Nanny state lifts its skirt

Street Life SINGAPORE
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The Independent Online
"SO, COMRADES, what can I get you for dessert?" asked the tall waitress dressed in a replica of a Chinese People's Liberation Army uniform.

We had started the meal with a disgusting "Red Star Over China" cocktail, a heady mixture of brandy, grenadine, syrup and ginger ale. We could, I suppose, have opted for a "Darling Comrade" but the idea of gin, cherry brandy, cointreau, pineapple and lime juice and grenadine syrup seemed a little bit over the top even in this lavishly over-the-top dining establishment.

The restaurant is called House of Mao, one of two highly successful outlets in Singapore. The decor is revolutionary kitsch, dominated by posters in the vivid style of socialist realism. The little red boxes of toothpicks that patrons receive at the end of the meal are inscribed with the famous quotation from Mao Tse-tung about the revolution not being a dinner party.

The concept is very clever, its execution impressive and the public response enthusiastic. Most surprisingly, it is a purely Singaporean creation. Asia's infamous nanny society is distinctly in danger of developing a sense of humour. Not only that, but the authorities seem to be learning to relax.

The Singapore government used to guard not only its own dignity but was equally vigilant in ensuring that no one upset its friends and allies. China is most definitely a friend and labours under a government with no track record for a sense of humour.

Singapore is also friendly with Taiwan, yet not far from the House of Mao II is the Club Chinois, which shamelessly exploits the love life of Chiang Kai Shek, its founding father.

For years, the authorities swept down with a heavy hand on artists and anyone else displaying characteristics such as irony in their work. The only person licensed to take the most modest of liberties was a very funny Indian Singaporean drag artiste called Kumar. It seemed that only a man dressed in women's clothing could get away with it.

Kumar is no longer alone, satire is even creeping into radio shows. But old habits are hard to break as the wickedly savage Hong Kong cartoonist Zunzi recently discovered when he was invited to Singapore for an exhibition and found his pictures ripped from the walls hours before they were due to go on display.

However, it seems that the government, or at least some influential voices in the administration, have decided the time has come to lighten up. "We're always trying to see how far you can go," said an administrator for an arts organisation. "We don't really know what the ground rules are any more but we soon find out if we've gone too far."

Another sign of greater official toleration has been a sudden blossoming of gay clubs. One owner said he had the police visit before it opened. "They told us, `Wedon't have any problems with it unless we find drugs and under-age drinking'."

Singapore is far from being an easy-going liberal sort of place. The state is still heavily preoccupied with telling its citizens what to do. Directions on who to marry, what to eat and how to behave are still pumped out in a variety of national campaigns. The latest is "Kindness Week", aimed at making Singaporeans nicer to their fellow citizens.

Such campaigns sit comfortably aside Singapore's long list of things that are forbidden, such as smoking in buildings, chewing gum and not flushing toilets.

Political liberalism and toleration of opposition politics remain on the far horizon but it seems that Singapore is prepared to ease up on social issues, possibly to avoid the kind of political backlash under way in neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia.

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