Jeet Thayil Reflects on Singapore

Singapore’s red-light district, Geylang. Pablo Sanchez / Reuters-Landov

I grew up in Hong Kong in the ’70s, and though I traveled in the region, Singapore was not a possible destination. My father, T.J.S. George, was the founding editor of Asiaweek, a Hong Kong–based newsmagazine. He wrote the first critical study of Singapore’s brilliant and authoritarian prime minister. The book, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, was not banned—Lee knew a ban would be self-defeating—but it might as well have been: no bookseller stocked it, not until much later, when students began to circulate photocopies. My family had been advised not to visit Singapore, not even in transit, because we might be taken from the plane and detained.

There was a respectable precedent for family paranoia. Half a dozen years earlier, in India, a former chief minister of Bihar had arrested my father for writing impertinent editorials in The Searchlight, the newspaper my father edited. The imprisonment had been brief, a little over two weeks, and the resulting international furor made my father’s career, 
but the experience had left my family with a residual wariness of power.

Singapore was an expression of one man’s will to power. It was exemplary and totalitarian: media had been effectively nationalized, foreign correspondents expelled, and a letter to the editor critical of the government would bring the Special Branch to your door; opposition parties did not exist; heavy fines were imposed for chewing gum or dropping a cigarette butt on the street; long-haired male visitors could be denied entry (one of the men so turned away was Sir Cliff Richard, that most wholesome of pop singers). I built a composite picture in my mind of a regimented society that had reversed the Dostoevskian dictum: nothing was permitted because everything was true.

In the intervening years, I visited Singapore in transit only. I marveled at the haven Changi Airport offered in comparison with Heathrow or JFK. I admired the quality of the food at the restaurants, the showers and sleep pods, the free Wi-Fi, the movies, the butterfly park, and, most of all, the koi ponds with their orchids and falling water. Watching the large bewhiskered fish was akin to meditation. When I finally visited the city itself earlier this year, I found a society modeled on its first prime minister’s notion of the model citizen, but also, unexpectedly, a society with well-defined, if not absolutely thriving, pockets of decadence, which I’ll get to.

Along with public health and civic amenities, Singapore takes multiculturalism very seriously. There are four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. There are Chinese, Buddhist, and Hindu temples, as well as mosques, a Little India, a Chinatown, and street names that carry Britain’s colonial history. There are heavy rainstorms throughout the year, but few floods, because the city’s system of underground culverts and drains is astonishingly effective. Compared with Mumbai or Delhi, cities derailed each year by monsoon and malaria, this simple fact is a cause for admiration. In the new Singapore, reforms have at last been initiated, and there has been a loosening of government controls, but some things stay 
the same: even today, 
people lower their voices when they talk about Lee Kuan Yew.

Orchard Road runs halfway across the breadth of Singapore, and on it are a dozen buildings with Orchard in their names. Of these, Orchard Towers, situated at the very top of Orchard Road, is a landmark, a vertical red-light area of massage parlors, cheap eateries, shops, bars, and clubs. Men lounge around the stairwells looking at the women, who are everywhere. A half hour away is Geylang, the city’s best-known red-light district, set up by the British in the 19th century. I was taken there on my first night in the city. As we walked up and down the lorongs, or side streets, I noticed that each block had a diverse variation of women: Malay, Filipino, Thai, Chinese, Indian.

Alongside the brothels were other places of business, including some of Singapore’s most popular restaurants. On Lorong 9 was Beef Kway Teow, a corner coffee shop named after its signature dish, tender beef in thick gravy over rice noodles. Also on offer were frogs’ legs. The frogs, sourced from a nearby shop that breeds American bullfrogs, are dispatched with a quick whack against a wall. The food arrived in large platters, and we ate on tables set out on the sidewalk. I ordered kopi o, black coffee, and bought a pack of face tissues from a one-armed man. You leave the tissues on your table to show it’s taken. We watched the women go by. There were drug deals going down, and a drunken fistfight was about to erupt. Tourists from every nation milled on the streets. It could have been a louche corner in any city in the world.

Jeet Thayil’s debut novel Narcopolis was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.