Synopsis: In this episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain travels to Singapore, known to some as “Disneyland with the death penalty.” He keeps coming back for the food, he says—only here does one find the singular, exquisite mix of Chinese, Indian, and Malay dubbed “indigenous fusion” by local chefs. Over several meals in homes and at hawker stalls, the conversation turns to Singapore’s government; here residents seem to have traded civil liberties for a booming economy. Bourdain asks an unavoidable question: “Is free speech overrated?”
On the nanny state
- “Spotless, efficient, safe, protected, controlled. A utopian city-state, run like a multinational company. Welcome to Singapore, Incorporated.”
- “By some measures, Singapore is a welfare state, taking care of the less fortunate. But at its heart, it’s a cold-blooded meritocracy. You follow the rules—and there are many—work hard, and you’ll have a good life. That’s the message.”
- “To many, Singapore is the land of opportunity. People come here from all over the world to get a good job, to find a better life.”
“Not only is Singapore a small city-state—just 227 square miles, a little more than half the size of LA—but there’s also a pressure of a kind from a big brother government who’s always watching, however benevolently one might think.”
- “Singapore has fully embraced globalization, and that’s proved, in their case, very rewarding.”
- “Unlike most of the wealthy, developed world, there’s universal health care and little to no homelessness in Singapore.”
- “By ensuring that its citizens are safe, housed, healthy, and for the most part economically successful, the Singaporean government has been effective at keeping the masses placated enough—willing to accept curbs on their freedoms and civil liberties.”
- “Jam-packed in between the carefully feng shui-ed architecture, the skyscrapers, and office blocks are rich, deep, very old, and deliciously funky remnants of the Old World—Chinese, Indian, Malay—and a culture that still cherishes the joys of a simple, good thing.”
It’s funny—I recognize every place here by food.
- “I come here mostly to eat, because that’s what they do here. And they arguably do it better—with more diverse, affordable food options per square foot than just about anywhere on Earth.”
In a nutshell: “One could be forgiven for thinking it’s a giant, ultramodern shopping mall. An interconnected, fully wired, air-conditioned nanny state. Where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. And those things are … kind of true, especially if you read the papers or the carefully monitored internet. You look around the litterless streets, where everything seems to work just fine, and you think—or you could be forgiven for thinking—‘Gee, maybe a one-party system is just what we need.’ You look at all the social problems and ethnic strife, street crime, drugs that Singapore has managed to avoid and you could think, ‘Is this the life we want?’ It ain’t my system, it’s not the world I want, but damn—it has its appeal.”
- “You know, listening to you people, I gotta tell you—I wanna, like, go out and join the Communist Party. That’s like bourgeois, man. You’re living off the labor of an oppressed underclass.”
I mean, is free speech overrated?
- “For a state in which an ounce of weed can put you in the jug for up to 10 years and the same weight of dope can mean death, where chewing gum is indeed illegal, a surprising number of vices are allowed here. Drinking age is 18. Prostitution is legal, with sex workers getting regular medical checkups. There are casinos and strip clubs. The government seems to understand that, along with a certain amount of repression, safety valves are required. Get drunk, get laid, and you are less likely to be difficult. Perhaps that’s the thinking. Or maybe it’s just business.”