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Singapore considers putting the brake on break-dancing

By Chris PritchardSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 1984


It was Saturday night in Singapore, and 3,000 kids were boogieing in the street. Their break-dancing created a colossal traffic jam on Orchard Road, one of Singapore's major streets, a steel-and-glass tourist strip of high-rise hotels and shopping malls. The police gently broke up the crowd, using yells and shoves rather than clubs.

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Until recently, street kids in Singapore - a crowded, highly productive, and upwardly mobile Southeast Asian city-nation - have not been a common phenomenon. But occurrences like that on Orchard Road have raised questions about how young people can let off steam in this highly disciplined society.

The policemen's subdued response during the traffic jam received approval from officials and politicians questioned by the news media. Newspapers - all are, in the main, pro-government - agreed the youngsters should be left alone since no one had any constructive alternatives.

In the past 15 years, Singapore has done the impossible. Open sewers - typical of many developing countries - were closed and sanitized, no longer smelling under the noses of crowds on the streets. Litter was no longer left lying in rotting piles. Jaywalkers were jolted out of their habit through $200 fines. Traffic was kept flowing through restricted zones where only those prepared to pay could drive.

Comparisons with easygoing Hong Kong were frequently drawn. Singapore came out on top - and fragrant. A Hong Kong restaurant owner may leave piles of trash outside his eating house at closing time, but his Singapore equivalent wouldn't dare.

So clean are the streets that authorities noticed blobs of discarded chewing gum stuck to the pavement. For a while a nationwide ban on chewing gum was contemplated. But accusations of overkill have so far caused the proposal to be shelved.

So, should break-dancing be banned?

The bottom line appears to be that the kids should be allowed to break-dance. But a niggling doubt persists among older Singaporeans: Is all this frivolity eroding the single-minded work ethic which spurred Singapore's quick development?

The youth of the 1960s and '70s had little chance for escapism. Those were decades of tireless labor required for development. Singaporeans are accustomed to discipline, even if some of the young may now rebel against it. Dropping a candy wrapper on the street rather than in a trash basket can bring a fine equal to $250.

But the government has thrown some carrots in with the sticks, using financial rewards to encourage particular policy directions.

For example, the government offers women who agree to be sterilized a cash reward and improved accommodation assistance for them and their families. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has noted that the educated have fewer children than the uneducated, and his government is trying to correct this imbalance by giving the poor incentives to have smaller families.