Rigid order to lawless disorder

In Singapore, they'd likely as not line up our student "rioters" and shoot them - for the sheer effrontery. Failing that, give them 50 strokes or so of the rattan cane, until the skin lifted off their backs; or, at the very least, lock them up out of plain sight for a good long time.

You get the distinct impression that antisocial antics are simply not tolerated in this nation-sized shrine to courtesy and conformity, orderliness and efficiency.

Bad behaviour is off limits. Cleanliness is a prized virtue. You could shave in the reflection of the polished floor tiles in Changi Airport's arrivals hall. Not just spotless, but glistening, it almost demands that you remove your shoes to cross it.

There are severe penalties for littering. There are laws for, and against, practically everything. Possibly even five o'clock shadow.

Call me a traditionalist, or a brazen conformist, but not wanting to be arrested for being unkempt I had already taken precautions in the hotel bathroom. The floor-to-ceiling tiles would have the done the trick there, too, but out of habit I turned to the mirror.

Punctuality is prized. Our stopover hotel late check-out was 4pm: at 4.01pm the lift card and room key no longer worked. Our pick-up was due at 4.30: it arrived at 4.20, anxious for our immediate embarkation.

The streets outside were immaculate. The underground, in stark contrast to that in London and, to a lesser extent, Rome, was lick-spittle clean.

Everything worked; nothing was too much trouble. The air-conditioned lobbies of its hotels and malls vied with each other for business.

No-one put a word out of place or a step out of line. The city exuded a certain clinical charm which the searing heat and soaring humidity, the abundant flora, the eager food stall hawkers and, in Chinatown, the avid discounters of tat-cheap souvenirs, did their best to compromise. To little avail.

It would be a good place to send those of our errant student body, supposedly in the upper quartile of the country's intelligentsia, who seem to imagine that getting wasted, lighting street fires, taunting police and firemen, hurling bottles and abuse at the same and generally indulging in behaviour more often associated with retarded 13-year-old delinquents qualifies as some kind of badge of honour.

We are used to seeing images of such confrontations on our TV screens - from elsewhere. Frequently, they involve young people and students; often rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons.

Sometimes, the crowds are protesting about rigged elections; or the removal of some fundamental human right or other by an oppressive government; they might be marching to protest the fate of "disappeared" political prisoners; or denouncing globalisation; chanting in favour of the starving poor or against the wanton destruction of the environment by unscrupulous multinationals.

Our students - or that small percentage of them seen out on the streets of Dunedin at the weekend - it seems, have nothing better to be aroused by than boredom, and the alcohol-fuelled thrill of destroying property and antagonising authority: the facile adrenaline rush of vandalism and bad manners.

Arriving home to the city-sized hangover of the Undie 500 street "riots" - the ones beamed around the world doubtless to the bemusement of the millions watching ("Say, what were they protesting about?") - you got that sinking feeling.

How juvenile, how depressing. How the privileged few squander their entitlements, pee away their tax-free loans, and raise a big fat two-fingers to the city, the university and the vast majority of their fellow students who come to take advantage of an unrivalled education in this southern town of learning.

Quite frankly, it's pathetic. Worse, it's a slap in the face to all the hard won liberal-democratic traditions and entitlements we take for granted in this country.

Behind the attractive, sparkling facade of Singaporean glister, there are some deeply authoritarian and unattractive realities: the death penalty for drug smuggling, compromised freedoms of expression, a rigid social strata in which the comfort of the rich is in large part dependent upon the exploitation of the poor; the lack of any real social support for the least entitled in society - and so it goes on.

I know where I'd rather live: in this city with its many advantages. It's just exceedingly tiresome to come back and find that some of our much-vaunted student body are determined repeatedly to desecrate it.

They are in Dunedin to learn, but they seem determined not to. Perhaps the worst offenders are in the wrong place. They should be helped along their way.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor of the Otago Daily Times.


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