'Disneyland with the Death Penalty' is the first major piece of non-fiction written by William Gibson, the author of 'Neuromancer' and a range of other science-fiction novels and short stories. It was published on Wired (www.wired.com) in September 1993. Its topic is the Republic of Singapore, the 'Disneyland' in question, and his perspective on it. He covers a range of topics, and he provides some interesting insights into Singaporean society and government.
“It's like an entire country run ... under the motto 'Be happy or I'll kill you.”
Despite the fact that the article was published more than a decade ago, I (speaking as one who has been in Singapore for nearly 18 years) find that the article is still incredibly relevant. Where some may consider that after ten years the article would be inaccurate, I would say that the opposite was true – everything he claimed about Singapore ten years ago is more true today than it was back then. The objective of the article? “...To see whether that clean dystopia represents our techno future”
He starts the article with his observations of Singapore's Changi Airport, comparing it to a virtual-reality construct – simply because he could see “no dirt whatsoever; no muss, no blurred fractal edge to things.” He then observes that outside the airport the plant-life in Singapore had all been “gardened into brilliant green, and all-too-perfect examples of itself.” Singapore's cleanliness is something that is often mentioned by visitors to the island, yet few have ever phrased it in such a witty and interesting manner. Singapore is small, and it is therefore not particularly difficult to make sure that every visible hedge and tree is clipped and pruned at least twice a year – around Changi Airport it would, understandably, be even more often.
He discusses Singapore's history in brief, discussing its founding as a British trading base by Sir Stamford Raffles, the Japanese occupation during World War II, and the rise of Lee Kuan Yew and the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). “Today's Singapore is far more precisely the result of Lee Kuan Yew's vision than the Manchester of the East ever was of Sir Stamford Raffles.” The PAP has been in control of Singapore for as long as it has been independent, and they have made sure that it will stay that way for the foreseeable future. Lee Kuan Yew voluntarily stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990 and, unwilling to give up the power he held completely, took up the newly created position of Senior Minister. Just within the past month, the same process of a new position being created for him has been repeated – Goh Chok Tong stepped down as Prime Minister to take the position of Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew took up the newly appointed role of Minister Mentor. Lee Kuan Yew's son, Lee Hsien Loong, now holds the position of Prime Minister.
In the article, he quotes and discusses a number of newspaper articles regarding Singaporean current affairs; specifically the case where three individuals were to be tried for revealing an official state secret: the country's economic growth rate; as well as two cases of individuals being sentenced to death for drug trafficking – one of which was the first case of a Caucasian being sentenced to that particular fate. Singapore's draconian laws have often been the target of much criticism, although many have commented that they wish their own country had some of the same laws – specifically the tough penalties for littering and vandalism. There can be little wonder, when not flushing the toilet will land you a $500 penalty, why the country has been termed a “Fine City.”
Some of the more interesting aspects of the article are the discussions of Singapore's censorship, specifically the Undesirable Propagation Unit (UPU), and the local media. He notes that “Singaporean television is big on explaining Singaporeans to themselves. Model families, Chinese, Malay, or Indian, act out little playlets explicating the customs of each culture.” While censorship in Singapore has become somewhat less strict, the media's control on the population has increased dramatically – the media itself acting only as a vessel for the government to control the populace, and one has to wonder what Singaporeans would do if the government didn't tell them what to do. While he doesn't cover that particular topic in much detail, he does skim over it when he mentions that “concerned that an earlier series of public campaigns to reduce the national birth rate had proven entirely too successful, Singapore has instituted a system of “mandatory mixers.”” Singapore has been called a 'nanny state,' for a reason.
His brief discussion on Singapore's newspapers cuts directly to the core of the matter, and he certainly couldn't have phrased it in any better manner. “The local papers... are essentially organs of the state, instruments of only the most desirable propagation.” It has often been observed that the Singaporean newspapers are essentially government propaganda newsletters, and today it is more true than it was in 1993. The newspapers here publish only that which has been approved by the government - it can often be noticed that they always center around whatever it is that the government is currently promoting. Today, in August of 2004, the theme of the papers (and the television, and the radio) is to 'save money for your retirement' – there is an abundance of articles which, under the guise of being news, hammer through to Singaporeans this need.
The purpose of the article is to see whether Singapore could be used to represent what the rest of the world would be like after embracing technology as thoroughly as it has. “We can all be impressed with Singapore's willingness to view such technology with the utmost seriousness... they seem to have an awfully practical handle on what this stuff can do.” He mentions the use of computers in optimizing Singapore's traffic light systems; the use of sensor loops to monitor traffic; the electronic system used for checking passports. He also mentions a smart-card system that was being planned to manage road pricing in the restricted zone (ie. The Central Business District(CBD) during rush hour), a system that has already been in operation for many years now – the first of its kind.
There are, of course, a number of other issues that he raises in the article. However, this writeup is hardly a substitute for reading the article itself – but I felt it important to illustrate that his article is just as, if not more, relevant today than it was in 1993. His conclusion is one that seems of extreme relevance today – especially with the rise of Singapore-esque laws such as the USA PATRIOT Act overseas.
“They have proven it possible to flourish through the active repression of free expression. They have proven that information does not necessarily want to be free”
Read the article in full at: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.04/gibson.html