A Tale of Two Asian Cities
Why Singapore should be more like Calcutta--and vice versa
By SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
As I pack my bags to go home, it occurs to me that I have lived longer in Singapore than in any other city save my native Calcutta. Fortuitous that may be, but the connection is historic, the contrast stark. Singapore, with "the highest urban living standard in the world," to quote from the memoirs of U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was administered from Calcutta, "necropolis, city of the dead and dying, vast, putrefying, forsaken," for the first 48 years of its existence. Traces of that connection are hard to find, though in 1993 soon after I arrived in Singapore, I once rejoiced to stumble upon a cast-iron manhole cover that bore Calcutta's imprimatur. It must be gone by now--like buses flaunting Tata's telltale "T" and chunky Usha fan regulators--replaced by the global best that money can buy.
My six years passed quickly because Singapore does not lie heavy on anyone. People come and go, birds of passage in a forever-changing but always manicured landscape. It's quite unlike unkempt Calcutta, which can become an addiction. I cannot imagine Allen Ginsberg, who spun poetry as he wandered Calcutta's Chow-ringhee, visiting his muse in Raffles Place. But if Singapore lacks gravitas, the dynamism of a city that is constantly regenerating itself is not to be trifled with either. Upgrading is a way of life sustained by the continuum of demolition and reconstruction. So is shopping. I must be unusual, probably unique, since I'm not going back laden with "air cons," as they're called in Singlish, and other mod cons. What I would like to take back is a small part--not too much--of the control mechanism that makes this "geography of command"--Indian historian Sunil Khilnani's term for top-down cities--a miracle of method and management over mood and mystery.
There is much to admire. Singapore works, mostly, thanks to its exacting leaders. But their secret dread seems to be that everything would disintegrate with the slightest relaxation. A Singaporean audience five years ago burst into applause when P.V. Narasimha Rao, then India's Premier, declared that the answer to the problems of democracy was more, not less, democracy. His official hosts were not amused, betraying a fear that though they had taken Singaporeans out of the kampong, they may not have taken the kampong out of Singaporeans. But the only dissonance that mars the mellow post-dinner cosmopolitanism of the Cricket Club verandah is of fans being switched on and off by tired Cantonese waiters who want to go home. Outside, the Padang is a splash of darkness amid the twinkling lights of court, cathedral, parliament and promenade, Britain's footprints over palm and pine.
A Singaporean diplomat confesses that he realized where the inspiration for Singapore's topography had come from only after accompanying Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to Calcutta's Maidan park, a grand centerpiece for what was once the hub of the Raj. But its disrepair prompted another Singaporean to sniff that Tollygunge Club, with which Singapore's Tanglin is linked, could do with a coat of paint. Moynihan mused that "of liberty, Singapore had not nearly enough ... and what there was in Calcutta was less and less real as the mob grew." That observation came to mind as Singapore's maverick opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, jailed briefly this year after making speeches without a permit, set up a stall along Orchard Road to sell his latest book, To Be Free, which shops would not handle. I thought the price ($12) steep, but Singapore had been good to me, and it would be a quaint souvenir. "Towards greater humanity," Chee wrote with a flourish. "Will it mean jail or caning?" I joked--misplaced humor, for he had to choose between jail and a fine. Does that make me an accessory to his defiance?
Such anxieties highlight the gulf between Singapore and its prototype. I recall my first visit 23 years ago, when a Malaysian Indian tour operator stopped the bus to Johor Bahru on the Causeway to declare naughtily that we were leaving the Republic of Singapore for Malaysia, a monarchy and a democracy. Some Singaporeans claim that, like fledgling sparrows trying out their wings, they are pushing back what they call the OB markers, a golfing term meaning out of bounds. "We are told," a girl said when I lectured to the communications class at Nanyang Technological University, "that political rights will follow economic progress. What GDP would be considered adequate?" Perhaps the question will be redundant by the time I return--if they let me. Perhaps the Padang will even boast a speakers' corner, where loyal People's Action Party cadres can demolish dissenters in honest debate. A touch of Calcutta's exuberance would uplift Singapore's satisfaction with itself into lasting confidence, while a measure of Singapore's leadership could channel Calcutta's robust energy into restrained creativity. The two cities might even renew their association. For I do not see Moynihan's destructive mob in Calcutta, only people, a great many of them, yearning for some fragment of what Singapore already enjoys. They are ill served not by democracy but by politicians who might have been even more uncaring in an authoritarian paradigm.