Morals & Global Society: Let loose in Dubai, Button Up in Singapore?

Chinatown night, Singapore. Photo by e-chan.

Chinatown night, Singapore. Photo by e-chan.

SEOUL — WHEN A BRITISH COUPLE was arrested in July this year for having sex on a Dubai beach, it was perhaps not a symbol of the Islamic nation’s moral heavy-handedness. A recent New York Times piece by Michael Slackman, and an accompanying photo slideshow, paints the emirate as an honest place where people are left to their own devices — to go to the mosque, to drink beer, to dance, to hire prostitutes.

Two commenters (so far) on the the NYT’s Lede blog, which had a short post explaining the article, lauded this freedom as the reason Dubai has not given roots to terrorism, and credited the emirate for improving the image of Muslims.

Others were less than pleased:

Sorry to bust your idealism, but the “prostitute indicator” is NOT a measure of a society’s prosperity or progress.

Dubai had better start “cleaning” its streets of the prostitutes – and relegate the “open sex trade” way back into the shadows, IF it wants to remain an Islamic nation.

Rich and prosperous non-Muslim secular countries, like Singapore (which Dubai models itself after), have done as such, in the name of Asian values. It all falls back on how citizens want their country shaped, and what morals and values they deem important.

I’d like to know what the Dubai citizenry makes of this?

— Posted by LogicGirl

LogicGirl (and at least one similarly-minded commenter) may have a point, but her argument falls apart when it comes to Singapore. A 2006 podcast with the Times‘s correspondent in the city state reveals that while there might be laws against walking around your own apartment naked, Singapore is not as buttoned-up as it may seem. Prostitution is legal and regulated, with working girls (and presumably men) carrying identification cards to prove they’ve checked out in terms of HIV and other diseases.

Reporter Wayne Arnold says Singapore’s reforms have largely been driven by the same reasoning by which Dubai has chosen not to wield the stick of the Shari’a–because it wants to be a world player:

Singapore has taken some extraordinary steps to change its authoritarian image. The government has lifted restrictions on freedoms of speech and assembly. Entertainment laws have been revised to allow nightclubs and bars to stay open late. Casinos, once strictly forbidden, are now legal

Sims: What does Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, think about this remake that’s taking place there? Because he was probably singularly responsible for Singapore’s severe image.

Arnold: He has spoken about this quite a bit publicly in the last couple of years. And it’s no secret that I think at first he was hesitant — and his own biography speaks to this a little bit — I think he originally didn’t see a lot of need for this frivolity. Singapore was all about doing business and making sure things got done efficiently.

Sims: Mm-hmm.

Arnold: Now I think he admits that he may have erred on the side of severity, and he now agrees that as Singapore matures and it tries to attract new industries and become a major international city that Singapore will have to let its hair down.

[Edited 2008-09-26]

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