By gum, the West is wrong about Singapore

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose - Me & Bobby McGee, Kris Kristofferson

It must be nice to be Western and superior. It must be nice to judge from afar a grieving and poorly understood nation that is often confused with China. As Singapore came to terms this week with the loss of a titan, the country also came under scrutiny, a great deal of which was admiring in a back-handed way.

After Mr Lee Kuan Yew died, The Guardian devoted an entire article to his policy on chewing gum. Decades of phenomenal GDP growth, the lowest crime rate in the region and top-notch healthcare, and Westerners are still talking about the friggin' chewing gum. This is like being complimented on your English.

The day Mr Lee's body was moved from the Istana to Parliament House, a wire agency article concluded by saying that the proceedings felt "almost too well organised" to some Singaporeans. This is like being told your English sounds - almost - too polished.

And this week, a Telegraph piece called Singapore "proud and prosperous", but could not resist throwing in "somewhat antiseptic". This almost made me regret learning English.

These articles share a churlish and tired subtext, that Singapore is somehow less of a country because it lacks some kind of personality that foreigners expect this part of the world to have.

The Western lexicon for Asia is a funny thing, and I have a real estate agent's relationship with it. When a house is advertised as having "charm", it means that its toilet doesn't work. When a country in this region is lauded for its "charm", it usually means that its people have a touch-and-go relationship with indoor plumbing.

"Quaint" means paddy fields where white-collar jobs should be. "Plenty of character" means the roads are not paved and you get diarrhoea from the ice cubes.

If this is what "charm" is, Singapore does not need it. And if it is handwoven baskets and barefoot children you want to see, go to another country that was not farsighted nor fortunate enough to avoid being charming.

For a long time, Singapore has been denied the gloss treatment other cosmopolitan cities get. Fifth Avenue is worshipped as a glamorous shrine to shopping, but Orchard Road is frequently portrayed as soulless.

When outsiders report on Singapore, words like "gleaming" and "spotless" are used as though they were epithets.

Once in New York City, thanks to my dithering, my husband took too long to order a sandwich at Katz's Deli and got snapped at by one of the legendarily ornery servers. "This is Noo Yawk," the server said, as if that explained everything, and it did.

Likewise, this is Singapore. Everyone is in a hurry and they will hold pre-briefings for briefings, a post-briefing after and a break for a cost-benefit analysis. This is Singapore, this is what makes it great. This is also why I became a citizen of this country - because I got tired of "charm".

Besides, if anyone has the right to complain about Singapore, it is the Singaporeans. This right, they have exercised as though it were the Second Amendment and they were Americans.

According to Mr Lee, the Singaporean is a "champion grumbler". He said this in 1977, so citizens have been practising for at least 38 years.

These days, the complaining is the loudest it has ever been, and some of it doesn't even make sense. Mr Lee's passing has unearthed old chestnuts about the stifling of creativity and freedoms. This grousing was understandable 15 years ago, but who is stopping you from being creative now?

For how long do you intend to blame the spectre of a man before taking responsibility for the limitations of your own mind? What books have you been unable to gain access to, what TV shows have you been unable to BitTorrent and what poorly informed, anonymous comments on the Internet have you been unable to write?

If any party is censorious and forbidding, it is the society we have allowed ourselves to become, one that drives people into hiding in Perth when they have done something we find unacceptable.

Today, the prevailing attitude is miles away from Mr Lee's hard-driving, survivalist one. Now, people want to trade a few percentage points of GDP growth for the balance of work and life, as though work were not part of life. They want a softer approach to this idea of competition or betterment, a more consensual form of governance.

What the people want, the people will eventually get - that is both the beauty and horror of democracy. And such has been the earlier success of Singapore that its people have the middle-class wherewithal to demand change, and the Government has the resources to provide it.

Like many other immigrants, I came here to escape corruption, injustice and water that came out of taps brown in colour. I came here because I understood this to be a place that rewarded industry and ability while tolerating - if not welcoming - extreme dorkiness.

I've had the luxury of being able to mind my own business, largely because the Government had minded everyone's. This is not for everyone, I'm sure, and as Singaporeans clamour for more self-determination, they will get it, if only because tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis (The times change, and we change with them).

I have my reservations about what this country will become, but as for how it came to be, my appreciation is unequivocal, without qualification and unreserved. Thank you, Mr Lee, for Singapore. There was nothing more you could have done.

This commentary appeared in The Business Times yesterday

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.