Wealth, Strict Rules, and LAN Shops: What It's Like to Grow Up in Singapore
Four photographers share images and stories about growing up in the city-state.
Singapore is in the middle of celebrating its Golden Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of the country's status as an independent republic. Since its founding in 1965, the city-state has grown from a tiny trading port to a bona fide economic power. Its also acquired a reputation for strict laws—chewing gum is banned, for instance, and in 1994 the American student Michael Fay was caned for committing vandalism—along with its cleanliness and wealth.
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To find out a little more about this elusive place I asked four photographers who hail from Singapore to contribute images and statements on youth culture and how they avoided canings while clubbing.
I moved to Singapore from Jakarta, Indonesia after the riots in 1998. Our family had visited Singapore a lot, as it was a popular vacation destination for the region. Unlike most of Southeast Asia, Singapore was stable and modern.
I became a resident of Singapore rather unwillingly. My parents had decided for me that I should go to school in a country that was not actively trying to kill us every couple of decades. Most of my time in Singapore was spent during the night. We drank a lot (mostly beer, liquor was and is too expensive), went clubbing a lot (only bands like Hoobastank would come play, but I saw Linkin Park that one time), and played a lot of DOTA in LAN shops even though I was really bad at it.
A home that isn't really home, Singapore has maintained a dear place in my memory. For better or worse, the city-state, even with it's glaring issues, has allowed me to walk the streets at night without worry. I made friends who told me about Descartes, went to punk shows with Malay skinheads, and threw up all over the inside of a cab.
The following are a couple of picture from Singapore. I've also asked a few of my closest Singaporean friends below to write their recollections of growing up in Singapore.
Growing up during the 90s and early 2000s in Singapore was a luxury and privilege. I loved Hong Kong films, Japanese culture, and MTV. Youth culture [that was native to] Singapore was something that was almost nonexistent at the time.
I spent my teenage years hanging out with different people, having different cliques of friends, investing heavily in relationships that never worked out, playing music, going for gigs, and getting drunk on Wednesday and weekends. Really, just trying to do everything but drugs (capital punishment for drugs in Singapore is pretty harsh—"death" harsh).
Growing up in Singapore was kind of like growing up in a shopping mall. Everything was clean, convenient, and expensive, and you would look out from the glass window in your air-conditioned bubble and experience things from afar. For most of my teenage years, I grew up in the nighttime of Singapore.
People like talking about politics and nostalgia while in line for the best Nasi Lemak. They liked talking about money, their children's grades, and how they would never move out of the country.
Being a collectivist society, there's quite a lot of pressure to conform in Singapore: pressure to get top grades, pressure to get a "respectful" job, pressure to make lots of money, pressure to get a good partner, and so on. Success seems to be measured in a rather planned-out route, one that's marked by materialism.
Growing up in post-colonial Singapore also meant that I was (and still am) exposed to many ideas from the West, while living out a mix of cultures from the East. No doubt such an upbringing can be advantageous in today's globalizing landscape, but I think it also fractures one's sense of identity, and extends to a cultural dilemma on a larger scale in society: What culture can I claim as my own? Where do I really belong?