Singapore, Sweat, and Shopping Malls

Singapore, Sweat, and Shopping Malls

I was completely disoriented in Singapore. It was hot, which I expected. It was green and filled with carefully pruned trees that formed canopies over many roadways, which I hadn’t expected. And, the streets were lined with beautiful orchids and azaleas. I wasn’t prepared for such lushness, juxtaposed with high-rise after high-rise. Singapore was also squeakily clean, which is amazing, and just a little creepy, given the population density. This booming “Asian Tiger,” whose mascot is the MerLion - a lion head on the body of a fish - shimmers with energy, and it had me completely disoriented.

I was fortunately in the company of very good travel companions—Hakan Yesilova, editor of The FountainMagazine, Radhi al-Malbuk, Professor of Education at The University of Northern Iowa, and Professor Greg Barton, Professor of Political Science and Herb Faith Chair of Indonesian Studies at Monash University in Melbourne.  Greg has traveled to Singapore many times, and was a helpful interpreter for me. 

My companions are of course familiar with my work on shopping malls.  As we drove through the streets of Singapore, I couldn’t help but note the frequency of the shopping centers—which seemed to crop up every few blocks. Hakan first teased that I was “navigating Singapore by shopping malls.”  And Greg suggested, as if to exacerbate my discomfort, that “Singapore is basically one big shopping mall.” I couldn’t disagree with him.

The newest mall in town (completed in 2009) is Ion on Orchard Road.  It features luxury brands—Prada, Louis Vuitton, Giorgia Armani--and the web-site advertises the mall as the place “where it all comes together.”  Another slogan on the website?  “Envy has a new name.”  Ion is one of 19 malls on the roughly five- mile stretch of Orchard Road.  They target every possible demographic differentiator. 

Having seen this range of shopping options, I was able to calibrate my talk at Singapore Management University to what I expected to be a savvy audience of consumers.  I spoke on “Can the Media Be Moral?  Or, How Rethinking “Sacred Space” Might Reorient Media to Something Beyond Mere Market Values.”  My approach to this question was to suggest that media products operate within a “religion of the market.” This “religion” includes shopping malls as ersatz or neo-sacred places driven by “the desire to acquire.” 

It is no stunning insight that media products tend to replicate market values.  Less well-explored are the spiritual consequences of this process:  how various forms of media shape our perceptions of space and time.  At present, media operate by and large as if space was morally neutral, and freely colonize religious symbols and practices on behalf of consumption.  Malls are an obvious example; they’re a place “where it all comes together.”  Such unity was, once, the domain of God or the gods.

The point of my talk, then, was to encourage critical thinking about this “religion of the market” and its sacred spaces—which was also the point (of course) of my book Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces.  Once such critical distance was gained, one might both see actual or authentic sacred places for the actual value they offer, and integrate into the media constructive projects that proactive foster civil society. I recommended toward that end especially the deep ethical wisdom of our historic religious traditions, and notably the Sufi Islam of Fethullah Gulen. 

So when I showed the slide that identified a “neo-sacred space” associated with the religion of the market and its media values, I chose a picture of the Vivo City Shopping Mall in Singapore, which is near the Sentosa entertainment complex (which features a Universal Studios theme park and other such attractions)

 “I know this isn’t the most upscale mall in Singapore,” I said, “and I apologize for offending your good taste,” I joked.  Fortunately, the crowd of about 200—most of them students--laughed.  They also laughed when I showed the trailer from the documentary film in which I appear, Malls R Us, and asked: “recognize that guy?” when I first appeared on the screen.  And there were chuckles throughout, and heads nodding in affirmation.  Almost all of the students had laptops; a few were probably checking me out of facebook or amazon while I spoke, or, more likely, checking out what was going on with their friends.  The President and Dean of the University sat in the first row—minus computers--and stayed the duration of the panel.

In short, this was a group that knew their malls, and knew their media.  They  asked good questions.  The first wondered whether we need to attend less to the diversity that media reveals than to enduring commonalities.  A second question wondered whether the indigenous traditions of the world, such as the Amish, could coexist with market values, or whether that train has left the station and indigenous traditions must inevitably adapt or die.  A third question asked what we might do, practically, to produce decent media products and to hone consumer choices.  The final questioner inquired about social media and its political and spiritual impact.  These questions are playing themselves out not only in the limited forum of our panel in Singapore, but in the lived experience of everyday life around the globe, with consequences that impact us all.