blade-runnerSingapore gets called lots of things: Disneyland. Toy Town. Pyongyang. China. None of these descriptions were actually coined in the city-state itself, they’re the products of curious foreign onlookers who can’t mind their own business.

The outside world’s version of Singapore’s story has always rankled the state and to a certain extent its people. In 1993, Wired published a blistering essay by sci-fi writer William Gibson that discussed (among other things) the Singapore government’s febrile tendency to outlaw media it didn’t like. The Singapore government responded by banning the publication. Could you make it up? Despite its wondrous economic success, Singapore has always struggled to shake the impression it made on Gibson.

Time and technology have made Singapore a more open place since those times and Gibson’s stuff is today street legal. But despite the relative openness, local prickliness toward foreign commentaries remains as pointed as ever.

The government is still quick to slam anything it deems slanderous, erroneous or inflammatory but at a more conversational level, few things irritate more than foreign jibes about the country’s ban on chewing gum sales. As one local writer moaned on the foreign media’s coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy: “Decades of phenomenal GDP growth, the lowest crime rate in the region and top-notch healthcare, and Westerners are still talking about the friggin’ chewing gum.”

The ban was introduced in 1992, purportedly because gum could be used to jam the sensors of the city’s then shiny new subway cars. As it happens, many gum haters in the West genuinely respect Singapore’s commitment to order and cleanliness. All the same, the policy tells the story of a government that is not afraid of overreaching and treating its citizens like school children.

Similarly, the story of Michael Fay—a brat from the Singapore American School caned for graffiti around the same time—set the narrative around the country and how the West perceived it for at least a decade to follow. Never mind the fight against the Communists, separation from Malaysia or even the blockbuster horror show that was Japanese occupation, Singapore was simply the place you got birched in the backside for chewing gum and jaywalking (for the record, you don’t).

Singapore is known by other tropes but it’s the authoritarian narrative that endures most stridently in the Western reader’s mind. This is not only because of the West’s own freedom fetishes but also because Singapore is a fantastic source of dystopia porn: the idea that a comfortable, middle class existence may one day be overarched by an intrusive and officious corporatist regime. A country that gives everyone a number, takes their thumb prints, shuffles them into racial and religious folders and determines their destinies from the moment they can talk. Singapore is 1984, Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Running Man, Divergent and The Hunger Games, set in Asia. Singapore on paper presents the future of sci-fi terrors and it was precisely this fantasy that Gibson bottled in both Neuromancer and his Wired piece.

Leaning into the stereotype

Singapore’s government, its co-opted press and some of its intellectuals have always taken umbrage to foreign hyperbole and caricature, even positive ones such as the “economic Cinderella”. Reactionary measures such as censorship, lawsuits or painfully worded right-of-reply letters from the government to set the record straight go some way to controlling the message. But in the long run, they only reinforce the cliche of an establishment that is uneasy with alternative spins on the Singapore story. In short, “the lady doth protest”.

There are two classic retorts to criticisms of Singapore’s sterile and autocratic stereotypes. The first is the country’s own success, which speaks for itself: foreigners come to the country because it is rich, safe and politically reliable. Could you honestly say the same for Europe or the US right now? The second answer is that the city’s global connectivity, media consumption and high levels of education put paid to the myth of a cloistered and uncritical populace. As one Oxford-educated Singapore commentator asked last week: “So where is the trade-off? How are we unfree?”

The irony is that as a globally connected city, Singaporeans are indeed ravenous consumers of imported things, especially digital media. They are informed, educated and entertained by content produced in media ecosystems that are much more liberal than Singapore’s. If the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal reported in the deferential and stenographic manner of The Straits Times. they would not be read by any member of Singapore’s cabinet, including Mr. Lee. Perversely, Singapore’s media landscape demands two conflicting cultures of storytelling: an aggressive global standard for world news and a much safer, co-operative standard for local affairs. At some point, will consumers reject the second standard?

In open and competitive media systems, authority of voice is built up over time and based on merit, not given to you just because you have the backing of the highest power in the land. Some content is strong, some is weak and sure enough, some is not fit for purpose. But it is the competitive challenge to tell the narrative, not the obsession to control it, that creates the drive for credibility.