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I’ve just finished reading Paul Theroux’s travel narrative, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.  Phenomenal.  He’s one of those authors who is able to put words to things you already knew, but never knew how to articulate.

The most interesting part of the book (for me) was his visit to Singapore, particularly because I enjoyed reading such a negative piece on the country.  Not because I dislike Singapore, mind you.  It’s just nice to feel like you’re getting balanced opinions, and most of what’s available in the local press is approbative criticism. 

To give you some context:  Theroux taught English at the University of Singapore from 1968 until he was fired in 1971 (or technically speaking, his contract wasn’t renewed).

You can really feel his bitterness when you read his portrayal of Singaporean men:

Little tinky-winky Singapore was unrecognizable, the most transformed of any city I had ever known in my life, a place twisted into something entirely new; and the people, too, like hothouse flowers that are forced to grow in artificial light, producing strange blooms and even stranger fruit.  But I was disarmed by the feline good looks of Singapore women, soft, pale, kittenish girls with skinny arms and fragile bones; vulpine women, fox-faced and canny, quick-eyed, tense with frustrated intelligence.  In great contrast, the toothy men hurried clumsily after them, down futuristic streets, giggling into mobile phones, pigeon-toed in their haste.

I was actually quite surprised this book isn’t banned in Singapore because Theroux really lets rip on the government:

No one was fat.  No one was poor. No one was badly dressed.  But many Singaporeans had (so it seemed to me) the half-devil, half-child look of having been infantilized and overprotected by their unstoppably manipulative government.


Singaporean’s personalities reflect that of the only leader most of them have ever known, and as a result are notably abrasive, abrupt, thin-skinned, unsmiling, rude, puritanical, bossy, selfish and unspiritual.  Because they can’t criticize the government, they criticize each other or pick on foreigners .

Ouch.  Talk about lexical evisceration.  I must say, I haven’t had a similar experience with the locals.  Barring a couple crazy taxi drivers, everyone I have met has been really kind and friendly and helpful.

In any case, I did learn something very useful:

It was a place without solitude.  Cameras everywhere, snitches too.  You can be arrested and fined for being naked in your own house, if someone gets a glimpse of you through a window and reports you.  This is an inconvenient law, because being a place with no privacy, Singapore is also a place of great loneliness and fear, the apprehension of people who know they are forever being watched.  Singaporeans are encouraged to spy on each other; rats are rewarded.

Whoops.  I’ll have to remember to close the curtains tonight!

February 2010
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