Photography by Joanne Leow, Robert Zhao Renhui, and Tan Pin Pin.
Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.”
—Charles Baudelaire, “L’invitation au voyage”
“We must expend our limited and slender resources [on these naturally superior individuals] in order that they will provide that yeast, that ferment, that catalyst in our society which alone will ensure that Singapore shall maintain its pre-eminent place in the societies that exist in South East Asia. . . .”
—Lee Kuan Yew, “National Day Speech,” August 1983
“Dystopia can look pretty beautiful in the world. Just because the world is corrupt inside, doesn’t mean it can’t be smoothed over and pretty. We wanted to find a version of dystopia that we hadn’t seen before”
—Jonathan Nolan, Vanity Fair
“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
—Westworld, various characters
As I watched the third season of the HBO series Westworld, my husband kept telling me to keep quiet. I couldn’t help it. Confined to the middle of the North American continent, in its vast, flat, and sparsely populated core, I was unable to stop articulating each moment and space of uncanny familiarity that I saw on the screen. It was my constant naming of locations that drove my beloved crazy. I called out the national art gallery masquerading as a bank, the waterfront park with a fictional helipad, the arts school as high-tech office building, the futuristic fifty-story public housing development festooned with sky parks, the mass rapid transit station with its sharply architectural lines—all the perfectly clipped and landscaped vistas that Singapore offers up.
The city-state of my birth was rearranged on screen; its locations subtly adjusted to represent something else with a disorienting dream logic. As I watched this alchemy, I knew my vision was doubled. I saw the sleek fiction of a glossy, dystopian world with its flawless android skin and futuristic architecture and vehicles. Simultaneously I was immersed in a synesthetic memory of warm tropical nights in the ever-changing city-state. I struggle to describe it to those who have never visited. I try to explain how it’s layered with the repressive, mundane, and absurd, how it is always under construction. But perhaps it is a condition of those of us in the diaspora to always be in some form of doubleness, some mode of translation. Perhaps it is only that we feel this more acutely than those still living there. After all, Singapore has always been trying to perform some version of itself, some interpretation that would attract money, capital, labor, tourism, awards; recognition that would assuage its anxiety about its position in the world.
No surprise then the Singapore Tourism Board refused to acknowledge the irony in assisting with the filming of a show that casts the city as a beautiful dystopia. I watched the featurette of the cast who were roped into promoting the city as a tourist destination. I listened to their platitudes about food and architecture and noted how they stumbled over the production’s raison d’être in Singapore:
LUKE HEMSWORTH: “It’s a wonderful place and it parallels the future of Westworld really well. There’s this shiny exterior to everything, and there is a dark undercurrent as well.”
INTERVIEWER: “How did you think it played well into the Westworld scenario?”
HEMSWORTH: “Not that Singapore is like this but obviously the future of Westworld is glistening on the outside but underneath it is quite toxic.”
In another clip, the showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy lauded the “future” as depicted by Singapore and softened by the verdant greenery. A seemingly perfect metaphor for the clever art of camouflage that the city excels in. They praised its soft curves, decadent delights, and were captivated by its orderly, well-managed nature—yet part of the season stages a riot in a similar setting, hinting at the repressed impulses that run deep.
“It takes inconceivable amounts of work to keep this tropicality in check, to groom and shape the plants into submission. I try to comprehend the planning, the man hours, human time, and effort. I imagine the repetitive strain that must be part of that back-breaking crouching, cutting, weeding, trimming. And all in that increasing heat and humidity that makes you long for a burst of cool relief.”
Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing write about the phenomenon of “paramilitary gardening” in Singapore—of landscaping as a kind of urban warfare against the populace. Their essay begins with the photograph of masked workers, protecting themselves against the heat of and grass clippings, wielding electric scythes and cutters. Going to battle.
“The landscapers are in charge here. And in a very muscular way. This city-state has quiet literally been hacked from voracious equatorial forest; its geo-body has been ‘reclaimed’ from the sea, fogged and trimmed and cooled in submission.”
It takes inconceivable amounts of work to keep this tropicality in check, to groom and shape the plants into submission. I try to comprehend the planning, the man hours, human time, and effort. I imagine the repetitive strain that must be part of that back-breaking crouching, cutting, weeding, trimming. And all in that increasing heat and humidity that makes you long for a burst of cool relief.
I remember as well, Tan Pin Pin’s meditative film In Time to Come, which features her quiet, persistent gaze at the repetitions and rituals that make up the banal progress that we name as Singapore. In one scene, the camera does not flinch as workers dismember and cut down a forty-year-old banyan tree which was emblematic of the alternative arts venue that it sheltered. Members of the concerned public look on with grief and disbelief as limb by limb the enormous tree is taken apart before a section is loaded onto a vehicle to be perhaps revived at a later date. The tree had grown large and spontaneous, permanently damaging a building wall, harboring memories of the changes in the city.
· · ·
As for Westworld, I have to admit that I loved it. Loved seeing the glass, steel, concrete, neon, green onscreen. Loved almost feeling the warmth of that equatorial night. Loved the familiar made strange. In the first few episodes of the season, I was fine with understanding that Singapore was supposed to stand in for Los Angeles of the future. That this slick, American creation was employing the time-honored, if Orientalist, mode of using the exotic other as a cautionary yet seductive future.
So I was a little surprised when, in the middle of the season, the most distinctive elements of the city’s skyline featured as an exterior shot. The Esplanade, a “world-class art venue” destined to play host to the city’s globalized artistic aspirations. The dome lit gold, glowing almost smugly. The interior of the dome was some other luxe bar in Singapore, entirely different, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief (my husband bore the brunt of this). A sleight of hand.
MAEVE: “Another simulation? Well, this one’s a bit over the top.”
SERAC: “No, Maeve. This is Singapore.”
I almost whooped out loud. Singapore was finally playing herself. The season’s main plotline revolved around Engerraund Serac, a secretive, authoritarian figure who we find out has surrendered his voice to a supercomputer, an algorithm that seeks order and predictability for the human race at all costs. The parallels one might draw with the all-pervasive Master Plan in Singapore and its soft authoritarian government are dizzying. As I trawled the internet for images of Vincent Cassel, the actor who plays Serac, I hesitated on one that shows him all dressed in a light shade of cream. Where had I seen that carefully coiffed grey hair, their indomitable expression of power, that penchant for white clothing?
I am aware, of course, of the dangers of overreading. The acts of recognition that I was engaged in as I watched the show, naming the iconic buildings and vistas, led to a strange dissonance for me. One that I am assuming the showrunners were attempting to depict: that deep underlying sense of unease amidst all this luxury, order, and pleasure—an island the equivalent of the decadent but ordered fantasy that Charles Baudelaire describes in his invitation to a voyage: “There, all is order and beauty / luxury, peace, and pleasure.” His cynical poem, damning in its repetition of “Luxe, calme et volupté.”
· · ·
What underpins Singapore’s shiny success? In the show, the plight of those condemned to do menial work or petty crime is focalized through the character of Caleb, played by the American everyman Aaron Paul. Since the algorithms predict Caleb’s eventual suicide, he is discouraged from procreating. In the future depicted by Westworld, someone like him would never be socially mobile. Metaphorically, this is reflected in his physical mobility through Los Angeles/Singapore. Unlike the privileged class who navigate and view the city through helicopters, Caleb trawls the subway systems and back alleys of future Los Angeles. There are riots when those like him become enraged at their planned future that awaits them, or at least what the algorithm predicts.
In his study, “Eugenics on the Rise: A Report from Singapore,” C.K. Chan notes how “The Singapore technocracy . . . has repeatedly shown itself quite willing and capable of undertaking those measures which it believes to be in the long-term interest and viability of the system as a whole . . . the introduction of the eugenic measures, for the social planners, merely expresses a concern that the ‘quality’ of the Singaporean population measures up to the demands of an advanced, highly technological society.” Chan observes how the most famous articulation of these polices began in 1983, when Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew gave a controversial speech during the country’s annual National Day Rally. Archival footage shows a roomful of rapt attendees fanning themselves and melting in the tropical heat. In his characteristic pause-filled style, the old man makes his pronouncements on the dismal state of the reproductive rate of educated women. He calls for measures to suppress the birth rates of the lowly educated while finding ways to provide incentives for graduate women to settle down and marry while in their prime.
I think of the meticulous compilation of statistics that he uses to bolster his argument. The army of faceless civil servants that collected this data and extrapolated biopolitical policy from it. One of the campaigns to encourage more children results in a public ad campaign with slogans like “Why not reality? You could wait a lifetime for a dream?” and “Are you giving men the wrong idea?” I think about how control and planning extend into beds, bodies, hearts. How we are encouraged to relive and reproduce these loops of school, army, work, and family. The carefully planned housing-development-board estates with their town centers and amenities. The routes we take.
In the introduction to Teo You Yenn’s book This Is What Inequality Looks Like, she includes a hand-drawn diagram of the circumscribed world of her lower-income interviewees: the locations of market, post office, school, bank, and home are marked out with arrows denoting travel between these limited sites. She notes how their lives are confined to a radius of a few kilometers, unlike that of the middle- and upper class whose status symbols include frequent transnational tours and trips. Their lives are very much like those of the rich as depicted in Westworld, looking for the next thrill, the next expensive fix. Teo writes, “Mobility/immobility are lived realities as well as imagined states of being. They describe our everyday movements. And they shape how we think about where we have been and where we can still go.” She asks, “What of those who have, within the structure of this narrative, stood still?” And I think, what if they have been made to stand still? What if they have had all their lives decided for them and never thought to question the nature of their reality?
· · ·
Even as I watched an iteration of Singapore unfold onscreen, I grasped at another version online as the pandemic took hold. In this exceptional time, the vast inequalities of the system that I left have been clarified. At first lauded for its gold-standard pandemic control—the sleek city-state, as the one in Westworld where all seems modern, precise, and carefully curated—the island finally succumbed to its open secret: the immense underclass of foreign workers, the enforced poverty and apartheid-like living conditions that sustain the unsustainable.
In Singapore, migrant workers, whether employed in construction work or the never-ending tasks of domestic drudgery, eldercare, and childcare, are unable to achieve any other status in the country. They cannot marry a Singaporean, the women are deported if they opt to carry a pregnancy to term, they are subjected to intrusive medical examinations every year, and they are not afforded the protections of labor laws. The last time the foreign workers rioted in Singapore the state blamed it on public drunkenness, but we know it came from a realization of how little their lives meant to those exploiting them. The catalyst was the sight of one of their own, dead and pinned under a bus. The official report would later blame him for his own death. The alcohol was simply a salve, a balm, a way not to see.
So they quarantine tens of thousands of men. They mandate that the women stay in even on their hard-earned days off. I peer at the men’s living conditions through grainy online videos. I, like so many others, track the inadequate meals that are delivered to them in a country where it is possible to eat lavishly with rare and expensive ingredients shipped from any part of the world. There are stark photographs of plain rice, two pieces of curried okra and a small portion of indeterminate protein. Some of the men refuse to eat. Numerous others are sickened by the disease. They sleep fifteen to twenty to a room. Those who are ill are taken away, they do not return. One account describes how they are never told whether their tests are positive or negative. When some of them die of heart attacks, their deaths are not recorded as part of the toll from the virus. A column appears in the state newspaper, suggesting that they be housed on floating platforms to better maximize the value of the land. The police send in all-terrain autonomous robots to help maintain safe distancing in the dormitories. I cannot tell the difference between speculative fiction and reality anymore.
LIAM DEMPSEY JR.: “It almost looks like it makes sense from up here. All you see is the order of it, the plan.”
One of the central tropes in Westworld is to blur that classic binary between fantasy and reality, artifice and performance versus the real and the lived. Are the robots more human than human; are the humans much like subjects caught in simulated loops? Decades of a Master Plan for both inhabitants and urban planning in Singapore have produced a carefully calibrated social, political, and spatial order. A fiction and vision made material and camouflaged by imported greenery. Singapore’s relation to the unreal and artificial is no clearer than its now-ideal status for numerous photoshoots and luxe film sets. The state has always had this powerful need to be seen, to be recognized, to be part of a seamless, smooth, globalized cityscape and skyline.
The ways in which the show amalgamates downtown Los Angeles with Singapore, blending the two cities, and then adding previously imagined buildings that were never built—courtesy of the production designer Howard Cummings and the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels—points to how Singapore’s cityscape exists as aspirational fiction and fancy. I am reminded of the work of the photographer and conceptual artist Robert Zhao Renhui. His work, The Land Archive (Singapore 1925-2025) comprises numerous photographs that purport to be part of this fictional archive. His work archives a city that flickers between dream and reality. His composite images document the skyscrapers that seem to arise overnight, the instant trees, and the fertilized, manicured, tightly controlled greenery. Each of Zhao’s photographs is undated, miring the work in indeterminate time, the time of the simulation. Sand dunes appear in incongruous places, as do wild animals, massive, long-dead trees, hills that have little to do with the current topography of the island, a single human figure in a flood of water trying to extricate his motorcycle. The surreal, the illusory, the cautionary. One photograph entitled “View of Marina Bay Sands” is, as Zhao puts it, “a scene that will never happen” that is “a composite of two cities from Japan and the United Kingdom, two countries which have shaped how our island looks today.”
All of this land has never been ours, is stolen, occupied, carved out, and reclaimed—sand seized from the hills, the islands, the river deltas. In the face of patriotic songs, strict rules surrounding how and when flags can be displayed, and manufactured zeal, Zhao’s work asks difficult questions about Singapore’s ecological pasts and futures. How we take for granted all that we can see that often hides what we refuse to acknowledge. To face the complicated truth of this island in totality, with its missteps, contradictions, and paradoxes would be to truly recognize the labor, the hands that built all of this—convict labor, indentured labor, the dispensable bodies eaten up by the grinding machinery. Looking at a photograph like “View of Marina Bay Sands” sets our vision akilter, forces us out of a familiar view, breaks open the illusion of this city, built to impress, the country as backdrop.
I cannot return to the country of my birth. My father bluntly points out, on a blurry video call, that even if I wanted to return for a familial funeral or rite, the strict quarantine period that I would have to observe would mean that I would find myself belated, too late. But I can continue to watch the city as it is filtered through my screen, distorted, truth-telling, sometimes more immediate than I care for.
The digital images I peruse every day now are self-conscious of their depiction of the strange, the uncanny. All I have are these vistas, mediated through screens large and small. The sheen of neon lights on Thandie Newton’s face. The empty bus stops, with their alternate seats crossed out by duct tape. The tropical chic modernist architecture of the new downtown. The shin-deep wildness of the fields next to the orderly rows of flats. The gleaming, climate-controlled airport, with its rows and rows of luggage trolleys, its expanse, completely empty. The public parks patrolled by robot dogs. Communal spaces and seating designated by cordons and strips of duct tape. Barriers and regulations now made visible.
How many ways can one see one’s homeland? I hear that the construction sites have gone silent, the grass overgrown, the native flowers and plants returned, grown ankle deep, blossomed, taking back the space. I wish I could be there to see it.