New York day 6

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.

Man advertises pawnshop at Harlem street corner

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.

3 Responses to “New York day 6”

  1. 1 thecatman 22 November 2009 at 13:43

    Hi… thanks for responding to my earlier comment.

    I am in total agreement with all of what you have just said.

    There is no doubt that on my counts, Singapore as a city/nation/country still leaves a lot to be desired. It’s especially obvious when one gets to travel and see other places. Comparing ourselves and looking ‘up’ to other places is always a good thing. Not just with the first or developed world alone, but even less developed places like, for example, Laos and Cambodia, where they are a lot more ‘cultured’ and elegant than we can ever be.

    The main reason for my earlier comment was essentially this: as much as we should never stop learning and always adopt a learn-from-others-by-comparison mindset, I think we should not end up shortchanging ourselves when we are truly doing alright. Your example about the subway was interesting because if it was Singapore that has a stinky and dirty subway like that, the world will come down on us! Whereas it was in NY, so it is relatively ok, perfectly justifiable, even charming.

    I will give you an example (and I am sure there are many others): I have seen on numerous blogs – both local and foreign – of a video clip showing the poor and homeless sleeping on the streets in Singapore. And the accompanying comments revolve around: oh, the rich and prosperous Singapore does not do a good job caring for its people. what a fucked up place after all. something to that effect.

    I get angry whenever I see these, not because I disagree with these comments. But why do we have to single Singapore out. There are homeless and poor in far richer cities and countries – even NY and London, where it is probably more obvious. But you never see blog entries criticising these countries for it. No one bats an eyelid when we come across it in other places, but in Singapore, it’s baaaaad…

    While it’s true that the Singapore-exceptionalism attitude may be used to justify the refusal to improve, the same can be said of that it can also be criticise Singapore singularly for something that occurs everywhere.

    It’s exactly the point you made about the ‘other side’, that not necessarily everything is bad when it is messy, dirty, chaotic. Why isn’t Singapore entitled to some of this dirty side? It’s ironic cos many of these critics are the same ones who will also say Singapore is repressive, lack freedoms, no soul, etc. Not to say that it’s a good thing to have poor people, but that’s a fact of life everywhere, isn’t it?

    I used to think the world of other places I have visited when I was younger. As I grow older, and see more places, I have also come to see their ‘dirty’ sides and learnt to adopt a more objective view of them and us (as in Singapore). It’s great to experience these places, but they are not always as great as they have been hyped up to be. Singapore, on the other hand, can be boring, ridiculously anal and sterile, but it’s also not necessarily always as bad as its general reputation.

    I do apologise if I come across like I am using your blog to rant about something I picked up from elsewhere. In a way, I do look up to your blog as a platform to help educate all of us – I have always enjoyed your postings even when I do not agree with them sometimes. I guess adopting a more objective tone is not always possible nor is it necessarily your intention.

    Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to post my thoughts. Do keep up with your travel observations – they have been fascinating so far.


  2. 2 jem 24 November 2009 at 23:03

    Perhaps it is because Singapore has ministers and government officials drawing obscene salaries, and after years of self-praise, people naturally want them to live up to the standard they claim they are. It doesn’t help matters that some diplomat or ambassador publicly announced that poverty has been eradicated in Singapore, or some variation of that.

    What you see, I suspect, may be less about the actual living conditions of the homeless (though this is by no means insignificant), and more about resentment about public officials paying themselves top dollar and not being held accountable.

  3. 3 j 21 December 2009 at 19:40

    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.

    care to elaborate about that occasion? 🙂

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