There have been signs that Singapore is easing up a bit politically. In the bars and taxis of the Republic, people are a lot more critical than the local media might lead one to believe. Taxi drivers cheerfully give visitors a quick run-down of life in Singapore, including the frequent hangings at dawn at Changi Prison. One joke doing the rounds shows the ability of Singaporeans to laugh at themselves: An American remarks to a Somali, a Ukrainian and a Singaporean that food seems to cost a lot of money in the city state, and asks their opinion of this state of affairs. The Somali replies “What’s food?”, the Ukrainian demands “What’s money?”, and the Singaporean quietly asks “What’s an opinion?”
Literary satire also now has a place on Singapore’s bookshelves. The Psychological Defence Division (sounds Brave New World-esque!) of the Ministry of Communications and Information published a book called Sing Singapore. The largely inane songs in this official publication were to be taught in schools and transmitted on television and radio. We are Singapore gives a flavour of the lyrics: “This is my country, This is my flag, This is my future, This is my life, This is my family, These are my friends, We are Singapore, Singaporeans, Singapore our homeland, It’s here that we belong”.
A few years later, however, the Not the Singapore Song Book appeared to cock a paradonic snook at the original by borrowing some of the tunes and putting them to new lyrics. It represents popular resistance Singapore-style. Count! Mummies of Singapore pokes fun at Singapore’s family planning policy: “We have the ova in our bodies, We can conceive, We can conceive. We have a role for Singapore, We must receive, We must receive”. Then there is the SDU March, “Hey girl! Why aren’t you married yet! You girl! A man’s not hard to get! Now’s the time for you to choose your mate! Don’t delay! Do not procrastinate!”. Other subversive songs include Babies keep formin’ in my bed (sung to Raindrops keep falling on my head), Three cees (condominium, credit card and car), and Gold card blues. Singapore’s political culture does not permit overt expressions of dissent, so Singaporeans have to find alternative avenues for opposition. The Not the Singapore Song Book is just one of many forms of covert popular resistance.
To people from countries with long histories and a well-established sense of nationhood, Sing Singapore may seem rather crass. But Singapore’s leaders have always been worried that a country that did not exist 50 years ago could be just as quickly and easily snuffed out. This is why the country’s leaders got so agitated when a survey showed that only six out of 50 young Singaporeans knew that their country had once been part of the Malaysian Federation. This is why the National Heritage Board is so enthusiastically conserving historic sites and why Singapore’s history is taking such a prominent place in exhibitions.
All that said, Singapore still holds the dubious honour of having the highest death penalty rate per capita in the world (according to Amnesty International). Singapore continues to use the death penalty for a number of offences, including non-violent drug-related crimes, drawing criticism from human rights organizations and foreign governments. In 2005, for example, the Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van was executed despite a diplomatic backlash from Australia.