“When do cool things ever happen here?”
That was a question an expat friend of mine asked me.
“When you keep an eye out,” I replied.
Singapore is terribly uncool, but it’s not as bad as say… North Korea or Congo. But if we had to compare ourselves to countries that are worse off, then we’re probably not that cool anyway.
This country is known for being clean, safe, ultra modern, rich, and sterile. All of these qualities have probably attracted many immigrants from the region to plant their seeds here. Some may argue that safety gives them the utmost freedom––to go out in the middle of the night without the fear of getting robbed, raped, murdered or all of the above.
But sterility is what makes this city soulless. It’s too orderly. Jobs are specifically created to police people’s actions. Being away for three months and coming back to those aunties on their microphones – in Paya Lebar and Serangoon MRT stations – telling passengers to move to specific areas in the platform was a shocker. As if taking overcrowded public transport wasn’t stressful enough, I now have to endure what sounds like a bunch naggy mums policing my freedom in the MRT platform. Maybe it would be more tolerable if these aunties injected humour into these announcements like London’s Tube drivers do. But local public transport staff don’t possess that witty sense of humour to make public transport a more enjoyable experience.
One of the first things a foreign friend noticed when he was here was the Land Transport Authority’s graciousness campaign that spawned the god-awful Hush Hush Hannah, Stand Up Stacey, Move In Martin and Bag Down Benny. I told him, “You won’t believe how stupid people can be. They need to be told what to do.” And then I realised how sad it is that we’re assumed to be so infantile that we constantly need to be nannied.
Homosexuality is still illegal. Our press freedom has dropped another rank to 154 out of 180, two positions below Congo. Our freedom, civil liberties, and political rights are ranked 4.0 each, with 7 being the worst, and 1 being the best.
Documentary filmmaker and journalist Adam Curtis’ short film, HyperNormalisation is a commentary on the world we live in. In his introduction to the film, he writes that the systems to keep the world safe and stable – created with complex algorithms – have real power. He goes on to add that “we have become terrified of all change. But that fear of change is in the interest of a system that wants to hold everything stable. And stops us from ever challenging it.”
While the film’s narrative is set in the context of the West, there are many parallels that can be drawn with Singapore. Shiny new buildings, shopping centres, restaurants, and cinemas are constructed every year. Consumerism is being drilled into the daily lives of people here. It’s nothing but a mere distraction from how utterly boring life here could’ve been otherwise. Ever wondered why expats – those with real spending power – travel to nearby islands every other weekend?
Just last week, Senior Minister of National Population and Talent Division infamously stated that we “need a very small space to have sex”, causing an uproar on social media. In an attempt to encourage Singaporeans to procreate (whilst still living with our parents) and bump up the country’s low fertility rate, she has reduced us to cattle, being told how, when, and where we should/could make babies. Each person here is just a statistic––not even human. The country’s need to take control of almost every aspect of its citizens’ lives – by building a Smart City – is highly intrusive. And we’re supposed to pretend all of that is normal.
Has Singapore always been this uncool?
In the 19th century, the opium trade in Singapore was highly lucrative. The practice of smoking opium was brought over by Chinese migrants and it was supported by the colonial government which earned almost half of its total its revenue franchising the opium trade.The Chinese migrant workers in early Singapore turned to opium to escape from a harsh reality of hard work and poverty. Secret societies and triads (disguised as “clans” and “associations” as the Societies Ordinance in 1890 outlawed societies of more than 10 members) often fought for licenses to sell opium. Licensed opium dens and opium syndicates operated in the country until 1946, when the consumption and possession of opium were made illegal.
Now I’m not saying that drug addiction is cool.
So what is cool?
Modern cool is an attitude, a feeling, an aesthetic. It’s not something the dictionary can define. German philosopher Thorsten Botz-Bernstein theorises that cool is “a symptom of anomie, confusion, anxiety, self-gratification and escapism”.
He also adds that “to be cool can be seen as a decadent attitude leading to individual passivity and social decay,” and that was what led to the ban on opium, and ultimately the criminalisation of drugs in Singapore.
Prostitution is legal here and gangs aren’t as prevalent as before, which is one of the reasons why Singapore is so safe, but safety is not cool.
Coolness is a nonconformist balance that manages to square circles and to personify paradoxes. –– Thornsten Botz-Bernstein
In that case, coolness carries with it elements of edge, danger, hedonism and subversion. It is why Berlin, a city that has allowed its underground subcultures to organically grow, is cool. And that is also why Singapore’s 19th-century seedy underbelly was kinda cool.
What is its equivalent in 21st century Singapore?
This country saw a hardcore punk underground that flourished in the ’90s, and it continued thriving until the mid-2000s. As a teen in the mid-2000s, I would attend hardcore shows in various tiny, sweaty jamming studios and bars, all of which have since met their demise. Venues don’t enjoy longevity here as the overheads are usually higher than profits. At the end of the day, they have to make money to be sustainable. Even Pink Noize, a jamming studio/gig venue that regularly put on hardcore punk shows ceased operation last October, after less than two years since it opened.
Many members of the scene have grown up and joined the rat race; to have families. That’s life here. You can’t be a punk forever. There aren’t enough kids interested in punk nowadays to replace the ones who’ve outgrown hardcore punk. What’s left of the scene gathers at the annual Baybeats, the 100 Bands Festival as well as shows put on by hardcore punk label Prohibited Projects. While the scene isn’t as active as it was before, it’s certainly not dead. But an underground subculture characterised by individual freedom and anti-establishment views can never truly grow in a totalitarian country that compels its citizens to conform.
And then came the hipsters. The inaugural Laneway Festival in 2011 brought indie music into mainstream consciousness. The beard-tattoo-barber shop-slicked back-haircut combo is now a hipster cliche. Such a relatively harmless subculture is the only one that’s seen a continuous growth––the turnout at Laneway increases year after year. There’s a big enough population of indie hipsters that there’s room for another festival. Music and arts festival, Neon Lights, made its debut last year and will return in November.
With a new wave of people looking for something a little more obscure, we’ve now got a former sex cinema that now screens indie flicks and arthouse films; it’s been open for about two years now.
Then there are the brave ones who – despite the obstacles – open up dark, sweaty, intimate underground clubs that give some of those in Europe a run for their money. These are the places where the outliers escape to, where they can lose themselves in music.
But with licensing issues (Kilo ceased operations as a nightclub on New Years Day this year as it was unable to obtain a license, but they’ll return to a new location in November), clubs not being allowed to open past 4am, exorbitant prices of alcohol, and frequent police raids, nightlife operators have to jump through hoops just to make this city a little more fun.
In HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis says that “the original idea of cool, back in the 1960s, was that you would pull back and see the world for what it really was”. Even though it’s 2016, we should all perhaps look back and examine what it really means to be cool. Until we’re able to, as Curtis writes, “pull back and look at the everyday life all around you” and “see the cracks appearing through the shiny surface of the cocoon we are living in”, Singapore can never truly be cool.