Like most teenagers sent home early from college, I spent a vast majority of the quarantine period staring down the end of a barrel with the promise of never–ending boredom. In an effort to curtail those feelings, I decided to participate in the long–standing Generation Z tradition of putting off all impending work in favor of starting a new show. Critical acclaim and numerous over–enthusiastic tirades from my friends pushed me to start Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Though I began watching the show with a critical eye, I soon became enamored with its content and direction. Avatar has been lauded for its handling of serious topics and themes—it weaves issues like genocide, censorship, and authoritarianism, into overarching storylines of love, friendship, and family. Its political undertones have, unsurprisingly, led to a sharp resurgence in popularity, especially in the current climate. News outlets have pointed out the eerie similarities between moments in the show and news events: For instance, the government's constant reassurances of extremely low COVID rates in the U.S. are reminiscent of the censorship mantra used to shield the show's Earth Kingdom capital from news of the war raging outside—“There is no war in Ba Sing Se.”
For me, however, Ba Sing Se was somewhere else entirely.
I spent the majority of the pandemic confined to my family's home in Singapore—an urban utopia about 30 miles wide studded with manicured lawns and futuristic skyscrapers. Aerial shots of the city resemble a 90s fantasy of what 2030 would look like; and while flying cars remain amiss, here they wouldn’t be anachronistic. While civil rights infractions, political protests and rising infections rates plagued the U.S, my friends and I would sit around a restaurant table and discuss it as some sort of apocalypse a world away. At the time, Singapore was deemed the golden standard of how to handle the pandemic. After all, the country’s exposure to SARS in the 2000s had taught them the appropriate way to manage an outbreak.
It wasn’t until we went into lockdown on April 3rd that I realized just how flawed that perception was.
In a country where I could take a cab home at four in the morning with no fear of safety, where ant–littering is a harshly enforced regulation rather than an aphorism, and failure to wear a mask is punishable by imprisonment, it almost seems trite to complain at all. I had no doubt that the healthcare system would care for me if I happened to catch the virus. Everyone I knew had that same privilege.
The problem with that kind of phantasmagoric reality is that it's highly selective and often exclusive. As the rest of the country treated the virus like a war that raged far away, the virus proliferated amongst foreign workers living in cramped dormitories at the margins of the city. The rising number of cases eventually plunged the country into lockdown—and incited the government to quarantine migrant workers in unsanitary and crowded living spaces. The conditions of their confinement drew sharp criticism from Human Rights Watch, local NGOs reported an uptick in suicidal ideation amongst workers, as well as other troubling allegations, such as the abandonment of workers who had tested negative in isolated facilities.
In an NYT article, Megan Stack reported that with the advent of the virus, “the hardest truths of the city have been exposed.” However, that statement is wrong. These truths have always persisted. Singapore has a long history of treating its domestic workers as pawns in a game of economic growth rather than sentient human beings. A 2017 report by an independent consultancy Research Across Borders found that 60% of maids in the city had reported being exploited by their employers. In response, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower said the study was "misleading" and used an "overly simplistic interpretation of the International Labour Organisation's indicators of labor exploitation”.
"There is no war in Ba Sing Se."
Domestic workers, in total, make up 17% of Singapore’s total workforce. It's in no way hyperbolic to call them the backbone of the economy. Yet a governmental decision that allowed migrant worker dormitories to be built closer to residential areas in order to reduce density (and thus, the spread of the virus) prompted a slew of xenophobic comments online masked as "concerns for safety." All the while, citizens expressed their outrage at the killing of George Floyd miles away and condemned systemic racism in the United States.
"There is no war in Ba Sing Se."
This is only the tip of an extremely large, Titanic–esque iceberg. Foreign attention is often centered around Singapore’s draconian drug policies. The Misuse of Drugs bill outlines Singapore’s attitudes towards both offenders and traffickers, ranging from caning and imprisonment to capital punishment. The Singaporean government cites these policies as invaluable to keeping drug abuse and related crime rates low. The Central Narcotics Bureau’s page on cannabis use states in no unclear terms that permissive attitudes towards drug use “exact a high cost on society.”
However, I didn’t need to do any research to discern governmental attitudes towards drug abusers. In 10th grade, my school hosted two representatives from the CNB as part of anti–drug education. One of the representatives took an informal poll of the room, asking us how many of us didn’t believe in capital punishment. When around half of the auditorium raised their hands, he followed up with the following statement, “I myself have been responsible for the deaths of two people, and I sleep like a log every night.”
The representative went on to spend the next 30 minutes in that cold auditorium painting both drug abusers and traffickers as abhorrent, senseless menaces to society. That particular paradigm is not novel, and is encouraged by the government through various measures of propaganda. It completely ignores the systematic and institutional neglect that leads to drug–related offenses. Take the case of an elderly Singaporean Mr Lim Khee Khoon. After unexpectedly becoming financial caretaker of his disabled flatmate and facing unemployment, Khoon resorted to working as a drug courier to avoid destitution. He was sentenced to ten years of jail at 63 years old and was released early after he turned 70.
Sentiment towards the treatment of drug offenders may be up for debate, but data certainly isn’t. In an op–ed, Michael Teo notes his support of Singapore’s drug policy, citing information found in the World Drug Report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that Singapore had especially low drug usage (0.005%) in comparison to other developed nations. Teo also claimed the Singapore laws specifying the death penalty do not contravene international law. What he failed to mention was that data gathered by the UNODC is provided by governments themselves rather than being independently collected, indicating some level of fallibility. Singapore is unflinchingly vague in publishing its own data—they only provide numbers pertaining to “drug abusers” that come in contact with the health or criminal justice for drug treatment.
The UNODC estimates that the number of people who require such treatment is only 10% worldwide, which dramatically underestimates their figures regarding drug use. Moreover, the vast majority of United Nations bodies that interpret international law including the UN Human Rights Committee do not support mandates of capital punishment in response to drug–related offenses. And yet, Teo confidently concluded that “our tough stance against drugs has saved tens of thousands of lives from the drug menace”. Concurringly, 90% of Singaporeans agree that laws are effective in keeping Singapore drug–free.
"There is no war in Ba Sing Se."
A lot of this may be perceived as drivel from an ungrateful resident. But I want to be absolutely clear: I am truly grateful for the years I have spent in Singapore, and am aware that the country is a success story in obvious ways. It is still my home, despite all of its flaws. The problem, rather, is a denial of issues' existences altogether. There seems to be a ubiquitous perception of Singapore as a pinnacle of urban harmony. That's harmful and misleading. I am incredibly privileged to have lived happily there, but I’m unwilling to simply accept these issues as an addendum, because my privilege comes at the expense of so many others.
I, and so many others like myself, have been comfortable with the description of Singapore as a haven analogous to an ivory tower. It’s high time that we begin to look closer at the view. These lessons are universal: In the current climate, doing nothing is tantamount to being part of the problem. Privilege may be unavoidable, but ignorance certainly is—the war against reality in Singapore is far from over.