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All Work and No Play Makes for a Dull Singaporean, New Prime Minister Decides

ASSOCIATED PRESS

After decades of focusing on work and building the economy, Singapore is becoming serious about having fun.

Nothing frivolous, of course, but Goh Chok Tong, the new prime minister, has promised a lighter approach. Goh, 49, took over when Lee Kuan Yew stepped aside in November after 31 authoritarian years.

Lee made no excuses for the lack of municipal merriment in his clean, prosperous city-state, but approved carefully patrolled street festivals beginning two years ago. They have become institutionalized, with part of one main street closed an evening each month for a mass party.

The biggest of these bashes attracts about 250,000 people from a population of only 2.7 million.

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“We have got to find new ways of expressing ourselves, and this is not only harmless, it may well do us good,” Lee acknowledged.

Singapore also has discovered that fun is good for business.

“It is not just to have fun, it is also because fun products sell better,” George Yeo said. “To create fun products, we need fun people, fun events and fun places.”

Yeo recently was appointed acting Cabinet minister in charge of information and the arts.

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“It may seem odd, but we have to pursue this subject of fun very seriously if we want to stay competitive in the 21st Century,” he said. Life should be effervescent, Yeo declared, with “more bubbles in the Singapore champagne.”

Creative services will become very important in economic development, and the right milieu is needed to attract creative people, Yeo said: “In a paradoxical way, fun is serious business.”

In trying to recapture the zest of old Singapore for tourists who complain that the night life is boring, the government is rebuilding Bugis Street.

A raffish neighborhood that contrasted with the rest of this squeaky clean place, Bugis Street attracted drunk soldiers and sailors, transsexuals and other all-night revelers. It was bulldozed out of existence five years ago to make way for a subway station.

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For decades, there was nothing remotely like it in Singapore. The ambience included hundreds of food stalls, touts and small-time con artists, souvenir peddlers, palm readers and pimps.

Bugis Street became naturally seedy over the years, but the copy is a $7.2 million-project sanctioned by the Tourist Promotion Board.

In addition to encouraging more fun, officials are determined to shed the country’s reputation as a cultural desert and help citizens develop three-dimensional personalities. The new prime minister wants them to be educated, compassionate, gracious and socially confident.

The 3-D Singaporean is to be fully operational and contributing to a “culturally vibrant society” by 1999, by the government’s timetable.

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Since that target was set six years ago, millions of dollars have been provided for the arts, spending on a scale unprecedented in the 25 years since independence from Britain.

By trying to generate more fun, younger political leaders hope to attract a new generation, said Chan Heng See, Singapore’s U.N. ambassador. Younger voters did not readily accept the idea of a successful, efficient, hard-working, boring society of conformist, rigid, overly disciplined people.


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