The neon gods they made

When I was a kid my mum and dad taught me that it’s rude to talk about money, so they would have found the Singaporeans a little vulgar. As a society they seem to have an unhealthy obsession with lucre: who’s got the most and how they got it, who’s got less and how they can get more, where to spend what you’ve got and how the government keeps inventing new laws to take it off you before you can get around to spending it.

When Singapore got its independence from Malaysia in 1965 it was an impoverished micro-state in which 14% of the population was unemployed and around half illiterate.   Today it has a vibrant, prosperous economy based in particular on financial services, electronics and chemicals; it is also a massively important regional trading hub, with its port being the second busiest in the world.   It is wealthy beyond the dreams of Singaporeans who celebrated independence in 1965. In a land of proven miracles it’s no surprise everyone wants a slice of the action.

The massive, mind-numbing shopping malls are a testament to a society hooked on conspicuous consumption. We wandered into the Marina Bay Sands mall and literally couldn’t find our way back out again; all the brands and designer labels we could have wanted or desired were on offer in upmarket retail units that were a match for anything we’ve encountered in the UK or USA. I’m proud to say we didn’t spend a penny.

It’s great that the locals enjoy a lifestyle their forefathers could never have imagined, and the wealth that the country generates has certainly resulted in some great architecture and design, including the futuristic ‘supertrees’ at Gardens by the Bay, where we enjoyed a spectacular sound and light show:


Locals will tell you that they respect tradition as well as celebrating modernity. It’s true that an older way lives on in some enclaves, in Little India which was gearing up for Diwali (interestingly rendered as Deepavali in Singapore), in China Town and in Kampong Glam where the Sultan Mosque is particularly special:


Peranakan Place and Emerald Hill (below) is another area where the past is being preserved. It’s very attractive, evocative of another age, but maybe it’s too little too late? And is the motivation sincere, is the past valued for its own sake or is this simply about making visitors happy in order to keep the tourism revenues flowing? I really don’t know, but you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit cynical.


And if you’re thinking I’m overegging it, that the capitalist spirit isn’t quite as rampant as I’m making out, I should add that staff at our hotel were more than happy to call a cab to take us back to the airport, but rather spoiled their attempt at great customer service by telling us that for making the call $8.00 would be added to the fare.

Don’t get me wrong, most of the locals we met were decent, friendly people, but I sense they are not quite at ease with themselves. The cab driver on the way back to the airport was proud and bemused in equal measure by the progress Singapore has made, pleased to be part of it and yet contemptuous of the super rich who are both its instruments and its products. He seemed to sense that there’s more to life than this, but couldn’t put his finger on just what it might be.

As we waited at the airport for the flight to Sydney I found myself reflecting on some words from Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’:

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

And the sign said “The words of the prophets

Are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls

And whispered in the sounds of silence”

I can’t help thinking that in Singapore there’ll be no prophets writing on the walls. Partly that’s because this is a society that frowns on law-breaking of any sort, including graffiti, but mainly it’s for the reason that Singaporeans will simply be too busy, out on the town making money.

Author: Platypus Man

"Platypus" is a red herring: I'm English, although my blogging career began in my record of a 2016 road trip to Tasmania. Other blogs followed covering road trips in Newfoundland (2017), the Yellowstone area of the USA (2018) and New Zealand (2019). My current project is "Now I'm 64" , a weekly blog covering UK travel and wildlife, along with bits of history, social commentary and moans about the injustice of aging. I can guarantee a few laughs, and also the occasional rant. Some of it's even quite well written!

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