Apparently Seth Rogen was in Singapore recently, as he told Conan O’Brien.
Many Singaporeans are upset over the interview and the negative image they feel it perpetuates of Singapore.
As an American, I get the humor Rogen is going for and the audience he’s playing to. As an expat in Singapore, I also understand why locals might be pissed about what he said and how he said it.
The truth, as always, lays somewhere in the middle.
To borrow a phrase from MM Lee, there are some hard truths to tell Singaporeans about the American perception of Singapore in the interest of explaining the audience for Rogen’s remarks.
- Few Americans could identify Singapore on a map, even if you offered them a large cash incentive. I’ve had people incorrectly place it in South America and Africa. Those who can place it in Asia often think it is part of China, or just plain doesn’t exist anymore because their one reference to it might be a throwaway comment in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
- Michael Fay’s caning is one of the few things Americans might know about Singapore
- The laws against gum chewing is the other thing Americans commonly know about Singapore
- Americans as a breed really don’t know or care much about the rest of the world. Something like only 25-30% of Americans have a passport (and the percentage only recently went towards 30 because you now need one to go to Mexico or Canada…something that wasn’t true five years ago). To further clarify…American news, such as it is, focuses on the small part of the US you’re living in. Boston’s evening news, for example, spend 70-80 percent of it’s time on Boston related news, 5-10 percent on the rest of Massachusetts/New England, and 5-10 percent on the US, and international news is generally limited to (A) places the US is at war with, (B) major events like the Japan Tsunami/nuclear plant and (C) gossip like the William/Kate wedding in England.
Here’s the thing…Rogen is a comedian.
But if I’ve learned something in the last year, it’s that Singaporean “funny” and American “funny” are often not the same thing. It’s difficult for me to fully quantify/qualify how the notions of humor are different, but they truly are. Americans, generally like the joke that mocks authority…which just doesn’t play in Singapore.
No one’s ever been to Singapore.
Look, it’s not no one, for certain (we make up some portion of the 40% of foreign born talent), but when Americans leave the US, they tend to stick to North American and Europe. Americans like places where they speak English, and while (duh) Singapore is an English speaking country…no one knows that it is. Most of Southeast Asia (if they can even place Singapore here) is fairly third world–as the joke goes, don’t eat the food and don’t drink the water. Most Americans assume the same is true of Singapore. For most of the US, getting here is a 20-30 hour trek door to door (I speak from experience). Then you have to struggle with jet lag. When you only get 2-3 weeks off in a year, you can’t go traveling to places that it takes two days to get to in the first place. Singapore is exotic, and if there’s something that is SCARY to most Americans, it’s the exotic.
When I told people I was moving here, I was commonly asked “Where the hell is that?” “WHY?” and “What language do they speak there?” Many of the people asking these questions were fairly educated individuals.
The thing you have to understand about American education is how Western/Euro/US centric it is. “World” History might touch on Asia to mention the Silk Road, or Ghengis Khan, but few people ever learn in school how the British ended up in charge of India, for example (which is obviously a much larger country than Singapore) or why the Japanese were even involved in World War Two. I have a degree in history, and my knowledge of this part of the world is better than most…and it was still ridiculously sketchy until I began to take it upon myself to learn more.
I’m not trying to say this is okay. I’m just trying to explain how/why he’d say that.
Singapore’s claim to fame is it’s where that dude did graffitti and got caned
I have to say, before Ravi got offered a job here, that was pretty much the extent of what I knew about Singapore (and of course I’d heard about the gum ban, but we’ll get to that in a moment). It was HUGE news that some American kid was going to get caned and his parents asked Clinton to step in. I was in high school (I think) at the time, and I remember it being on the news.
While some states in the US still have the death penalty, it’s generally quite rare for someone to be put to death. Other than death, the only thing that the US does is prison.
Corporal punishment has LONG been out of favor in the US. To contextualize, many people see it as barbaric to even spank your child, much less to do something like caning. As a teacher, I was considered a “Mandated Reporter” to the Department of Child Protective Services. I can assure you that if a child had come to school with cane marks on their leg or told me that their parents had caned them, I would have been legally obligated to report the parents for child abuse, and it is a possibility that the child would be removed from the parent’s custody.
The idea that a government would cane someone was unthinkable to most Americans.
Further, graffiti is…well…not that big a deal in the US. It’s a common site in cities. For example, these are the pertinent laws in Massachusetts (each state has it’s own laws).
Graffiti is defined as willfully or maliciously painting, marking, scratching, etching or otherwise marking or defacing the property of another. This property doesn’t have to be something of much value. A rock or fence would qualify for this charge.
If convicted of this charge, you could be sentenced to up to 3 years in prison and fines. You may also be required to pay for the removal of the graffiti.
A graffiti conviction will also get your driver’s license suspended for up to one year.
Ref: MGL c.266 §126A
Similar to a graffiti charge, tagging involves etching, signing, or painting your name, moniker, initials or other “tag” on someone else’s property. This offense carries a potential 2 years in prison and a fine of up more than $1,500 but less than 3 times the value of the damage.
A tagging conviction will also warrant a one year driver’s license suspension.
Ref: MGL c.266 §126B
However, I can assure you that almost no one would EVER do even a day of jail time over this. Our jails are too crowded for this sort of non-violent offense. Most of the time, if you were caught doing graffiti, if it was a first offense, you’d probably get off with just community service or a fine (or possibly nothing at all…depending). Further offenses would still likely be fines and community service.
So the idea that a government would CANE someone for something most Americans see as a harmless prank…no big deal…was shocking news.
What Americans didn’t know about Fay was that he was an expat who’d been living here for some time. He KNEW, better than any idiot tourist (which is what I thought he was) what would happen. He just thought he was above it, or could get out of it because he was American.
I don’t really have any sympathy for him these days. Considering the reality of Singapore, it’s just plain stupid to think you wouldn’t get caught. There are TONS of cameras EVERYWHERE, especially the subway. Even living here one year will teach you that Singapore does what it says it will. There is no special consideration for remorse or a first time offense or any of that. If the book of laws says the punishment is X, it’s X.
Death to drug smugglers and related humor
Rogen is a well-known pot head. No one in the US (assuming they know who he is) isn’t aware that he smokes pot. He was going to go after this.
Considering the recent cases of Death Row inmates who are facing death for being uneducated drug mules…I can’t really find the humor.
No gum in Singapore
If there is one thing that people have heard for certain about Singapore…it’s the no gum thing. Here is the relevant history, courtesy of Wikipedia.
In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew recounted that as early as 1983, when he was still serving as Prime Minister, a proposal for the ban was brought up to him by the then Minister for National Development. Chewing gum was causing serious maintenance problems in high-rise public housing flats, with vandals disposing of spent gum in mailboxes, inside keyholes and even on elevator buttons. Chewing gum left on floors, stairways and pavements in public areas increased the cost of cleaning and damaged cleaning equipment. Gum stuck on the seats of public buses was also considered a problem. However, Lee thought that a ban would be “too drastic” and did not take action.
In 1987, the S$5 billion metro system, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), began operations. It was then the largest public project ever implemented in Singapore, and expectations were high. One of the champions of the project, Ong Teng Cheong, who later became the first democratically-elected President, declared,”… the MRT will usher in a new phase in Singapore’s development and bring about a better life for all of us.”
It was then reported that vandals had begun sticking chewing gum on the door sensors of MRT trains, preventing the door from functioning properly and causing disruption of train services. Such incidents were rare but costly and culprits were difficult to apprehend. In January 1992, Goh Chok Tong, who had just taken over as Prime Minister, decided on a ban. The restriction on the distribution of chewing gum was enacted in Singapore Statute Chapter 57, the Control of Manufacture Act, which also governs the restriction of alcohol and tobacco.
The chewing gum ban in Singapore was enacted in 1992 and revised in 2004 and 2010. It bans the import and sale of chewing gum in Singapore. Since 2004, only chewing gum of therapeutic value is allowed into Singapore following the United States-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (USS-FTA).
This law was created because people disposed of gum incorrectly by sticking them under places like chairs or tables. Chewing gum is banned in Singapore under the “Regulation of Imports and Exports (Chewing Gum) Regulations.” Except for chewing gum of therapeutic value, the “importing” of chewing gum into Singapore is banned.
Americans love chewing gum. LOVE it. It’s widely available in grocery stores, conveinence stores, gas stations, Target, just about any store that sells soda or candy also sells gum.
To an American, the idea of banning gum is as ludicrous as banning orange juice. It’s this harmless little thing that brings people happiness and what kind of crazy government would get involved in people’s lives to the extent of telling us what we can and can’t chew. Americans are highly individualistic and wildly protective of individual rights. People are freaking out that Boston just banned the sale of sugary drinks in city buildings, for comparison. Even something that seems obvious, like making school lunches more healthy is met with protests over being “told what to eat.” We take it to a stupid level on a regular basis.
Singaporeans are more about the community than the individual. If banning gum keeps the MRT running and the streets clean, that’s clearly beneficial to the majority and not worth getting your panties in a twist.
Benevolent Dictatorship stuff
The whole “no one who lives there has ever voted,” thing.
According to what I’m reading online at the Singapore Elections Department Website, voting is compulsory if you’re over 21. However, I also know that my friend K, who is Singaporean, said her grandfather has never had a chance to vote. These two facts are confusing, and I would love for a local to explain the process of voting to me. Prior to finding the website, I was under the impression that only a small percentage of people were allowed to vote.
One thing is for sure, and why most outsiders see Singapore as a benevolent dictatorship…and that is only one party has ever held power in modern Singapore. This is baffling to outsiders. That Lee Kwan Yew is basically still in charge (or perceived as being so…) also makes it look like one. I can’t really think of another democracy where that has been true. Even India, where one party was in power for an extended time has had power shifts. In the US, we’re constantly shifting power between the Democrats and the Republicans and have since they were called the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, respectively.
It’s also seen as a dictatorship because of the level of “interference” the government has in the daily lives of its citizens. In the US, you can refuse to allow a police officer entry into your home if he/she doesn’t have a warrant to do so. The idea that I can’t refuse entry to a mosquito inspector is baffling. There’s no pornography, and movies are edited for our own good by the government. All of this conflicts with the American individualist ethos.
So far so good
Singapore is a country in it’s infancy. It’s not even 50 years old. To be fair, none of the policies has been tested long term.
For example, no one knows what happens when a 99 year lease on an HDB flat expires. In 45 years, there’s going to be a lot of questions that will need answering.
It seems that Singaporean youth (whether corrupted by Western influence or on their own…whatever you want to call it) does see things differently than their predecessors. It will be interesting to see how they change over time or rather how they change the culture over time. Will they still be okay with the kind of work day/week that is common now? That they can’t afford to move out of their parents homes? Will gay and lesbian Singaporeans push for more equality? How will the declining birthrate affect who is and is not considered “Singaporean”…and will Singapore extend citizenship by birth to create a larger local population if it continues to do so?
At this point, it’s hard to make a call on how Singapore is doing other than so far so good.
I understand how and why Rogen’s comments could be upsetting to locals. I definitely roll my eyes and think “here we go again” when telling someone back home where I live (for example I get a lot of weird looks asking for summer clothes in November in Boston, so it’s easier to explain WHY I want them). I get frustrated by a lack of understanding and knowledge by Americans about Singapore, too.
Sure, he went for the easy and cheap jokes. But let’s face it…it’s a light hearted late night talk show. He’s there to crack jokes and promote something or another. He’s not there to educate. People would change the channel if he did. If you want a more nuanced picture of Singapore, you need a different forum than Conan O’Brien.
Am I upset or angry? No. I laughed, and I agree with some of what he said. But I also don’t take it seriously.
But I understand why others might, and it’s why I wanted to unpack some of what he said here. Both to give clarity to my non-SG readers as to the full story/background on certain issues, and to clarify where the US audience is coming from to my SG readers.
I want to thank several people for talking about this online recently, making me realize that I did want to contribute to the conversation; Singapore Actually, Kirsten, and several others on Facebook/twitter.