Singapore Loosens Up

Our intrepid columnist is back on the road, with tales of the 'One-Eyed Dragon.'

By Steve Burgess 30 Jan 2009 |

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee unless he decides to go somewhere, which is currently the case.

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Lovely night. Tried the kidney?

Hello from Singapore, where death waits around every corner. But only if you litter. They run a tight ship here in the Little City-State That Could. In these parts, they'll hang you for wearing stripes with plaid.

That's the myth, anyway. Actually, there's litter enough. The vermin here are not starving. People jaywalk freely. Apparently things are loosening up so much that you can actually chew gum now. And in fact there's plenty of government-approved activity going on here in Singapore that would be illegal elsewhere. On the street that is my temporary home, there are rows of discreet little bungalows featuring fish-tank-style pens where five or 10 girls sit wearing numbers for easy ordering. Customers can stroll in, pick a girl and head for a back room, safe in the knowledge that these little dens of iniquity are all licensed and approved by the Singapore government. Or you can always go to a hotel. Somebody certainly went to mine, because the used condom was still on the floor beside the bed.

People who hear about the strict laws of Singapore -- death for drug smuggling, caning for relatively minor offences -- generally assume that this is a moralistic nanny state. Not so. Singapore's tough rules are about peace, prosperity, order and cleanliness. Not morality but practicality is king here. Chewing gum can be stopped, but not prostitution. So it's regulated. And in my neighbourhood, too.

Aside from those little sex bungalows, the Geylang district offers budget hotels -- albeit the kind where used condoms can sometimes be overlooked until they make squishy sounds between your toes -- and great food. It's famous for restaurants and produce stands. How many red-light districts offer the chance to squeeze actual tomatoes?

Enter the Dragon

The food is fabulous in Singapore, even if the names are not always promising. I'm sitting across from a place called "Food Joint 351." Perhaps you would prefer to dine at "Alex's Eating House." More disturbingly, I saw a sign touting something called "pork floss." I'll bet kids in Singapore have some awful memories of the summer fair.

But if Singapore has some surprisingly libertarian qualities, they still know how to maintain order here. A couple of recent news stories brought that home, including one headlined: "One-Eyed Dragon's Last Good Deed."

Triad leader Tan Chor Jin was blind in one eye -- thus the nickname, "One-Eyed Dragon." Two years ago he burst into the home of a nightclub owner who owed him money, tied up the man's family, then fired six bullets at his unfortunate debtor. This being Singapore, the fact that the club owner was killed made no difference, legally -- One-Eyed Dragon placed himself on the gallows just by firing the shots. He'd have been hung if he had only plugged a throw cushion.

Last year another prominent Singaporean ended up on the wrong side of the law. Fifty-six-year-old Tang Yee Sung, former president of the large C.K. Tang department store chain, was so desperate for a new kidney that he tried to buy one. This landed him a big fine and one day in jail. As One-Eyed Dragon prepared to meet the hangman, he left instructions that one of his kidneys should be given to Tang Yee Sung. The wheel of Singapore justice finally turned his way.

The family that canes together...

Singapore courts are also infamous for their use of caning, a punishment famously administered to young American Michael Fay, caned in 1994 for the crime of vandalism. So, I was interested to see a newspaper story about caning in Singaporean homes. Although the practice is fading, some Singapore parents still take their lead from the government and apply the rod to misbehaving children. What was particularly interesting, though, was the story of two parents who caned their son 100 times, sending the boy to hospital. Both parents were charged; the father has already been sentenced to nine months in jail. He was not caned, which is really a damn shame.

But as they say around here, it beats littering. OK, I say it.

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