An eerily prescient moment in the landmark cyberpunk film Akira about nuclear destruction predicts the cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. By preternatural coincidence, I taught the film in my “Cyberpunk in Asia” class on March 11—the anniversary of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the last day of in-person classes. Distracting students from an apocalyptic turn of events with Akira felt both poignant and ironic.
But more poignant, while researching the class, I was returned to a piece of trivia I had almost forgot: Upon visiting Singapore for an essay in WIRED’s second-ever issue in 1993, William Gibson described the city-state as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty.”
In some ways, I wasn’t at all surprised my rabbit hole led me, well, home. Of course my interest in cyberpunk dystopias, divergently set in the future, yet always gesturing to a nostalgic, grimy past, converges in the tiny island I grew up on. A cyberpunk dystopia itself, Singapore takes pride in its emergence as a global capitalist exemplar while treating its colonial past as precious.
Jerrine Tan was born and raised in Singapore. She has a PhD in English from Brown University and currently teaches Global Anglophone Literature in the English department at Mount Holyoke College.
Gibson emerged just as cyberpunk was on the rise. His landmark novel Neuromancer (1984) followed Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and preceded Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), which are both set in 2019. For over 30 years, the year 2019 served as cyberpunk’s primary placeholder for the future. Rewatching Akira recently, I had an experience with the uncanny. Reflected in Akira’s futuristic, oppressive Neo Tokyo was my home. The future was already here.
Like Neo Tokyo, much of what we see of Singapore is brand spanking new. Towering skyscrapers adumbrate the skyline as inequality undergirds society. Both cities exist as islands that rely on vast networks of connections; both are run by an all-seeing government with a distaste for protest. In his WIRED essay, Gibson refers to the island country as Singapore Ltd., “micromanaged by a state that has the look and feel of a very large corporation.” Indeed, capital is the city’s lifeblood. Without any natural resources, Singapore exists as a financial hub and relies on trade to sustain itself. Singapore’s immune reaction to Gibson’s piece was, of course, to ban WIRED.
In describing Singapore as Disneyland, Gibson pays homage to French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations. (Incidentally, Simulacra is the only book—fittingly hollowed out to be used as a tool of concealment—featured in The Matrix, which was heavily influenced by Neuromancer.) In the simulacrum, what begins as an image of the real eventually reveals that the image is all there is. Ergo, the image does not merely conceal or distort the real, but reveals that there is no real at all. Gibson describes “the sensation of trying to connect psychically with the old Singapore [as] rather painful, as though Disneyland’s New Orleans Square had been erected on the site of the actual French Quarter, obliterating it in the process but leaving in its place a glassy simulacrum.” In 2020, this is only more true of Singapore.
Last year, Singapore opened the snaking Lornie Road Highway. Erecting its eight lanes required clearing vast forested areas as well as the Bukit Brown cemetery, which housed thousands of grave sites of early migrants, and possibly the bodies of victims of the Japanese Occupation. It had been placed on the World Monuments Watch list, and the United Nations special rapporteur for cultural rights had demanded it be preserved, to no avail. The old National Library, which served as an aid station for the British during the Japanese invasion, was also demolished to make way for a tunnel that would save commuters five minutes. Visiting home last December, I found that a beloved park near where I grew up had been butchered—one side of the hill carved open, the lily pond full of fish filled in. New expressway, I was told. As a foreigner, Gibson intimated that the absence of the past in Singapore incited psychic pain. As a citizen, watching a resolute obliteration of the past in progress, I am haunted by gaping fish.
In Singapore, Gibson’s “glassy simulacra” are today actual glass-encased flower domes sitting atop reclaimed land and feature prominently in Singapore Tourism Board ads and in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians (which may as well have been an STB ad). To build them, millions of metric tons of sand were shipped from neighboring countries—emblematic of Singapore’s eternal project to protect the fragility of its anxieties around land scarcity by cannibalizing those around it. Land mass, like capital accumulation, is a zero-sum game. It’s also led to the destruction of existing ecosystems, soil erosion, and displacement of peoples elsewhere. Much of the reclaimed land in the Marina Bay area has been dedicated to “green structures”—colossal man-made “super trees” that reach their grotesque steely fingers skyward, and futuristic glass domes with temperature-controlled spaces for beautiful gardens which pander to an economic turn toward eco-consciousness: There is green to be made from going green.
These fixtures, along with the newly opened megamall that is “Jewel” Changi Airport, allow for a hypocritical one-two step. Singapore presents itself as a Garden City, developed in the vision of our veritable Creator, Lee Kwan Yew. Jewel looks like a futuristic paradise with air-conditioning. The spectacular bio-dome in the heart of the mall boasts the world’s tallest indoor waterfall and a “forest valley” with manufactured fog. The airport complex touts itself as an eco-building, making use of natural light and using high-tech digesters and microbes to turn food waste into water, like something out of a sci-fi movie. But how much more ecological if it didn’t exist!
Meanwhile, the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit pushed for plans to bulldoze through Macritchie reservoir, one of the island’s precious natural spaces. But Lee’s vision for a green Singapore was always economically oriented. To him, being clean and green would “signify that Singapore was a well-organized city and hence a good destination for tourists and foreign investments.” This fantasy has been literalized in Jewel Changi: The clunkily named “natural features” like the waterfall, “HSBC Rain Vortex,” and the forest, “Shiseido Forest Valley,” are named after their corporate sponsors.
The irony of destroying healthy mangroves and thriving communities in order to build artificial, tourist-friendly green paradises is galling, but also telling. For Baudrillard, Disneyland exists not to offer a reprieve from reality, but to lay bare the absence of any reality at all. Singapore has also become pure simulacrum in so many ways. Deftly selling itself as an ideal “stopover” destination, a by-the-hour burlesque show for bored tourists, many travelers never experience Singapore beyond the airport. In 2018 The New York Times ran a “36 Hours” installment in Singapore. Was this too broad? In 2019, the Times’ Singapore experience had become a “27-Hour Vacation in Singapore’s Changi Airport.” As the country’s prime synecdoche, Jewel Changi may as well be Singapore. Its website even boasts, “You might even be able to live in Singapore’s Changi Airport for a week without stepping out of the sprawling terminals.” As Covid-19 decimates the airline and tourism industries and forces families and societies to reconsider their values, Singaporeans will have to reckon with just how important these hollow public-facing commercial gimmicks are to our national pride.
A high-security “storage and display” facility housed in the airport’s duty-free zone, known as Freeport Singapore, also exemplifies Baudrillard’s postmodern argument made flesh. Within, valuable fine art is hidden, never to be seen. It might as well not exist. Art persists as capital and not art. At the front of the facility is a 38-meter-long sculpture, Cage Sans Frontieres (cage without borders), a nonsensical name for a latticework of gaps that separates nothing from nothing. Layers of meaninglessness upon meaninglessness.
Singapore’s current reputation is a recent phenomenon, built on the backs of ailing economies elsewhere. When I first arrived in America in 2007, people would ask me if they would be hanged for chewing gum (you will not) or face the death penalty for doing drugs (you might). In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis in America, and then the crumbling of the Euro, Singapore’s human rights infringements became less important to the world as the city-state emerged as a symbol of persistent capitalistic triumph. Now I overhear every second Harvard Business School student brag about the “baller time” they had during an internship in Singapore. Indeed, the Times‘ review of Changi Airport gasps in wonder even as it observes the “fine line” between “fantasy and dystopia.” The success of Crazy Rich Asians has been the city-state’s best advertising campaign, such that the Singapore of the global imagination is made of luxury hotels, incredible skyscrapers, and, well, crazy rich Asians. Singapore was the fifth-most-visited city in the world in 2018 (fourth in terms of tourist spending)—no small feat for a country that spans 26 miles across. The purpose of Disneyland, according to Baudrillard, is to “feed reality … to a town whose mystery is precisely that it is nothing more than a network of endless, unreal circulation.” Baudrillard was referring to Los Angeles. Today, Singapore serves as the Disneyland to the world.
Singapore lends itself well to fantasy. HBO’s wildly successful sci-fi series Westworld, about a theme park populated by androids, filmed much of its third season on the tropical island. The abused and exploited robots escape the theme park and emerge into the real world that seems even more frightening and twisted, a world represented by Singapore. Westworld cocreator Lisa Joy exalted “the ways in which nature entangle [sic] with modernity” in Singapore. “Looking through the lens of a camera, you’re always able to appreciate the beauty of things even more.”
Looking at Singapore is tantamount to looking at it through a lens. My country is photogenic—defined by and therefore reduced to façade. But how can we deny the Disneyland reference when Singapore has invited one and all to hop on for a ride? The authoritarian leader Robert Mugabe was a frequent visitor to Singapore for medical treatment and recently died in the country. Singapore was eager to host the 2018 Trump-Kim summit, which a local politician called an “incredible branding opportunity.” But perhaps the writers of Westworld do understand the absurdity of the dystopia of their imagination—in other words, the absurdity of Singapore. In one episode, Maeve, one of the android hosts, wakes up in a ludicrously ostentatious bar, glances around with amused contempt, and says, “Another simulation? Well, this one’s a bit over the top.” The antagonist responds unfazed: “No, Maeve. This is Singapore.”
If we looked to the past for warnings about the future, we would understand the darker overtones of what Joy calls Singapore’s “poetic skyline.” At the brink of climate catastrophe, we must know that unchecked growth will doom us all to destitution. Going green has to be for real, and we cannot afford to hold onto the hollow dream of capital accumulation for its own sake.
WIRED sent Gibson to Singapore to see if the “clean dystopia represents our techno future.” A quarter century later, the answer is a resounding yes. Gibson noted Singapore’s IT vision for itself, to be “a coherent city of information, its architecture planned from the ground up. And they expect that whole highways of data will flow into and through their city.” This sounds chillingly like descriptions of cyberpunk dystopias. But the real tragedy if Singapore proved to be right, Gibson surmised, was that “what will really be proven will be something very sad; and not about Singapore, but about our species. They will have proven it possible to flourish through the active repression of free expression. They will have proven that information does not necessarily want to be free.”
Many hardworking Singaporeans today resoundingly choose a government that promises economic stability even as censorship laws become more and more stringent and inequality is rife. Gibson chides himself for his pessimism, joking that “perhaps Singapore’s destiny will be to become nothing more than a smug, neo-Swiss enclave of order and prosperity.” Between the Geneva-inspired Freeport Singapore and a private banking system that rivals Switzerland’s, it seems that on many fronts, we have arrived in this future. Not only have we arrived, it has already come to pass, for the world’s embracing of Singapore as a utopian dystopia is the embracing of late-stage capitalism itself.
But Gibson is not entirely correct. It is a national joke that Singapore is known to its own people as the Little Red Dot. It is a joke because to its people, Singapore and its possibilities have always exceeded its geographic size. The old Singapore is still there, though it is fading fast. It is there in the cacophony of Thaipusam celebrations along Serangoon Road of Little India, Hindu worshippers dancing with their Kavadis; in the prayers that rise like coils of smoke from mosques and dissipate in the hazy orange humid dusk; in the buah keluak Peranakan grandmothers prepare for hungry granddaughters.
Singapore’s self-conception shares the paradox of cyberpunk, embracing both the traditional and postmodern. We supplicate at the feet of our colonial past at the same time we believe ourselves autochthonous, springing out of the ground from dragon’s teeth as in the Greek myth—self-made and therefore without past. This metaphor is literalized in the island’s geology itself: The Dragon’s Teeth Gate was a geological feature of the Singapore harbor that guided ancient mariners. It was destroyed by the British.
Singapore has always existed as a palimpsest: a collection of gauzy histories layered so heavily that an origin seems beyond reach. The island’s most beloved origin story, after all, is one of myth: An Indonesian prince sets sail and in a blinding storm, sees a Singa (lion) on an island, and names it Singapura, Lion City. No lions exist in Southeast Asia. The nation state’s symbol is a merlion, a mythical creature of mixed origin: part lion, part fish—of this world at the same time that its existence exceeds worldly possibilities.
From Gibson to Blade Runner to Akira, set in the future (2019), which is now already the past, the year of Singapore’s “bicentennial,” that odd celebration of 200 years since the British landed on the island, marking our birth as definitively colonial, to highlight “where we are now” (a present unmoored from the past and therefore amnesiac and myopic), it dawns on me that the future has already come to pass. Singapore has always been there for those who remember it, but if a country sets no store by memory, then its very identity is at stake. I find myself sitting in my apartment, quarantined in western Massachusetts, disoriented and lost. Homesick and sick of home.
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