Everything is permitted in the fictional city of Mahagonny, at least during the last Act of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny., which I saw in London last week. The lesson, and it certainly feels like one, is that moral and spiritual emptiness are the consequences of greed and unfettered materialism. It’s a Marxist anti-opera (or nearly, for Brecht was moving towards Marxism and the ‘epic’ didactic style when he wrote the libretto) but, sadly, it doesn’t offer any clue as to how a better kind of city might be built.
Even so, we can be pretty sure that he wouldn’t have recommended Singapore. He might have approved of its communal consciousness, but the underlying materialist engine would have appalled him.
In Mahagonny, everything is permitted. In Singapore, very little is permitted. Whether it is law, morality or merely etiquette, guidance on what you may or not do assails you wherever you may be. The images below I gathered in just five minutes on the metro. I love ‘Bag Down for a Better Ride.’ It could be set to music.
In Singapore, no one wants to stand out by infringing these or any other rules, even if the sanctions are mild (no caning, as far as I know, for not putting your bag down). Suitably cowed, it’s the only country I’ve visited recently where I wait for the green man to shine before I cross the road.
Often sanctions are severe. Two Australians recently got five years in jail and three swipes of the cane for spray-painting graffiti onto a tree. The law caught up with them in Kuala Lumpur, and they were extradited back to Singapore. Carry a gun or trade in drugs, and you hang.
It seems churlish to find fault with Singapore on the day that Lee Kuan Yew, its founding father, has died. Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence from Britain this year. It’s a rare case of a stable post-colonial nation, astonishingly successful in economic terms, its GDP per capita higher than that of its former colonial power. Ethnic and religious tension are absent, despite a mixed population. Its citizens are equal under the law and it is amongst the least corrupt of nations.
It’s also a comfortable, orderly stopover on the way to Sydney, and the prospect of tree-lined, litter-free, gum-free, graffiti-free streets is appealing, but nothing could persuade me to make this city my home. Litter, graffiti, even chewing-gum are a price worth paying for a little mischief, and freedom from convention.