Brainwashed

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July 28th, 2011 Rrishi Raote

A washing machine ad from 1910A friend visiting from Singapore told me a story from real life that sounds to me like far-out escapist fiction. Here it is. One morning a few days after she — let’s call her Shobha — landed in this comically tiny island capitalist paradise, the washing machine in her house stopped working. Being Indian, Shobha girded her loins as she called the maintenance line, expecting the usual tussle with customer service. “Are you home?” said the man on the line. “Yes,” said Shobha, “but in half an hour I have to go to work.” “No problem, I’ll come now.” And he was there in eight minutes.

Maintenance Man checked the machine quickly and carefully, decided it would have to be changed, and phoned an associate. Fifteen minutes later the new machine had been delivered, installed, checked and explained, and the malfunctioning one taken away. A brief thank-you not involving cash, and Maintenance Man and his crew were gone. Shobha left home on time, but mildly discombobulated at the ease and pace of service.

True story!

I was gritting my teeth and thinking of lucky Shobha as my own family in Delhi struggled with the AC company that made and is supposed to maintain our home ACs, and its idiotic, rude and venal employees. At different times, this split unit has leaked, rattled, banged, stunk, disagreed with its own remote control and, most recently, the rotating fan on its indoor unit has fallen off. (Really.) Like a fool I allowed the repairmen, who arrived days later and at the wrong time, to take away the old fan to compare for a new part — and now it’s gone and the company claims nobody took any part and that anyway spare parts are no longer made for that AC, which was bought only in 2005. Yuck!

But Shobha, having lived now in Singapore for a while, has become pessimistic about the many conveniences of living in that authoritarian nation-state. New flats, she tells me, are often built without kitchens — because eating out is so cheap, wholesome and easy. Public transport is ridiculously easy — though to board a bus you must have exact change, as no change will be given you. The weather hardly ever changes — it is always warm and sweaty — but when there is rain then the TV and radio airwaves come alive not with monsoonal thrill but with complaints from Singaporeans about interrupted shopping.

Are they mad? Is all that convenience and cleanliness and rule-following mentally juvenilising?

Poor Singaporeans. They will need their unusually far-sighted and cynically ruthless leaders, because those leaders haven’t left them anything real to complain about. Singaporeans’ political instincts must have gone totally blunt.

Lucky us in India. Here, things are either terribly imperfect or lavishly paid for. So our political senses are in rude health. Our stupid rulers haven’t yet realised that the less their citizens have to complain about, the safer and more indispensable they can make themselves.

With one exception: the rulers of the city-state of Delhi, who are slowly, slowly, doing a Singapore on their middle-class citizens. No wonder Sheila Dikshit has the safest chief ministerial seat in the country.

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5 Responses to “Brainwashed”

  1. Rrishi Raote Says:

    Thanks, S Banerjee. On crime, sure, safe is infinitely better than sorry. But I still wonder /why/ Singapore homeowners feel so unsafe.

    You sound like you live in Singapore, or have spent time there. Is there often, or regularly, or sporadically, local news about violent crime or theft from homes?

    Could there be a fear/vigilance mindset partly because the state has posters throughout the city saying “low crime is not no crime… be vigilant”?

    Could homeowners be thinking, sure, there are some dangerous people around, like the poor, or immigrants, or whoever, who want what I have and may hurt me to get it?

    And if so, how solid and stable, and equitable, can such a society really be?

    Not to make random comparisons or anything, but most small and similarly wealthy societes around the world are not so distrustful, nor does a carpenter in France, say — and France is rather poorer than Singapore — have to register with the local police station to do a job in someone’s home. The very idea would be bizarre, there.

    Eager to hear what you think.

    And on the political paycheques issue: doesn’t it strike you as interesting that Singapore’s parliamentarians are not politicians but ex-corporate leaders? You may say it assures competence (and cuts corruption), but what state in the world is really comparable to a commercial corporation? And why should one expect ex-corporate bosses to be better at representative politics than career politicians?

    Don’t get me wrong, many things about Singapore make it sound like a certain kind of delightful dream. But does one have to be asleep to be there?

  2. S Banerjee Says:

    (a) Ah no, Rrishi..I don’t look at it from that point of view… the police check prevents misrepresentations /thefts like the one which happened in your parent’s place…when I open the door to a stranger, I am assured I am safe..
    (b) There are posters through out the city which states low crime is not no crime… be vigilant.. the way I look at it, it is this constant vigilance which brings about low crime.. there will be always two sides to everything… the positive over here I think outweighs the negative ..
    (c) The country is indeed run as a corporate team…understand ( all hearsay) that in order to be a minister, you must have run a profit making company or any organisation at a very senior level for a certain number of years to show u are capable of running your office… I like the emphasis on profit making… if you look at the ministers here, they are generally the best in the corporate field … also understand that the salary of the PM is something on lines of what he would have earned if he was the CEO of the most successful company in Sgp… here’s a link for the qualifications of the president of Sgp… look at the last point in it … Interestingly the president of Singapore is also voted to office… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/President_of_Singapore
    I can go on and on….

  3. Rrishi Raote Says:

    Phew, that really is terrific — I mean cleaning up after dusty work and apologising for long(ish) wait times, and well-run public libraries. Extremely jealous.

    But the anecdote about the carpenter needing police clearance is unsettling. It suggests that unless authority certifies something it isn’t OK. It suggests an abiding middle-class fear of violent crime or theft, in what is actually quite a safe city. Why are homeowners afraid? Several possible answers, among which: perhaps Singaporean society fears that it is in fact not equitable. The anecdote also rather undercuts the claim of innate civic virtue and good citizenship.

    As for things to complain about — when complaining becomes a hobby, and people comment with affectionate irony on their own habit of complaining, and on the other hand (this is just incredible) there are feel-good sections in the daily newspaper to “compliment” good Samaritans and companies on their CSR…

    Bizarre. It’s as if the country is run by a very fine corporate HR team.

  4. Shilpi Banerjee Says:

    Would love to share a couple of more things which I like about Singapore ( there is indeed a flip side too — am just pointing out things which are positive) ….
    (a) the technician mounting our tv on the wall first took out a polythene packet , he stuck one of its flaps ( something on lines of a post-it notes) to the wall. The other flap jutted out, making a pocket . When he drilled screws into the wall — the concrete dust fell neatly into the packet. Post job, he just took out the packet and threw it in the dustbin. So the house was more or less as clean as pre-job. In general, after each job, any technician will ask for a broom and the dustbin to clean the place and then leave.
    (b) When trucks exit a construction site, workers stop the traffic for some time and hose the road in front of the gate clean of the mud tracks left by the truck on the public road
    (c) Public libraries wherein issue and returns run almost automated. You can pick up a book in one library and drop it in another .. u have access to all libraries with the same smart card. If you are late in returning books, you will not be allowed to take fresh books without paying fine.
    (d) The carpenter who had a day’s job at our flat was delayed till he obtained a police clearance from the local police station, which he had to show to the condo security to gain permission to enter the condo and our flat.
    (e) A friend went to renew his visit pass. A lady official came to check out, very concerned, as the friend ( and others in the line) had been standing in q for almost 30 mins!!

    Aisa bhi hota hai!

  5. Shilpi Banerjee Says:

    You must be joking that Singaporeans have not been left with anything to complain about…. have a look at the local papers and you will see column comments about complaining being one of the pet Singaporean hobbies (in addition to shopping) … but must also add there is an entire section in Straits Times to compliment people who have helped the public .. and another weekly half a column which highlights social welfare acts/ initiatives rolled out by groups/ companies…

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