Thursday, 19 November 2009:
Let me first take up the comment by The Catman. The essence of the comment is true: the “social and cultural facets of life is Singapore is at a relatively young and nascent stage.” My perennial concern is how this fact, while true, is brandished by some people (I do not imply The Catman) to justify an attitude of Singapore exceptionalism. By that, I mean a refusal to compare Singapore with other cities or countries, because “our conditions are different”. Don’t compare our freedoms (or lack thereof) with the West, because we are different. Don’t compare our sultified arts and entertainment scene because as a people we are different. A banal truth is used to avoid measure, to avoid looking ourselves in the mirror.
It is this resistance that worries me for Singapore’s own development and why I feel compelled to keep on comparing.
And there is a second reason, not unrelated with the first: The belief that somehow life in less controlled societies is worse. A subliminal xenophobia, egoism and fear of chaos can be traced. I’d very much want ordinary Singaporeans to see the possibilities of “the other side”.
This is not to say New York city is only fantastic and nothing else. Surely, it cannot be. But I am only a passing visitor; all I can do is observe superficially and not pretend to be in a position to make critical analyses. Consequently, what I say will sound uncritical. As I pointed out in the preamble post Away again, my blogging through this trip will be subjective and personal.
Mid afternoon on a weekday in Harlem, there were men just hanging around on the sidewalks. They don’t seem to have jobs to fill their time, nor comfortable enough homes to stay within. They chat with each other, the younger men engaging in some horseplay, and take an interest in unfamiliar faces walking down the street simply as a distraction to a boring routine. Yet those same following eyes and their presence generally may, to some observers, lend a menace to the air. And this is Haarlem, not the South Bronx, which I am told would be foolhardy to enter. The Hard Right would say these men’s lack of useful occupation is entirely their own fault, not least their own moral failure. The Soft Left would blame the system. The truth, if it’s ever possible to tease out, probably has a bit of both.
The middle class tell me to be careful – very careful – when I make my way through Haarlem to the Cloisters Museum near the northern tip of Manhattan. It is half a mile’s walk from the nearest subway station. Make sure you leave the museum before sunset (which is like 4:45 pm); you don’t want to be walking back in the dark. This was the earnest advice I got.
Okay, so maybe I am a fool, from whom money may soon be parted (though so far only once in 30 years of travelling), but my own observation was completely different. No doubt, riding the A Line to 190th street meant passing many Haarlem stations and most passengers were African Americans, but at no time did the relatively placid atmosphere of the train change for the worse. Emerging out of 190th Street station, I found myself in a quiet, genteel neighbourhood. The 500-metre walk to the Cloisters – a museum dedicated to art from the European Middle Ages – was through leafy Tryon park, with almost no one about save a couple of gardeners and another couple of walkers making their hunched way through the drizzle, like me, to the museum.
The views across the Hudson river to New Jersey were beautiful, by the way.
Where did the advice about danger come from? In this city seething with immigrants and a domestically-bred underclass, racism may lie just under the surface. I am not so naive to think the surface civility we see around connotes anything more than surface civility. There are tensions, and it may not take much to let anger loose. A bunch of lesbians, I am told, recently beat a man to death just around the corner from where I am staying.
But there is a flip side to strong feelings too. It can make for creative energy. The layers of New York, its colour, artistic depth, its brazenness and, yes, pushiness, comes from the same wellspring of expressed emotions, something which too often, we in Singapore think should be suppressed, outlawed, purged from our media, for the sake of harmony.