.
I

t is both hauntingly beautiful and tragic to watch re-runs of the late Anthony Bourdain’s television programs. His ability to connect with people through food on a deeply personal level, all the while battling his own demons, show a depth of humanity that most people only rarely touch upon. In so doing, he brought places and peoples to life unlike anyone else. His wasn’t so much a travel program, but a philosophical reflection on what it means to be human and to embrace the vibrant diversity that our little blue marble has. 

Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia | Jeevan Vasgar | Pegasus Books | March 2022.

To judge other travel programs or books by this standard is probably unfair. Bourdain was one of a kind. What he managed to do so effortlessly – and what I think many others aspire to do – is to capture the soul of a place, not just the place itself. Whether dining with President Barack Obama in Vietnam over a bowl of noodle soup in the pouring rain or exploring the massive wine collection in the House of Roosevelt in Shanghai, he managed to bring a city or a country’s soul into the living rooms across America—places few Americans would ever see in their lifetimes. 

I kept reflecting on place and soul when reading Jeevan Vasagar’s “Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia”, a copy of which Pegasus Books provided for review. Vasagar’s book has all of the ingredients of a deep exploration of the soul of Singapore, a city-state that I find endlessly fascinating. In “Lion City,” like Bourdain, he works to draw out the very essence of what makes Singapore tick. 

“Lion City,” much like Singapore itself, is an amalgamation of constituent parts that works well, but seems to struggle to find its soul. 

Vasagar’s interviews with dissidents, political prisoners, and everyday Singaporeans are riveting—enlivened by his clear knowledge of the city from his time as the FT correspondent there. A particularly striking interview is with a photographer who lost all his clients as the pandemic hit. To make ends meet, he became part of the gig economy, delivering food across the city-state. The former photographer saw, up close, the disparities between the very wealthy and the merely middle class, delivering single scoops of ice cream on occasion and finding homes with four luxury cars in the driveway. Vasagar’s discussions with dissidents are equally fascinating, revealing a hidden underside to the country’s political stability and the government’s fear of losing control. Unfortunately, these interviews don’t fully flow, which seems like a missed opportunity to allow Singapore to speak for itself. 

The facts about and history of Singapore are fascinating and well-presented. He explores the city-state through siloed lenses, covering everything from urban design to art, the sin city side of Singapore to its economy and education. In each of these silos, Vasagar reinforces the complex and dynamic image of the “City of Lions”, but also highlights its increasingly pressing challenges. 

At a macro-level, Singapore’s story is one of overcoming constrained resources, colonial heritage, and a potentially combustible ethno-religious mix to form one of the wealthiest and most stable economies in Asia. Through the far-sighted – and arguably iron-fisted – leadership of Lee Kwan Yew, the city-state became a regional dynamo that other states and countries sought to emulate. 

Singapore’s success was by no means guaranteed. From the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles through to the Second World War, and on to independence and the halting federation with Malaysia, Singapore sought to find its footing and its path to success. Its leadership took calculated risks, such as investing in a container port well before any other country in the region, positioning it for success in the containerized economy. 

Inheriting a multi-ethnic and -confessional population, Singapore could well have gone down the path of intersectional violence and chaos. While there were spasms, the social contract that developed in the city-state placed economic growth and social coherence at the heart of its national identity. Singapore’s leadership sought to forge a unique identity in hopes of transcending individual ethnic and religious affinities. This social engineering is reflected in the city-state’s deep focus on meritocracy and use of quotas in public housing to ensure a blend of ethnicities and faith, rather than the creation of exclusive pockets. 

As Vasagar writes, the meritocracy is not as meritocratic as it appears on the surface. The well-off find themselves ahead of the curve, taking advantage of the opportunities available. The funnel may be wide at the bottom, but those that emerge from the top increasingly share the same background and foundational advantages in life. At the same time, the city-state’s fixation on the “five Cs”— Cash, Car, Credit card, Condominium, and Country club—is straining the country’s social fabric. The focus on tangible measures of success, the material trappings of wealth, makes Singapore one of the least happy wealthy countries in the world.  

The future of Singapore remains unclear. The increasing threat of climate change is forcing complex decisions on the government as it tries to adapt to rising sea levels and increasing temperatures. Future urban design and planning are already beginning to consider these new realities, but it could well fundamentally change the city-state’s livability. At the same time, Singapore is confronting the difficulty of feeding and sustaining a population that imports nearly all its food and resources from overseas. COVID-19 proved to be a test of this adaptability, forcing the import of food from further afield and the establishment of new supply chains. 

How Singapore navigates the new era of strategic competition also remains to be seen. It has thus far managed to pursue its own independent policies while tacking closer to the United States particularly in its military’s focus. The city-state has managed to pivot away from a “poisoned shrimp” approach to deterrence (larger states may be able to consume it, but to do so would be fatal,) toward becoming a notable regional power. Its relations with Taiwan have prompted consternation in Beijing, while the latter’s alleged cyber hacking of Singapore’s infrastructure is raising concerns. 

These concerns are not unfounded, but they also reflect a deeply fearful strain of Singaporean politics. An island-nation with few resources and no natural defensive barriers, it is uniquely vulnerable to foreign predation. It is equally concerned about domestic instability and as such has worked to staunch criticism and control (with halting success) what is said and done online. While it has opened up, it opens up only in a Singaporean context. 

As a young analyst fresh from graduate school, I was tasked with preparing monthly reports for clients on political, economic, and security developments in Singapore and Malaysia. The latter proved to be exceedingly dynamic and colorful, for both good and for ill. The former, by contrast, was tame, some might even say boring. At times, it was a challenge to find stories worth including in the client’s update. Yet beneath the surface Singapore is just as interesting and vibrant, albeit in a different fashion. 

Vasagar achieves a similar balance, but one is left wanting more. What should be a rich and flavorful dish, ends up being just good. He teases at the soul of Singapore, but stops short of allowing the city-state to really sell itself. Perhaps that reflects Singapore itself, a rich assembly of individual parts that works efficiently, but is still looking to find its coalesced whole.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Searching for the Soul of Singapore

Singapore cityscape. Photo via Pixabay.

March 12, 2022

In his new book "Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia," Jeevan Vasagar makes an Anthony Bourdain-like effort to convey the soul of Singapore to the reader. While he falls short of that goal, it's still a worthwhile read, says Joshua Huminski.

I

t is both hauntingly beautiful and tragic to watch re-runs of the late Anthony Bourdain’s television programs. His ability to connect with people through food on a deeply personal level, all the while battling his own demons, show a depth of humanity that most people only rarely touch upon. In so doing, he brought places and peoples to life unlike anyone else. His wasn’t so much a travel program, but a philosophical reflection on what it means to be human and to embrace the vibrant diversity that our little blue marble has. 

Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia | Jeevan Vasgar | Pegasus Books | March 2022.

To judge other travel programs or books by this standard is probably unfair. Bourdain was one of a kind. What he managed to do so effortlessly – and what I think many others aspire to do – is to capture the soul of a place, not just the place itself. Whether dining with President Barack Obama in Vietnam over a bowl of noodle soup in the pouring rain or exploring the massive wine collection in the House of Roosevelt in Shanghai, he managed to bring a city or a country’s soul into the living rooms across America—places few Americans would ever see in their lifetimes. 

I kept reflecting on place and soul when reading Jeevan Vasagar’s “Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia”, a copy of which Pegasus Books provided for review. Vasagar’s book has all of the ingredients of a deep exploration of the soul of Singapore, a city-state that I find endlessly fascinating. In “Lion City,” like Bourdain, he works to draw out the very essence of what makes Singapore tick. 

“Lion City,” much like Singapore itself, is an amalgamation of constituent parts that works well, but seems to struggle to find its soul. 

Vasagar’s interviews with dissidents, political prisoners, and everyday Singaporeans are riveting—enlivened by his clear knowledge of the city from his time as the FT correspondent there. A particularly striking interview is with a photographer who lost all his clients as the pandemic hit. To make ends meet, he became part of the gig economy, delivering food across the city-state. The former photographer saw, up close, the disparities between the very wealthy and the merely middle class, delivering single scoops of ice cream on occasion and finding homes with four luxury cars in the driveway. Vasagar’s discussions with dissidents are equally fascinating, revealing a hidden underside to the country’s political stability and the government’s fear of losing control. Unfortunately, these interviews don’t fully flow, which seems like a missed opportunity to allow Singapore to speak for itself. 

The facts about and history of Singapore are fascinating and well-presented. He explores the city-state through siloed lenses, covering everything from urban design to art, the sin city side of Singapore to its economy and education. In each of these silos, Vasagar reinforces the complex and dynamic image of the “City of Lions”, but also highlights its increasingly pressing challenges. 

At a macro-level, Singapore’s story is one of overcoming constrained resources, colonial heritage, and a potentially combustible ethno-religious mix to form one of the wealthiest and most stable economies in Asia. Through the far-sighted – and arguably iron-fisted – leadership of Lee Kwan Yew, the city-state became a regional dynamo that other states and countries sought to emulate. 

Singapore’s success was by no means guaranteed. From the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles through to the Second World War, and on to independence and the halting federation with Malaysia, Singapore sought to find its footing and its path to success. Its leadership took calculated risks, such as investing in a container port well before any other country in the region, positioning it for success in the containerized economy. 

Inheriting a multi-ethnic and -confessional population, Singapore could well have gone down the path of intersectional violence and chaos. While there were spasms, the social contract that developed in the city-state placed economic growth and social coherence at the heart of its national identity. Singapore’s leadership sought to forge a unique identity in hopes of transcending individual ethnic and religious affinities. This social engineering is reflected in the city-state’s deep focus on meritocracy and use of quotas in public housing to ensure a blend of ethnicities and faith, rather than the creation of exclusive pockets. 

As Vasagar writes, the meritocracy is not as meritocratic as it appears on the surface. The well-off find themselves ahead of the curve, taking advantage of the opportunities available. The funnel may be wide at the bottom, but those that emerge from the top increasingly share the same background and foundational advantages in life. At the same time, the city-state’s fixation on the “five Cs”— Cash, Car, Credit card, Condominium, and Country club—is straining the country’s social fabric. The focus on tangible measures of success, the material trappings of wealth, makes Singapore one of the least happy wealthy countries in the world.  

The future of Singapore remains unclear. The increasing threat of climate change is forcing complex decisions on the government as it tries to adapt to rising sea levels and increasing temperatures. Future urban design and planning are already beginning to consider these new realities, but it could well fundamentally change the city-state’s livability. At the same time, Singapore is confronting the difficulty of feeding and sustaining a population that imports nearly all its food and resources from overseas. COVID-19 proved to be a test of this adaptability, forcing the import of food from further afield and the establishment of new supply chains. 

How Singapore navigates the new era of strategic competition also remains to be seen. It has thus far managed to pursue its own independent policies while tacking closer to the United States particularly in its military’s focus. The city-state has managed to pivot away from a “poisoned shrimp” approach to deterrence (larger states may be able to consume it, but to do so would be fatal,) toward becoming a notable regional power. Its relations with Taiwan have prompted consternation in Beijing, while the latter’s alleged cyber hacking of Singapore’s infrastructure is raising concerns. 

These concerns are not unfounded, but they also reflect a deeply fearful strain of Singaporean politics. An island-nation with few resources and no natural defensive barriers, it is uniquely vulnerable to foreign predation. It is equally concerned about domestic instability and as such has worked to staunch criticism and control (with halting success) what is said and done online. While it has opened up, it opens up only in a Singaporean context. 

As a young analyst fresh from graduate school, I was tasked with preparing monthly reports for clients on political, economic, and security developments in Singapore and Malaysia. The latter proved to be exceedingly dynamic and colorful, for both good and for ill. The former, by contrast, was tame, some might even say boring. At times, it was a challenge to find stories worth including in the client’s update. Yet beneath the surface Singapore is just as interesting and vibrant, albeit in a different fashion. 

Vasagar achieves a similar balance, but one is left wanting more. What should be a rich and flavorful dish, ends up being just good. He teases at the soul of Singapore, but stops short of allowing the city-state to really sell itself. Perhaps that reflects Singapore itself, a rich assembly of individual parts that works efficiently, but is still looking to find its coalesced whole.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.