Singapore was not on my initial list, but I added it once I had to cancel the African portion of my trip for safety concerns. This was an excellent decision. I was able to explore Singapore with a friend I met in Bangkok. We spent four days wandering among the skyscrapers, talking and comparing our lives East and West.

Night view of Singapore’s financial center

Singapore has been called Disney Land with the Death Penalty and that’s pretty much true. It’s incredibly clean and safe; the extremely diverse population seems to live in harmony, thanks to government promotion of multiculturalism. It is one of the least corrupt countries in the world and has the second freest markets in the world (after Hong Kong). Life expectancy and per capita income are among the highest in the world, as are standards of living, education and healthcare.

That’s the Disney Land part. Lurking behind all those successes are draconian laws and censorship. Many drug-trafficking offenses come with a mandatory death sentence. Caning is a common judicial punishment for crimes such as theft, rape, drug trafficking or overstaying your visa (to deter illegal immigration). Censorship in Singapore is constant and pervasive. Most domestic media is controlled by government entities. Websites and songs can be banned at will. Singapore also has some of the higest income inequality in the world, worse than the United States

My friend described to me a society where people are afraid to step out of line, where everone is crushed under Singapore’s high cost of living, where the only goal is money and the only acceptable hobby is shopping, where deviation is frowned upon and success the only thing that matters. It sounds little like the United States, but at least in the United States there are non-lucrative careers or choices that still earn respect. There is a high suicide rate among the elderly, who can no longer support themselves but don’t want to be a burden to their children. Mental illness and poverty are present, but unrecognized and untreated, because recognization would reflect poorly on the success of the Sinaporean state.

We also discussed the recent Indonesian case, where two Australian men were sentenced to death by firing squad for drug trafficking. The sentence was carried out in late April.

My friend’s point was that the law is the law; and the Indonesian president was standing up for his country, “acting like the tough father who has to do what is right even if it is unpopular.” This led to a larger discussion about the nature of the law. I explained that in the West we have a more flexible relationship to the law, mostly because there’s more than one. There’s the law, created by legislators and involving civil and criminal offenses, etc., and then there’s The Law, which is something more like morality. If the law (small) is in conflict with The Law, then you break it, and that’s the right thing to do. And if a law (small) has nothing to do with morality, like jaywalking, then break it as often as you want. Try not to get caught, but only because that’s a hastle. He was polite about it, but I think he was a little appalled at my lack of respect for the law.

He had another example of this mindset: sitting on the grass. He pointed out that not once, in all the parks we passed, was anyone sitting on the grass. And there weren’t signs forbidding it, either.  It would never occur to a Singaporean to sit on the grass. Kind of like how the Law is the Law, chairs are for sitting, not grass. The grass is the grass, and a chair is for sitting.

Speaking of crime and punishment, corporal punishment is common. Children are often punished not just for doing something wrong, but also for making a mistake, such as breaking a dish. It’s also not uncommon to punish all children when one makes a mistake. In that case, they are punished – perhaps hit with a belt – in order from oldest to youngest, because they should be watching each other and making sure nobody misbehaves.

Then he said the most shocking thing of all: children are also punished for asking questions.  He related how, in high school, he had been called into a meeting with his parents and the principal in order to discuss his habit of asking questions. These questions were not aggressive, but more things like “Why does electricity work that way?” or “What are we supposed to get out of this lesson?” But nonetheless, he was told that it was disruptive and to learn to limit his questions.

I told him that, in America, we have a saying that “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” He was blown away. Questions are a pretty deep part of American culture; question authority, question tradition, question everything. I’ve never been so proud of my country. We in America have plenty of problems, and I’ve seen plenty of things that other countries do better, but this, to me, is the most important thing we get right.

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