Have you ever attended a rave with your friends and considered that your amusement might also be a political statement? This has been the case for a growing number of young Singaporeans over the past few years. The sovereign island-city of Singapore, located at the tip of the Southeast Asian archipelago, is often associated with iron-fisted laws and widely regarded as a haven of political order and the rule of law in Southeast Asia. However, in contrast to this conception, the red-light district of Geylang has grown to become a driving force of the city’s underground culture. Namely, the district is the birthplace of a new techno scene that contradicts the state’s authoritarian and hyper-capitalist stances. Although it is still limited to a dark corner of Singapore clubbing culture, it provides local youth and non-conformist thinkers a new platform to oppose local politics and institutions.
Hyper-capitalism and the rule of law in Singapore
Episodes of radical political opposition do not exist in a vacuum, and Singapore is no exception. The city quickly rose in regional and global affairs as a highly productive economy, recording the 9th highest Human Development Index (HDI) and the 3rd highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) worldwide following its independence in 1965.
This noticeable socioeconomic growth was bolstered by Singapore’s founding father and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s particular interest in ensuring strict rule of law throughout the city. Having emerged as the leader of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in the 1950’s, he demonstrated a particular attachment to hierarchy, order, and the rule of law over individual freedoms, which translated to notably strict legislation, such as Singapore’s notorious ban on chewing gum. This reflected a need to bolster a sense of nationalism in the direct aftermath of independence from Malaysia, and held particularly strong given the scarce population in Singapore at the time. However, the most noteworthy trade-off was the rise of authoritarian control over personal liberties, sometimes leading to harsh punishments, including the death penalty, for convicted individuals.
This approach dovetails with drastic restrictions imposed on political campaigning that has safeguarded the PAP’s hold on power for nearly 55 years. On the one hand, the PAP actively vilified the main opposition party (Workers’ Party, abbreviated WP) during the Cold War, portraying them as communist supporters of the Soviet Union, while Singapore was developing a hyper-capitalist regime backed by the United States. On the other hand, the PAP is responsible for much of the advanced socioeconomic living standards that Singaporean citizens enjoy to this day, which acts as a disincentive for them to turn to opposition politics, as demonstrated by overwhelming majority held by the PAP in the Parliament to this day. In this sense, an increasing amount of younger Singaporeans are turning to the underground culture to find alternative forms of opposition.