“Do you get beaten up often?” I absentmindedly asked the middle aged Chinese taxi driver as we rumbled through the overly Christmassy Singapore.
A look of what I like to think was bemusement, flashed across his face as he sized me up – an equally middle aged, but smaller white woman in the back seat, asking him what could be construed as a slightly threatening question.
I pointed at the sign on the back window which declared that anyone caught harassing or abusing taxi drivers were liable to a fine of up to $5000 and a prison sentence. He chuckled and shook his head. I told him similar signs could be seen on train stations and in Accident and Emergency Departments in the UK, but unlike Singapore, workers there are likely to encounter violence in their day to day work. That’s why they put up the signs.
I noticed this a lot about Singapore, warning signs were everywhere about what would happen if you broke the law. On the taxi in the way in, there were signs telling you that one cigarette that was not duty paid could land you a criminal record, and all over signs told you the city was on Yellow alert for Dengue Fever. I was not sure what that even meant or, if I saw one, who to report suspicious looking mosquitoes to. But there were messages everywhere whose only aim was to scare the life out of you into conforming. The community comes before the individual. And it works. Singapore is, from an outsiders perspective, massively efficient, massively safe and to be both you need to be massively rule bound.
The city seems to have this undercurrent of anxiety though. I reflected this to a friend who lives there – “you can feel it?” she exclaimed. Yeah I can feel that. There is a drive towards perfection, to achieve, to be better. And in essence that is not necessarily a bad thing. In Singapore I want to be a better version of myself. I want to be the woman who wears dresses, brushes her hair and doesn’t swear like a sailor.
It feels like you are on show in Singapore, more than any other place I have been too. But there is a paradox. You have to be seen, but yet be invisible, be seen to be achieving but not wanting to brag about your success. “STAY HUMBLE” I am instructed by an Oxford University educated stranger on a social media post he wasn’t meant to read. But I think humbleness is an illusion. From the outside it seems Singaporeans want power, they want prestige, they want to be noticed:
“Do you have a Gucci in Brunei?” I’m asked.
I laugh. “No, we definitely do not”.