It hits me every time I get off the plane: the sudden chill of the air conditioning on full blast and the distinct scent of the orchid tea scent diffuser. Airports can seem nondescript, but arriving in Changi – both today and long before the Covid-19 pandemic – is a unique experience in Singapore. On the way to passport control, walking in the fragrant air, you will see immaculately maintained green walls and tidy bodies of water, teams of maintenance personnel (both in human and robotic form) and high-tech toilets with interactive feedback screens.
If you leave the airport expecting the rest of the city to be so tidy and clean, you won’t be disappointed. Once described by the New York Times as a place “so clean that bubble gum is a controlled substance,” Singapore is universally known for its perfectly paved roads, well-kept public parks, and clean, litter-free streets.
But cleanliness is here more than just an aesthetic ideal. In this small city-state with just under 56 years of national independence to its credit, cleanliness has been synonymous with major social progress, unprecedented economic growth and, more recently, a coordinated containment of the coronavirus pandemic.
While Singaporeans themselves tend to humbly ignore the idea that their country is particularly clean, its leaders have gone out of their way to build and maintain an impeccable public image. “Singapore’s impeccable reputation is something the government has consciously sought to promote,” said Donald Low, a Singaporean scholar and public policy specialist. “Originally, this cleanliness had at least two connotations: the first was physical or environmental cleanliness; the second was a clean government and society that did not tolerate corruption.
You might also be interested in:
• Is it the safest city in the world?
• What Japan can teach us about cleanliness
• Does Singapore suffer from FOMO?
Separated from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore, led by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, had great ambitions to become a “first world oasis in a third world region” as he called it. “As a newly independent city-state keen to attract foreign investment, Lee Kuan Yew rightly believed that these things would set Singapore apart from the rest of Southeast Asia,” Low explained.
In practical terms, ensuring cleanliness meant developing quality sewage systems, creating dengue and disease control programs, a decade-long clean-up of the heavily polluted Singapore River, planting trees throughout the city. island and the transition from once ubiquitous street vendors to covered peddlers. centers.
It also meant the establishment of a multitude of national public health campaigns calling on the citizens of Singapore to do their part. “Keeping the community clean requires a people who are aware of their responsibilities,” proclaimed Lee at the 1968 inauguration of Keep Singapore Clean, a now annual waste-reduction initiative. Lee’s speech sought to instill a new sense of national pride among Singaporeans, appealing to a collectivist and community spirit that he saw as vital to achieving the nation’s goals.
As the environmental conditions of the city-state improved, Singapore’s attractiveness to foreign investors and tourists also improved, ushering in a prolonged period of unprecedented economic growth. These days, Singapore consistently tops polls ranking social conditions, such as personal safety and quality of life, among cities around the world; while its highly developed free market economy ranks among the most competitive on the planet.
Nowhere seems more emblematic of the country’s modern vigor than its central business district, where gleaming and dazzling office towers – home to thousands of international headquarters – stand next to world-class luxury hotels, including including the iconic Marina Bay, designed by Moshe Safdie. Sands. It’s the kind of futuristic utopia its founding prime minister could only have dreamed of.
It angered Lee that, despite his country’s accomplishments, he was still asked about the notorious chewing gum ban in interviews with foreign media. He is unlikely to have anticipated the level of global attention this would garner when the law was enacted in 1992 to tackle pre-chewed gum cleaning fees from public places, like the all-new MRT system. (public transport). These days, gum consumption is actually allowed – if you happen to inadvertently smuggle a half-eaten package into your luggage here, you won’t be thrown in jail – but its sale remains prohibited.
Low explains that the infamous Gum Law is actually quite anomalous in terms of Singapore’s policymaking. “Rather than prohibiting outright,” he explained, “the Singapore government generally uses financial (dis) incentives for activities that generate costs for society,” citing as example the recent introduction of a carbon tax, designed to reduce emissions and encourage clean energy alternatives.
But, I wondered, can Singapore really be as clean as its reputation suggests? It goes without saying that the sparkling skyscrapers, boat-shaped hotels, and man-made bodies of water don’t paint an accurate picture of everyday life here. Yet even as I stepped out of the city’s downtown core and traveled to areas where tourists seldom venture, its uniformly designed public housing estates, well-maintained public parks, tightly regulated hawking centers were far away. to be unclean.
In a world radically redefined by the Covid-19 crisis, good public hygiene practices can be a matter of life and death
I headed to Geylang, an area of Singapore famous for its excellent local cuisine (Anthony Bourdain experienced “pure messy indulgence” bee crab hoon here in 2001) and for being the city’s only legalized red light district. Surely, I thought, this is where I would see the “real” Singapore.
It was dark and the streets were lit with old-fashioned fluorescent neon lights announcing sex shops, karaoke parlors, and late-night cafes selling frog-leg porridge, a regional delicacy. “Think of it like the belly of Singapore,” said Cai Yinzhou, standing next to me in a dimly lit alley, “the opposite of the well-maintained skyscrapers we see in the central business district.”
Yinzhou, from Geylang, who “grew up with sex workers and neighbor casino operators,” now runs Geylang Adventures, an organized tour that aims to “showcase Geylang as a social ecosystem, beyond the seedy side. or delicious as most locals know it is, ”he told me.
The Yinzhou Tour explores the brothels, bars, and social milieu of Geylang, which often seem at odds with Singapore’s narrow reputation. Despite his incongruity in an otherwise family-friendly town, Geylang didn’t feel dangerous. Nor at a distance without law. With nearly 500 security cameras in the neighborhood, there was an overwhelming feeling that its unruly elements – from vice to drugs – were carefully contained and “frequently swept up,” as Yinzhou described it.
“This is the real Singapore,” said a Singaporean in our tour group, “it should be on every tourist list.” I found myself okay. While Geylang doesn’t feel sterile, he ultimately fits in, in his own way, into Singapore’s national narrative of a clean, uncorrupted society.
These uniquely Singaporean values were really put to the test last year.
Since Lee’s passionate campaigns in the late 1960s, the theme of cleanliness has not been as relevant as it was then. In a world radically redefined by the Covid-19 crisis, good public hygiene practices can be a matter of life and death.
On the global stage, Singapore’s response to the coronavirus is one that has been widely hailed. But unlike most countries, Singapore’s handling of the pandemic has not been purely reactive. Thanks to the country’s advanced sanitation infrastructure, Singapore was already prepared in many ways.
“We have trained our officers on how to handle disinfection of infectious diseases even before Covid-19 reaches our shores,” said Tai Ji Choong, director of the Public Cleanliness Division at the National Agency for the Environment. Singapore environment. Having designed a course with Singapore Polytechnic in 2017, Choong tells me that the staff were “equipped with up-to-date skills and knowledge in disinfection techniques, disinfectant handling, safety procedures and the correct use of sanitation equipment. personal protection to deal with an infectious disease outbreak in Singapore, which proved critical when we learned of the first case of Covid-19 last year. “
This has resulted in the efficient deployment of technological solutions for public health: mobile applications which allow citizens to acquire face masks; intelligent thermal scanning technologies to monitor body temperature in large groups; and robot dogs that patrol public parks to enforce social distancing measures.
While effective governance has been crucial in dealing with the virus, the pandemic has inevitably forced leaders to ask many of their citizens. In Singapore, where mask wear and contact tracing are mandatory, the response from its residents has been overwhelmingly consistent.
But then, in a society with a cultural heritage of cleanliness, where normative public hygiene policy and community coordination are the norm, what else would you expect?
Why we are what we are is a BBC Travel series examining the characteristics of a country and finding out if they are true.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly newsletter of bbc.com features called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.