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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

ROMANCING SINGAPORE

I can't believe I've let Romancing Singapore month pass without comment. But February is the shortest month of the year, so these things can happen. So from the archives, allow me to present a newspaper column I wrote on the subject in March 2004...

When Singapore is mentioned in polite conversation, the average, ignorant, non-reader of this column would likely make the following two comments. 1) “That snotty American kid got caned there, right?” 2) “Did you know that gum is illegal in Singapore?” While snotty-American Michael Fey did get several whacks in the butt about a decade ago (not even President Clinton could save him from the cane), gum is now legal, you just have to get it at a pharmacy. If you want to come off as more savvy next time you and your friends are discussing Singapore at a cocktail party, try this: Singapore isn’t romantic. I’ll explain.

Singapore is a city-state on an island at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula. The city is considered one of the cleanest and safest in the world. Some consider the laws and punishments in Singapore a bit cruel. While the government is dressed up like a British parliamentary system, it’s pretty much a dictatorship.

But it’s an odd sort of dictatorship. Imagine if your grumpy Uncle Joe, the one who is always complaining about things and listening to talk radio, ran his own country. Singapore is what his country would be like. “Those stupid j-walkers! They should fine those people $1,000 for being so stupid.” Done. “Have you seen the public toilets lately? As far as I’m concerned, they should have people monitor the public toilets. If anyone doesn’t flush, fine ‘em $1,500! Then they’ll pay attention.” No problem. “Drug problem? I’ll solve your drug problem! If you got drugs, you should get killed. There, no drug problem.” Done.

Amazingly enough, most of these policies work. I spent about a week in Singapore last month and didn’t encounter one jay-walker, unflushed toilet, or drug dealer. I also didn’t see anyone peeing in the elevators. Singapore has cameras in their elevators to keep such a thing from happening. (I guess not every country can keep their elevators urine-free on the honor system.) The government has gone to great trouble to make their country clean, modern, and efficient. But romance is another matter. It’s not a very romantic place, and now it’s affecting the birthrate.

Singapore’s birthrate has plummeted in the last few years. As a matter of fact, most industrialized nations don’t have a birthrate sufficient to replace the population that dies each year. The notable exception to this is America, and we have our plucky teenagers to thank for that (way to go, kids!)

But Singapore is not the kind of country to take a problem like this lying down. They’ve offered cash incentives to couples to have kids, something on the order of $40,000 for the second child. But that didn’t seem to help. So Singapore decided to work on the romance problem the only way they knew how: by starting another government program.

Romancing Singapore 2004 is designed to send citizens the message that “Love is in the little things.” To make the city more romantic, the government has designed a new fragrance and is sponsoring events throughout the city. The events range from tango lessons to mass marriages. There’s even a jingle. In a rare act of journalism, I actually downloaded the song from Romancing Singapore’s web site. The song is, well, what you might expect if your grumpy Uncle Joe were asked to write a hip-hop song to make the kids feel romantic. It is, quite likely, the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

Dumb or not, the real question is if it will make reserved Singaporeans any more randy. I honestly doubt it. If you ask me, the government isn’t really serious about increasing the country’s birthrate. If Singapore really wanted people making babies, they’d simply pump Barry White music into every citizen’s home. The problem would solve itself in about nine months.

UPDATE: The government has turned over control of the website to a private company, but still pumps a lot of public money into the project. Alas, the 2004 jingle has long since been pulled. Oh well, I guess you had to be there.


The Singapore skyline photo can be found on this Flikr photostream.

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