"character was weevils in your food, metal folding chairs and a grouchy barman who insulted you as he overhcarged you; it was a monsoon drain that hadn't been cleaned for months and a toilet . . . located in the middle of the kitchen. . . ."
Paul Theroux used those words to decry Singapore's "too shiny and tacky" new hotels in his 1976 novel, "Saint Jack." Today it is hard to find such character traits anywhere in Singapore.
Ministry of Environment officials have herded most streetside food vendors into well-scrubbed "hawkers' centers," where weevils rarely tread. Metal folding chairs usually sport padded seats. Barmen labor under ubiquitous smiling posters that advise all Singaporeans to "make courtesy our way of life."
Garbage is collected in every part of this island republic's 220 square miles every day, including Sundays and public holidays. There is little left to clog monsoon drains or sewers.
And almost all of Singapore's 2.4 million people have access to private toilets adjacent to, rather than in the middle of, the kitchens in their government-subsidized apartment complexes.
In short, Singapore is an anomaly among seedy Southeast Asian capitals such as Bangkik and Jakarta; an oasis of rapid, steady development in a part of the world where neighboring countries lurch fitfully toward modernization.
It is described as " a testing ground for future Asia" by Hans Hofer, a German photographer who has lived here during Singapore's past decade of remarkable growth.
From a British colony and neglected way station for foreign sailors, Singapore has become an independent nation that is the commercial hub and financial capital of Southeast Asia and the world's fourth largest port. Between 1978 and 1979, its economic growth outpaced even South Korea and Taiwan as its gross national product increased 11.6 percent to $19.5 billion, or more than $4,000 per person.
The chief architect of Singapore's economic and physical transformation has been its prime minister, Lee Juan Yew, 57. In many ways Singapore personifies its leader, who appears young and vigorous.
Biographers describe Lee as a tireless worker with no hobbies except for an occasional round of golf.
Through 21 years in office, Lee never has been the subject of the kind of scandal and corruption stories that have tainted the successes of leaders in such neighboring countries as Indonesia and the Philippines. So foreign investors, able to conduct business without having to pay bribes and kickbacks, have flocked to Singapore with their nation-building capital.
Acquaintances also describe Lee as fastiduius in his attention to details, including trimmed nails, polished shoes, a bedroom cooled to precisely 66 degrees Fahrenheit, and a 72-degree office.
Government planners have not yet figured out how to control Singapore's sweltering equatorial heat, but they have produced a city-state considered the "cleanest and greenest" in Asia, if not the world. Manicured lawns and gardens border tree-lined avenues and heavy fines discourage strollers from littering the many esplanades.
But in his drive to propel Singapore into the ranks of the developed countries, Lee has leveled much of pre-1970 Singapore.
Old landmarks have given way to new ones so quickly that some residents complain about getting lost in their own city "because the road has changed direction," or "because there was a new building I had never seen before."
Even travelers who prefer a suite at the Holiday Inn to a Chinese hotel alive with the "character" preferred by Theroux have wondered whether, in its rush to modernization, Singapore has become a sterile city without a soul.
Neither religion nor tradition stands in the way of the bulldozers. Last year the redevelopment authority replaced an ancient Chinese temple with a community recreation center, despite angry protests from worshipers throughout Southeast Asia.
Only a worldwide outcry, including a pledge by a group of New Yorkers to buy it, saved the Raffles Hotel, the historic haunt of writers, from demolition. The government has designated it a national landmark.
Even so, pile drivers are rattling its wooden frame and the nerves if its guests. Private developers have begun construction of Raffles City, a combination office-shopping-apartment complex crowned by a gleaming 72-story hotel that will dwarf the stately, two-story Raffles.
Raffles Hotel manager Roberto Pregarz said he believes the government realizes the value of Singapore's landmarks and chooses to preserve rather than bury them. The 120-year-old Voctoria Theater recently has been restored in the heart of an area of buildings and churches that date to the last century.
On the other hand, Alex Josey, longtime press secretary to Lee Kuan Yew, said Singapore is better off without all but a few blocks of its picturesque Chinese shops.
"Those buildings may attract tourists and look quaint on the outside," he acknowledged, "but they are unsanitary and unsafe inside. Besides, Singaporeans would rather not be reminded of the poverty of their past under British rule."
When he first came to Singapore 35 years ago, Josey said, he visited rooms above some shops that housed as many as 60 people in six-foot cubicles without toilets or running water.
"It's better to tear down the shophouses, so the government has the room to continue its remarkable program of constructing public housing," Josey said.
Singaporeans have chosen to adapt, rather than change as completely as the change in their environment.
Critics of Lee's "utopia," however, accuse the prime minister of authoritarian rule.
The government maintains strict controls on the press. Television, movies and even videocassettes are strictly censored and newsstands are barred from selling Playboy. The film "Hair" has been banned, along with such songs as John Lennon's "Day in the Life," and Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." j
In addition, frequent government campaigns advise Singaporeans through television, newspapers and posters on how they should behave. An example was the crackdown on men with long hair in the early 1970s. A few signs picturing proper hair length and warnings that "Males with long hair will be attended to last" still decorate some government offices, although official attitudes have relaxed.
More recently, posters and ads have urged residents to speak Mandarin instead of native Chinese dialects, and to "be courteous."
Poster campaigns have become so much a part of life in Singapore that taxi driver Tan Peck Kwan took it upon himself to post his own set of rules for passengers. A list posted on the back of the front seat included:
Indicate early your precise alighting location.
Do not place wet articles on the cushoion.
Ask for plastic bag if you are likely to vomit.
Thank you. Happy traveling.