I returned to Singapore in 1997, just in time for the Asian financial crisis.
Yes, there was still a distinct whiff of Gibson’s Disneyland in the air. Several prominent Western magazines and newspapers had been banned or successfully sued for defamatory articles about Lee, the government, and his family. The United States was still furious over the caning of its teenage expat citizen Michael Fay for vandalizing cars. Also banned was the sale of chewing gum—an exasperated response after mischief-makers began sticking wads of the stuff on the door sensors of subway trains.
But you got the sense that Singaporeans, while happy to gossip and indulge in a bit of schadenfreude at the government’s expense, were pragmatic to the last. An average growth of nearly 7 percent a year for three straight decades can be a soothing balm for many social injustices, especially if they are happening to someone else.
Superficially—to me at least—the country looked, sounded, smelled, and felt the same. The landmarks from my childhood were all still there, but this was like one of those Men’s Health cover stories of a slob who underwent a strict diet and hellish daily stints in the gym and emerged absurdly six-packed and ripped. Orchard Road now featured gleaming, marbled emporia that sparkled with a stellar cast of brands led by Gucci, Prada, and Chanel. Marina Bay and Raffles Place bristled with skyscrapers. In the years I had been away, starchitects such as Paul Rudolph, Richard Meier, I. M. Pei, Kenzo Tange, and a young Zaha Hadid had all imprinted the skyline with distinctive silhouettes.
The dining scene sizzled as a generation of young foreign chefs like Emmanuel Stroobant, Susur Lee, and Paolo Scarpa arrived and put their foie gras, ragù, and nouvelle fusion up against the traditional menu of shark’s fin, beef rendang, and Peking duck. Nightclubs were booming, putting paid to the tired old trope that Singaporeans were a buttoned-up people who didn’t know how to have fun. Zouk ruled the roost, but my friends and I haunted Elvis, a windowless basement boîte where we all danced on the bar top like a bad take from Coyote Ugly.
Gay activism was also starting to gather pace. Fridae, an out-and-proud gay social and lifestyle website, debuted in 2001. The campaign to decriminalize gay sex was conducted alongside heartfelt pronouncements by Lee—now an elderly statesman who had stepped down from his prime ministership in 1990—that gays were “born this way” and that, notwithstanding the lagging pace of conservative Singaporeans, the whole thing was a moot point anyway since the government had no intention of enforcing the Victorian-era legislation. My mother, a long-time Lee fan, marveled, “I can’t believe the Old Man is still going so strong!”
At the same time, drag queen Kumar’s cabaret and comedy act was a sensation for its merciless pillorying of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and the government. Within a few years, his act had become so mainstream that he had his own show on national TV.
None of this felt the least bit like the Singapore portrayed in the Western press, which continued to snipe about the perceived lack of civil liberties. But that was an issue that didn’t seem to bother too many Singaporeans.
In the years since, the pace has not let up. Everywhere I turn, the Singapore I grew up in as a child and returned to as an adult morphs at a dizzying rate. Blink, and almost overnight a new building by Ole Scheeren, Zaha Hadid, or Daniel Libeskind has sprung up—though, true to Lee’s vision of a city in a garden, the island remains vividly green and lush with virgin rain forests, roads lined with angsana and flame trees, and regenerated green spaces like the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Admiralty Park, which give lie to the common misperception among outsiders that Singapore is dominated by antiseptic shopping malls.
In a decade, Marina Bay, once a mirror-flat waterway that opened to the sea, has been transformed into a hive of skyscrapers. A new CBD rises on its southern flank—a glittering, if soulless, counterpart to the futuristic twin biodomes of Gardens by the Bay, right next to Moshe Safdie’s towering triptych, the Marina Bay Sands casino and resort.
One night, emerging from the newly refurbished Victoria Concert Hall, I lingered around the corner to marvel at the Palladian glory of the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings that are being made over by Paris-based Studio Milou into the gorgeous new National Gallery Singapore, slated to open this October. Nearby, a 654-room hotel designed by Norman Foster and with interiors by Philippe Starck rises across the road from the fabled Raffles Hotel.
Meanwhile, I look at my diary and see that it is filled with upcoming events: the Singapore Biennale, a fashion show by Victoria Beckham, a performance at the Singapore Dance Theatre, Schubert at the Espanade–Theatres by the Bay, drinks at the fabulous rooftop bar at Potato Head Folk.
For a greedy foodie like me, the dining scene is also a real treat. Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Tetsuya Wakuda, Wolfgang Puck, and Luke Mangan all have outposts on the island. And as I tuck into a revelatory Peranakan lunch of lamb rendang at homegrown chef Malcolm Lee’s Candlenut, and later at a dinner at André Chiang’s mod pan-Asian Restaurant André, I remember a food-savvy friend Aun Koh’s observation that Singapore’s culinary bonanza “is being fueled by the number of our own chefs that are now well-traveled as well as by the ever-increasing number of foreign chefs who have decided to call Singapore home.”
Of course, there has been a pushback. Even though the economy remains robust—Singapore’s GDP per head is among the world’s highest—there is growing discontent over the rising cost of living, an aging population, low social spending, overcrowded streets, a widening income gap, and a chafing against the government’s traditional assumption—inherited from Lee Kuan Yew and maintained by his eldest son Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister for more than a decade now—that it knows best. This has been accompanied by troubling racial antagonism toward foreign workers who are perceived to be taking away jobs from locals.
On the flip side are Singaporeans like Tham Khai Meng, the worldwide chief creative officer and chairman of advertising giant Ogilvy and Mather, who feels that Singapore needs, more than ever, to lure in diverse and eccentric talents from outside in order to develop the city as an international creative hub. “There is only so much you can do by growing your own talent,” he says. “Singapore now needs a massive infusion of talent from elsewhere, and the stimuli to get them here. Creative people will go to where creative people are.”
Lee Kuan Yew died on March 23. He was 91.
For a week, the country surprised even its most hardened cynics and critics with an outpouring of grief and introspection that I suspect the Old Man would have disapproved of. Almost half a million people lined up in the searing heat and into the night to pay their respects to the body lying in state in Parliament House, framed against the distinctive skyline of this 21st-century metropolis, almost 50 years to the day that Lee threw down his challenge to doubters.
Even more astonishing sights were to come. On the day of Lee’s funeral, 100,000 mourners jammed the route of the cortege, soaked to their skins in the heavy tropical rain. As the cortege passed—surely that tiny coffin could not possibly contain all of the man, I thought—the crowd shouted his name. It seemed to me then as if a politically apathetic nation—coddled (or muzzled, depending on which camp you belonged to) for two generations by a firmly patrician government—had suddenly found a united voice. Disneyland had grown up.