Saturday, January 16, 2010

There is more to Singapore than shopping malls

When I told an acquaintance that I would be living for six months in Singapore, her response was immediate and disparaging. “That’s not a place I would like to live, she opined. It is too clean, orderly, authoritarian and filled with shopping malls.”

Singapore is clean and more orderly than most Asian cities. There is no air pollution, virtually no homelessness, relatively few traffic jams. There are no mosquitoes - something a frequent Sri Lankan resident can appreciate. The government does prohibit gum chewing and administers strokes of the cane for vandalism. (However young men are not, as in the US, raped in Singapore’s prisons; then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew pointed this out when a US teenager was sentenced to six strokes of the cane for spray painting graffiti on cars,) Its public rail and bus systems are clean, affordable and available. They put New York City and Washington DC to shame.

But what about all those shopping malls? The Orchard Parade Hotel, into which I checked last Saturday morning, is located at the intersection of Orchard and Tangllin Street, in the heart of Singapore’s shopping district. Last year I counted the number of shopping malls in the Orchard Road district on a tourist map. As I recall, there were 19. If you confined your promenades this district you might, indeed, conclude that Singapore was filled with malls and little else. Shopping malls are one of Singapore’s economic engines, though not the only one. They attract wealthy tourists from throughout Asia and suck money out of their wallets, purses and credit-card accounts like powerful magnets. The profits enrich Singapore’s increasingly affluent business class, but also to provide jobs and the tax revenues that help to support public transport, the public housing in which many Singaporeans live, clean water than can be drunk out of the tap, a police force that international ranking agencies have identified as one of the least corrupt in the world; efficient, courteous government services, high-quality relatively inexpensive health care and much more.

As I walked up and down Orchard Road and neighboring streets during my first two days, conducting informal, unstructured ethnographic field research, two things became clear. First, Orchard Road and its environs are one of Singapore’s urban promenades, much like the banks of the Seine in Paris, Piazza’s in Italian cities, Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park in London and similar gathering and walking spaces on other cities. The crowds of - mostly - young people who stroll up and down, and the young people who work as sales persons are not buying Louis Vutton luggage, Armani watches, Jean Patou perfumes and the like. Probably their principal purchases on a Saturday or Sunday outing to Orchard Road are a meal or a drink in one of the sidewalk cafes or restaurants. Possibly they may also purchase a small recreational or fashion item item or necessary in one of the lower end establishments. But their experience of the high-end brand-name establishments for which Orchard Road is famous is mostly vicarious.

So where do ordinary Singaporeans shop for the necessities of life and where do they take their small children for a stroll or to play? In my next blog I will begin to write about another Singapore that I am discovering, some distance from the glitz and glitter of the Orchard Road District. I am beginning to discover - and enjoy- the places where most Singaporeans spend most of their shopping budgets and their working and leisure hours.

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