BORN WHEN it broke from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore is still a young nation, and it is undergoing an adolescent growth spurt. Already the busiest container port in the world, with bank skyscrapers to rival Hong Kong's, the city-state has embarked on a building boom as it tries to diversify its economy to keep up with other Asian tigers. With a master plan to double Singapore's population from its current 4.2 million, the government of Lee Hsien Loong has been awarding land lots - many reclaimed from the Singapore Strait - at a dizzying clip. The growth is driven by a seeming national philosophy that there is no problem, geographic or social, so big that it can't be solved by good engineering.
Wealthy, industrious, and organized, Singapore is an urban planner's fantasy land. There are 63 separate islands in a land one-fourth the size of Rhode Island, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority has a plan for every one. New entertainment districts are cropping up in former warehouses along the Singapore River. Fifteen new hotels with 6,400 rooms will be constructed by 2010. The Singapore Flyer, the world's largest Ferris wheel, will begin operation on Valentine's Day. A new oceanarium on Sentosa Island, part of the planned Universal Studios casino and resort, also will be the largest in the world. The horizon is cluttered with building cranes. "We've gone from a fishing village to a world-class city in 40 years," boasts Rocson Chang, an assistant director at the Singapore Tourism Board.
Even more remarkable than the private development is investment from the public sector. Fully 85 percent of Singapore's residents live in government-subsidized public housing. With such a high percentage, any stigma melts away. True, the ultradense high-rises seem a bit sterile, and the units are tiny by American standards, but the price of a subsidized flat is a third what the same unit would cost in the private market, and the government also provides low-cost loans and mandatory savings plans (with a government match) to help with the down payment and mortgage.
The island nation imports essentially all of its resources, and is particularly short of water. So to accommodate growth, the state opened two "NEWater" plants in 2002. They use reverse osmosis membrane technology to purify municipal wastewater, and then return it to existing reservoirs. The NEWater is mostly for industrial use, but a group of US journalists visiting a public school were offered bottled NEWater to drink. (It's inoffensive if one doesn't dwell too much on the origin.) Also, a project to dam up Marina Bay to create another direly needed freshwater reservoir, at a cost of $159 million (in US dollars) will be completed in 2009.
Then there's public transportation. Last month the government announced a $14 billion project to add two new train lines and 30 stations to the Mass Rapid Transit system, for a peak waiting time of two minutes between trains. Despite its rapid growth, traffic jams are practically unknown in Singapore, at least in part because of congestion pricing schemes that roughly triple vehicle tolls during rush hours, and one-time car title fees that can cost more than the car itself.
The local joke is that Singapore is "a fine city" - it has fines for spitting, jaywalking, littering, and chewing gum (gum is not for sale anywhere in the country, nor is Playboy magazine). Homosexuality is still strictly illegal, though rarely prosecuted. Officials at the ministries of tourism and culture are excruciatingly aware that most foreigners view Singapore as an authoritarian state that canes its miscreants with barbed switches and sentences drug dealers to death by hanging. This is not a great inducement to the conventions and visitors Singapore wants to attract. So the rules have relaxed in certain entertainment districts. There was even a new Hooters restaurant open on Clarke Quay near our hotel; a dubious sign of progress, perhaps, but a sign nonetheless.
Commerce is one way to challenge Singapore's authoritarianism; fostering the arts is another. Singapore is pumping money into a series of excellent museums, concert spaces, and a new public school for gifted students. "We are moving from a cultural desert to a cultural oasis," said Sim Gim Guan, deputy secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Information Communication and the Arts. But the desire to modernize has run up against traditional curbs on free expression. The controversial Taiwan director Ang Lee's film "Lust . . . Caution" finally opened to audiences over 21 here, but only after a boycott and protests greeted last year's truncated version, cut by nine graphic minutes. Theater and other live performances must be reviewed by government censors before the show can go on.
The careful balance between freedom and order that is so prized in Singapore inevitably will be strained by its explosive growth. Even Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's strongman founder (and father of the current prime minister), admits that global forces will cause Singapore's values to change. When that tipping point comes, and how Singapore responds, is this educated nation's final exam.