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Amid bubble elevators and Raffles Hotel, Singapore hunts for a future

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The American tourists stopped in their tracks as they walked into Lucky Plaza.

''Hey, Frank, this is a mall,'' the woman exclaimed to her husband in disbelief. ''And just look at all these people.''

Frank had already noticed the people - a number of them had ricocheted off his back when he stopped to take in the view: an immense air-conditioned atrium five stories high filled with gleaming shops, its bubble elevators and escalators packed with Singaporeans doing their Christmas shopping.

Some of the shoppers were probably heading for the metro department store, where silver-suited shop assistants staff a computer that will help you pick your ideal gift for friend, lover, or enemy.

Computers are big this Christmas. A variety of home models are selling well. So is a kids' computer: ''Something your boy can practice on before he gets his Apple,'' a shop assistant explained.

And of course the old Singapore standbys - videos and designer clothes - are selling as well as usual.

Somehow this wasn't how Frank and his wife imagined Singapore when they planned their Far East tour.

What had they heard about Singapore before they came? ''Well, the Raffles,'' Frank's wife said, referring to the city's famous old colonial hotel, now slightly past its prime. Most tourists who come here from outside Southeast Asia are probably equally surprised: Instead of a quiet old colonial seaport they find a brash, modern, well-scrubbed, and highly successful island.

It's a tiny place - its population the size of Brooklyn, its land area that of Chicago.

And its annual average income - about $5,000 in US dollars - is so high that it has difficulty persuading some financial institutions that it should be considered a developing country.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his senior ministers started off their political lives as socialists. ''But over the years,'' an official said, ''ideological considerations have given way to more important ones - national survival.''

Survival is still a key issue as far as Lee Kuan Yew is concerned. The Kampuchea (Cambodia) question and growing Soviet influence in the region underline the area's potential for political instability.

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