July 1, 2009
Singapore is a nation trapped in a shopping mall.
If new malls like ION and Orchard Central are not spouting out like fresh H1N1 cases, then old ones like Wisma Atria and Tanglin Mall are constantly going under the knife for a new lease of life. As a people, we are obsessed not with buying lots of things, but with the shopping experience. Sure, we enjoy the act of purchasing, but buying alone does not drive Singaporeans to malls. It’s the long-drawn foreplay of purchase that we crave.
We crave the experience of being in a crowd, of being mesmerized by bright coloured lights, of being entranced but uncommitted to fresh shinny shoes, clothes, belts, bags and the lot. We love to play the role of the urban butterfly, flitting from one cold mannequin to another, absorbing the sensory experience of loud bad music, reveling in the masochistic joy of the dull ache in our feet while secretly enjoying the annoyance from blank sales assistants. It’s the ultimate non-confrontational, passive activism. It is so Singaporean.
Arguments from nurture are always tricky. Do dog owners grow to look like their Chihuahuas, or do they choose Chihuahuas that look like them? Similarly, do we love shopping because we’re so damn politically neutered or does shopping divert our energy from politics and civil society? It is not a completely pedantic question because while the joys of mass consumption have indeed spawned generations of mindless consumers everywhere in the world, it has also produced an anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation, anti-establishment backlash we don’t get here.
From groups like The Third Position, Peoples Global Action, or publications like Adbusters magazine and No Logo, it is clear that the consumer experience has its fair share of heretics. But why not in Singapore?
Could it be because our entire national survival is predicated on shopping? Here in Singapore, national survival is synonymous with economic survival. Economic survival is only possible with capitalism and globalization. Singapore is the ultimate ‘capital city’ and we have to shop to safeguard our national sovereignty.
And we really do perform as Singapore citizens as we move from mall to mall, sucking in the stale air-con, gazing the endless advertising façade of beautiful people looking out to nowhere in particular. It is pure politics in motion. We hear the PM saying something on TV but don’t quite listen hard enough. We have PAP MPs posing in carefully crafted photos in The Straits Times as they advertise their competence and grassroots connection. We are captivated by the officious droning from Parliament because like elevator music we cannot escape it but cannot quite explain why we want to.
It’s wrong to say that shopping is Singapore’s favourite pastime. A pastime is something you do when you’re free, when you’re released from the chores of life, something you do for pleasure. Here in Singapore, we live a shopper’s existence.