Singapore considers putting the brake on break-dancing

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.

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.

This has brought accusations of undesirable social manipulation from critics. But criticism has been exceedingly polite - in part because although Singapore is technically a democracy, the urbane Prime Minister Lee believes that a developing country's progress would be retarded if too many of its citizens devoted their energies to opposing government policies rather than contributing directly to economic advancement. When asked about this, he invariably suggests critics look at the results: In Singapore's thriving, multiracial society of almost 2.5 million people, the Chinese majority - 76 percent of the population - by and large does not discriminate against the 15 percent that is Malay, the 7 percent of Indian or Pakistani descent, or the 2 percent of other races.

This contrasts sharply with neighboring Malaysia, where a kind of affirmative action policy in education and employment helps the Malay majority catch up with the commercially dominant Chinese minority.

Government bears the strong imprint of Mr. Lee's personality. Nominally a socialist independence movement, his People's Action Party is involved in most areas of this capitalist society. It recently arranged a merger of companies publishing the ostensibly competing two English-language newspapers. These professional but largely uncritical dailies are now even more tightly controlled.

Singaporeans, by and large, seem satisfied. Surrendering some freedoms, they've won increasing financial prosperity that differs greatly from what they would face in most neighboring nations.

Singaporeans are free to travel and increasingly do so. (Young males are expected to be home when compulsory Singapore military service claims them, however.) And they live mainly in comfortable but small apartments - dozen upon dozens of vast concrete high-rises - often crammed with the latest gadgetry.

But the government senses a growing desire to criticize. A common complaint is that bright young technocrats, increasingly in official decisionmaking slots, have never experienced poverty and are, therefore, insensitive to the problems of the common man.

To head off criticism, government leaders have frequently called for a more vibrant opposition. But at a time of spectacularly weak opposition, one wonders how much of this is rhetoric. Few Singaporeans appear to believe organized and effective broad-based opposition would be tolerated.

Ong Teng Cheong, minister without portfolio and secretary-general of the powerful government-sanctioned National Trades Union Congress, lamented recently that criticism ''is fashionable today.... Now, even if the government is doing the right thing they (Singaporeans) pick up little things and criticize.''

The government, meanwhile, continues to act as a benevolent super-parent to the inhabitants of Singapore's 225 square miles. A few weeks ago, the Ministry of Health warned Singaporeans to shun a new beauty fad, tattoos on eyelids, because of a health risk.

And taxi-drivers were the target of a recent cleanup campaign. They were given small plastic bags and pamphlets advising that if they had to spit they should use the bags rather than open car windows.

While many Singaporeans profess irritation at such campaigns, they generally applaud the results.

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