Singapore's Potemkin Moment

In one of those only-in-Singapore occurrences, officials set up a kind of Potemkin visit for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the 40-year-old Queenstown Housing Estate, named for the Queen of England, to “to view Singapore’s public housing program and be offered the opportunity to experience Singapore’s multi-ethnic culture and traditions,” according to the royal couple’s website.

The problem is that the timing of the visit, in mid-afternoon, meant that everybody was either at work, school, or inside hiding from the island nation’s ferocious afternoon temperatures. So the government brought in volunteers to practice tai chi, stretch out at the fitness corner and for children to scamper around the playground as if it were normal activity.

However, somebody took before-and-after pictures of the scene and posted them on the Internet, which has resulted in yet another embarrassment for the government, with sharp-eyed Singaporeans erupting with online jokes and sarcasm.

Then, in another of those only-in-Singapore occurrences, an aggrieved public official, Lawrence Wong, the Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, wrote in his Facebook page about his disappointment in Singaporeans for both mocking the volunteers and wanting to politicize everything.

Singaporeans referred to the whole episode as a “wayang” or shadow play and questioned if the whole charade had been necessary. Rather than seeing it as a proud moment for Singapore, many cringed at how fake the whole thing looked.

It was later reported that it had all been a display for the royal visit, and that it had been explained to the Duke and Duchess that “such activities do not always take place at the time of their visit.”

The minister urged Singaporeans to work towards a better country with “dignity and respect” and expressed disappointment at the way people have mocked and/or vilified “decent people who step forward to be part of a genuine national effort.”

Wong’s despairing Facebook comment, in which he then spent several paragraphs extolling the virtues of the ruling People’s Action Party, has drawn 733 comments so far and another 941 “likes.”

A great many of them supported the aggrieved minister. But others turned into a long litany of other attacks on the government, which in turn generated attacks on the attackers.

“It wasn’t the good intentions of the government or the volunteers that were being questioned," blogger Kristin Han wrote. “Most of the reaction was aimed at the forced, choreographed scene rather than at the volunteers who had participated in it. It was a reflection of the government’s control freak nature, and many were embarrassed by how it looked like the government was trying way too hard. It was in no way the fault of the volunteers who had come forward to practice tai chi or run around the playground; it was the decision of the organizers to put together such a show that was being challenged.”

And, Han pointed out, “While urging Singaporeans not to politicize issues, Wong doesn’t hesitate to hammer home all the things that the PAP government has done for Singapore. What message are we meant to get from this? Right now, it looks as if input from PAP members is well-meant and sincere, whereas input from alternative voices is just dangerous politics. Can that really be the message they intend to send?”

As for the Duke and Duchess, from the pictures they posted on their own website, they appear to have enjoyed themselves thoroughly before heading off, as British royals must, to observe a Rolls-Royce factory.

With reporting from Kristin Han,