December 12, 2008

Freedom From, Freedom To: A Debate on Singapore

My husband and I just returned to Kuala Lumpur after taking a mini honeymoon in Singapore, which is just an hour away by plane. My frame of reference for Singapore was that it was supposed to be very clean and safe, but ruled with an iron fist that famously stuck to its guns and caned the American teen, Michael Cain, when he committed vandalism there in the 1990s. I was sympathetic to Cain during his trial, and with Singapore's executing a person roughly every nine days, I felt confident that no amount of cleanliness was worth such harsh penalities.

But when I spent some time in the city, I saw that the city's peace is not just about graffiti or litter. In Singapore no one ever made the obnoxious kissy noises at me that Malaysian men prefer over some American hoots or whistles. No cars honked at me to let me know they had power right then and I was a sex object. In fact, there were lots and lots of women walking alone to and from buses, subways, and shops. Unaccompanied women, at least not without another woman, are rare in KL because then you are even more likely to be the victim of a mugging, or "purse snatching" as the police frivilously categorize such crimes if you try to make a report. We even had a woman taxi driver, which is unheard of in KL because it would be like a roulette game with male passengers.

The downside of this utopian depiction of a city with four million people is that there were cameras probably every twenty-fourty feet or so on all the sidewalks, outside the entrances to buildings, etc. On Clarke Quay, there was a fine of 1,000 S$ for littering or riding a bike in the tunnel. Sure, that's a lot of money, but people shouldn't litter anyway, and bicyclists should assume responsibilty not to injure pedestrians, right? And in a broader sense, whatever the penalities for stealing, stealing is wrong, right? I might object to the strict drug laws, but then again, in such a lovely city what's there to escape from? Unless of course you are LGBT, and I do think that's not right because if everyone isn't free to love, then love is not free.

But there's no lack of art museums and small contemporary galleries, and there was far more nightlife in terms of live bands and friendly clubs and bars there than in KL. Not that KL doesn't have bars, but I've never seen one where the patrons looked entirely comfortable with each other the way people were in Singapore where I took such liberties as putting my purse in the seat next to me, walking on the sidewalk alone, and smiling at strangers. I am not kidding that you can't do those things safely where I live. Singapore does have gay bars, which the city tolerates, and I hope it continues to move in that direction. I would say that a lack of gay rights was the only discernible major problem, and that's not okay, but it's a great place to start in a country that has legal abortion and sex toy stores amidst the bustles of Orchard Street, the major shopping thoroughfare.

I am still against the death penalty in the U.S. for lots of reasons unrelated to this post, but what I like about a general enforcement of penalties and strong police protection is that if it works, you actually are protected, and you are free to do anything that's not against the law, which is like a civil liberty to me. In the U.S. women organize Take Back the Night, but in many other parts of the world, we'd need to start with Take Back the Morning and Afternoon. Not true of Singapore, and for that we'd do well to take note.

No comments: