Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Singapore Notebook 18 November:
Singapore v Hungary / a day on the ranch

Reading about the demonstrations in Hungary I can't help thinking of the situation in Singapore, since Singapore is one of the countries the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor ('Viktator') Orbán mentioned as a model, the others being Russia, China and Turkey.

Putinism, Erdoganism and the Communist Party of China are rather intimidating models, but Singapore? It is true that Singapore has had the same government since independence some fifty years ago nor is there a likely change looming. It is true that there is corruption and that the country is controlled by a narrow group. It is true that there is basically one major newspaper and that it supports the government. It is true that every so often there are moves towards raw censorship - the case of the gay penguin being the most recent and obvious. It is true that there is an underclass and that migrant labour goes under the radar while doing all the heavy lifting. It is true that the economic model is essentially Thatcherite.

All this is true, but look around you. The place is booming. The jungle is mostly gone as has some of the sea which has been reclaimed for city use but the buildings soar and sparkle and while there are obviously poorer places such as Little India and probably many others we have not seen, places where migrant workers share small rooms and tiny wages, the general air is of stable, civil - almost amiable - prosperity. Who'd want to rock such a boat? The military is well equipped and on the alert. The ships keep docking. Money flies in through every possible orifice.

Twenty-five years ago little of this existed. It has been a breakneck sprint. Old buildings are razed and vast ones appear in their place. Blink and they've gone. The late-capitalist postmodern imagination plays itself out, positively frolics in architectural form, some of it quite beautiful. The views from the top are spectacular. Once, not so long ago, art was a luxury the country couldn't afford. Now the state provides better support for it than the UK does. The young are hungry for it. They are sophisticated, intelligent, acutely perceptive and catholic in their tastes. The slam scene is thriving. There are elegant publishers with new ideas.

Most accommodation is high-rise public housing of good quality. People take out leases on apartments but if you haven't a family or are under thirty-five the chances are you are living with your parents. There is control in everything but it's control with a pack of goodies under its arm. There is in fact plenty of goodwill welling up from below. As I say, it is amiable.

And how would this pan out in Hungary where the history, the geography, the culture and conditions are quite different? I have long suspected - with plenty of reason - that the true aim of the Orbán government is a Horthyite sub-fascist regime based on a long-term head of state (that means you, Mr Orbán) operating a relatively tolerant but controlled economic base alongside a deeply intolerant arch-conservative cultural and political order, the whole adding up to a country whose natural friends would be other authoritarian states. The only problem is that, going by all the evidence so far, the Hungarian version seems far cruder, far less amiable, far less civilised, far less tolerant of opposing ideas than the government here, who - while controlling - understand that a certain cultural liberalism is impossible without dissenting noises. The best you could say of Orbánism is that it might be satisfied with the Singapore formula provided it produced the Singapore results.

All this is guesswork on my part, of course. I have no right to interpret events in Singapore on the basis of a few conversations and a few walks, but, since the analogy was invited by Viktor Orbán himself, it seems unreasonable not to pursue it.


Meanwhile work. I have completed and sent off a commissioned set of poems, based on the work of the physicist Dennis Gabor, to Imperial College together with an introduction (more about this later) and have written most of the invited proposal for a book that might serve as an introduction to poetry. I have written three parts of a poem based on being here that might just be decent enough. I have been reading intermittently but copiously. I have also fallen asleep, or almost asleep at certain times. Our walks round the campus are making ever more sense of the map. My diabetic diet is under threat here as might the walking be because of the heat and humidity, not to mention the occasional monsoon downpour or cloudburst.

This morning I met with another young poet, Hao Guang, who is very interested in poetic form, We talked for an hour and half or so in Fusion Spoon. He is, like the others I have talked to, a very highly educated, highly articulate, energetic presence, a little isolated for his love of metre and set form, but far from a conservative. Form is innovation to him - not just received form - any form.

They are, as Pound said of certain novelists 'a darn clever bunch' - and more than clever, I think, going by the books. Clever, almost anxiously so sometimes, but more. More what? We shall see.


Gwil W said...

George, Is Singapore in a time zone a month ahead of the rest of us or am I missing something?

natalie said...

hi george, i am a singaporean. could you elaborate what you mean when you say "it is true that there is corruption"?

George said...

It's what I hear, Natalie. Perhaps there isn't any. You're Singaporean. Why don't you tell me about it?

Paul Hellyer said...

I wonder if the greater ethnic diversity of Singapore plays a significant part in its more "outward" orientation. Wikipedia tells me that 75% of Singaporeans are of Chinese descent followed by Malay, Indians and Eurasians. In addition foreigners make up 40% of the population. Perhaps this diversity strengthens the country's prosperity and energy.

In addition all these groups can drink from cultural wells outside of Singapore. A Chinese Singaporean may still feel his or her Chinese heritage in China, Hong Kong, etc. Malays are right next door to their cultural birthplace. Inevitably changes in these cultural centres must have some impact in Singapore.

Contrast this to Hungary with its relative lack of ethnic diversity and its isolation from other centres of cultural and linguistic renewal. One can only really feel Hungarian in Hungary, or perhaps some parts of Transylvania. Thus Hungary has a natural inward-looking tendency.

Add to this inwardness a leadership that is determined to pursue a "sub-fascist" agenda then intolerance, prejudice and arch-conservatism inevitably gain strength. Perhaps the other side to this coin, the lack of acceptance and celebration of diversity, stifles Hungary, politically, socially and economically.

Just my thoughts.

Gwil W said...

George, good to see you're now back from the future.

George S said...

I keep seeing ever greater differences in circumstances and ever greater similarities in political structure, Paul.