Love my nanny: Singapore’s tongue-tied populace

Joshua Kurlantzick

Modeled on its prototype in London’s Hyde Park, Singapore’s heavily publicized new Speakers Corner opened for business last September. More than 100 local and foreign journalists thronged to Hong Lim Park to watch the landmark event. In this tiny Southeast Asian island country, where public speeches to more than five persons had long been prohibited, and where opposition politician Chee Soon Juan was jailed for attempting such a speech a year before, the government was now permitting citizens to assemble to speak and be heard. It seemed a significant change.

Yet, so far Speakers Corner has hardly become a forum for spirited political dialogue. On an average day in the park, an elderly man clambered atop his soapbox and railed at length–about how loudly a neighbor played his music. The spectators chatted among themselves and paid the speakers little heed. When the human rights activist James Gomez challenged the audience to debate, to ask questions, there was scarcely a ripple; several young Singaporeans asked Gomez if, under the law, they were allowed to pose questions.

The Speakers Corner experience is instructive: despite predictions that the city-state’s prosperity would foster political consciousness, it appears unlikely that real change in this direction is in Singapore’s near future. The experiment does show that the government, dominated by the People’s Action Party (PAP), realizes that Singapore must become somewhat freer and more innovative if it is to continue its heady run of economic growth. Like most instances of political change in Singapore, Speakers Corner was initiated by senior leaders (in response to pressures brought to bear by nongovernmental groups) and directed by high-level policymakers. The restrictions placed on speakers by the regime are an example of the familiar tactic of allowing limited liberalization while retaining tight control.

The tepid popular response suggests that, for the time being, most of Singapore’s 4 million people are either satisfied with the authoritarian government’s performance or have been ensconced in the island’s self-censoring, conformist cocoon for so long that they are incapable of change. There are a few signs of growing political awareness. The Internet has given rise to political discussion groups and satirical online magazines that poke fun at the PAP, and some controls on free expression have been lifted.

But unlike Spain in the 1970s, where an elite-led democratic transition was embraced by the populace, Singapore seems locked in place: the ruling party will only budge so far, and most Singaporeans are not ready to push. Contrary to recent reports of a “new Singapore,” it may take years before the most important determinant of political dominance, control of Parliament, is either ceded by or taken from the PAP.

The nanny state

Until recently, the idea that average Singaporeans might evolve into free political actors would have seemed ludicrous. Shortly after he became Singapore’s ruler in 1959, Lee Kuan Yew, who would dominate Singaporean politics for four decades, began consolidating his hold on power, intimidating political oppoenents and reminding Singaporeans that dissent must be crushed if they were to survive in a “Malay sea.” By the time Singapore split from Malaysia and became an independent state in 1965, Lee Kuan Yew was firmly in control.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Lee and the PAP used such emergency laws as the Internal Security Act and the Sedition Act to stifle political opponents and muzzle Singapore’s formerly vibrant press. Lee ordered the arrest of suspected leftists, such as Chia Thye Poh, who was jailed without trial for 32 years–under the sedition law, detainees did not have to be charged. The independent media were closed down or swallowed up by Singapore Press Holdings, a state-run company. In the compact city-state, where dissent could rarely remain anonymous, it was difficult to evade the ironclad rules. The government defended its actions by warning that Communists lurked in Singapore and by emphasizing the need for stability on a Chinese-majority island with a sizable Malay minority–and surrounded by Malay neighbors.

Having consolidated its hold, the PAP, which was synonymous with government, practiced sociopolitical engineering on a scale rarely seen. Singapore became known as the “nanny state.” In an attempt to dominate all aspects of personal life, the government exhorted Singaporeans to be nicer, to speak better English, not to chew gum. These campaigns were meant to nurture a united, diligent, and complacent populace. In a particularly disturbing experiment, bordering on eugenics, the government tried to encourage well-educated citizens to mate only with their counterparts. Harsh punishments, notably the caning administered in 1994 to an American teenager convicted of vandalism, were meted out to enforce conformity. Draconian measures were taken against drug dealers and illegal immigrants. Senior ministers also filed costly libel suits against troublemaking politicians, relying on a compliant judiciary to rule in favor of the government and thus bankrupt opposition leaders.

The state press lavished praise on these campaigns while glossing over negative news. The semi-official Straits Times failed to launch a comprehensive investigation of the disastrous 1997 crash on Silk Air, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, for example. (To its credit, the Times did a more thorough job of reporting on last fall’s crash of a Singapore Airlines jet in Taipei). Newspapers and television stations continually reminded their readers and viewers (who were prohibited from acquiring satellite television) that the government was making them rich and that internal dissent could only make them vulnerable to outside forces.

At the same time, the PAP’s efficient, graft-free, foresighted technocrats made Singapore into Asia’s greatest economic success story. Prosperity helped blunt Singaporeans’ political aspirations. State-run and government-linked companies like SingTel became major forces in the region through forceful management and by applying economies of scale. Singapore’s stability and infrastructure attracted multinationals to the island. By 1999, this former swampy backwater enjoyed a gross domestic product per capita of $27,870, more than twice that of Greece. Singapore was democratic, its leader insisted in the face of criticism, and its people were not interested in change.

“Every Singaporean matters”

Recently, however, the schoolmarmish ruling party has begun to loosen its hold, if ever so slightly. Lee Kuan Yew, now senior minister but still a key player in the PAP, and the current prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, realized in the wake of the Asian financial crisis that Singapore’s traditional government-managed, rigidly conservative economic system was no longer viable. “Asia needs to embrace the New Economy,” Lee told potential investors in San Francisco last spring, explaining that Singapore’s businesses must be more flexible, innovative, and technology-savvy if they are to remain competitive.

Singapore already possesses some of the attributes that evangels of globalization cite as crucial to success in this century. It has an English-speaking population, an excellent track record in training skilled scientists, and an advanced physical and electronic infrastructure. But a major ingredient is missing: years of “nanny state” propagandizing have produced a populace averse to risk and wholly lacking the sort of entrepreneurial free thinking that built Silicon Valley, Bangalore, and other information technology centers. As less developed countries began to steal lower-value industries from the city-state, Singapore has had to move into higher-value-added production; in 1998, a record 28,300 of Singapore’s workers–mostly in industries producing lower-value goods–lost their jobs.

As usual, the government stepped in. It established a $1 billion Technopreneurship Fund to help high-tech start-ups obtain initial funding. It revamped school curricula to emphasize problem solving and information technology over rote learning, requiring schools to devote 30 percent of teaching time to developing computer skills. It increased the number of foreign educators, consultants, and other professionals allowed into the country, and it began liberalizing and deregulating various sectors of the economy, beginning with telecommunications, banking, and insurance. Last June, the government announced plans to loosen its hold over the mass media market, exposing Singapore Press Holdings to limited competition.

But the government did not just dole out cash and give orders. Its leaders called for wider participation in decision making, heralding this new era of active citizenship with the slogan, “Every Singaporean Matters.” To back up its sloganeering, the regime launched what it called a “consultation exercise,” in which some 6,000 citizens were to provide feedback on its policies. Freer expression began to be permitted: some artists, journalists, and public speakers reported that notoriously tight government censors had eased up their controls.

Overblown excitement

This embrace of information technology, together with a livelier arts scene and limited competition in the media market, led to articles in the foreign press touting the island-state’s elan, implying that this newfound vibrancy would translate into political liberalization.

The excitement was overblown. Virtually all recent liberalizing moves were conceived, proposed, and adopted by a small ruling elite within the PAP, independent of popular political pressure. Unlike in South Korea, where striking laborers in Seoul forced their government to allow union leaders a voice in the dismantling of the giant chaebol corporations, in Singapore the government took responsibility for retraining unemployed workers. Although some have found new jobs, wage inequality is growing. Unlike in Thailand, where nongovernmental organizations led the fight for a reformist, more inclusive constitution (which was adopted in 1997), in Singapore, the government decreed how and at what pace the regime would consult the public. “After changes are made by the government, then the PAP looks for feedback, like a company passing out customer surveys,” a Singaporean academic remarks. “By then, the changes are already firmly implanted.”

Moreover, the changes in education, the arts, and the economy that have been implemented have had little effect on the status quo. Citizens may be permitted to speak in Hong Lim Park, but microphones are not allowed. Speakers cannot discuss sensitive issues of race or religion. People who stand up to speak have their names filed with the police for five years. The Internal Security Act remains on the books and can be used against anyone suspected of “threatening national security”; Singapore retains the right to detain dissidents without trial. All these restrictions mock the principles implicit in a Speakers Corner. Away from the park, public speaking to an audience of more than five people is still not allowed. One activist notes that mainland Chinese students recently staged a demonstration in front of an embassy in Singapore, exercising a right granted to citizens of a communist state, but denied to Singaporeans, who allegedly live in a democratic country.

The local news media provide another example of how the faade of change conceals little substantive progress. The government, one commentator says in confidence, “is happy to tolerate public discussion over various ways to achieve its goals but appears to detest local media championing alternative agendas.” 4 Singapore Press Holdings does face competition, but it is a limp rivalry–its competitor has a meager press run and is managed by a consortium linked to the ruling party. Meanwhile, foreign shareholding in local media companies is limited to 3 percent, and the Singaporean media are prohibited from employing foreigners to cover politics within the city-state. Consequently, the Straits Times and other local media sanitize their reportage. Recently, the Times barely mentioned a visit to Singapore by Martin Lee, a prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy legislator.

In some respects the PAP has actually has tightened its grip on power–all the while vowing that “every Singaporean matters.” Last year, the government passed the Political Donations Act, under which anyone who donates more than $3,300 to a party must be publicly identified. Leaders of Singapore’s opposition parties, already largely ignored by the media and bankrupted by the PAP’s suits against them, fear that this measure will wipe out their limited funding. Singaporeans, they argue, will have no problem being identified as PAP donors but would not want to be known as opposition supporters. New laws regarding electoral constituencies also handcuff the opposition.

The government has altered the boundaries of election districts and changed most single-seat constituencies into group representational constituencies (GRCs) of three, four, five, or six parliamentary seats, meaning that the party with a plurality wins all the seats. Each GRC must contain at least one non-Chinese candidate. 5 This change has made it more difficult for opposition parties, all of which have very limited memberships, to fill multimember candidate lists, especially when one member must be an ethnic minority. In the most recent election, the PAP won 65 percent of the vote but took 81 of 83 seats in Parliament. Moreover, the PAP has assumed a dynastic cast, as Lee Kuan Yew prepares the way for his son, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to take over the reins of power after the next electoral cycle.

Keeping quiet

Not only is it a mistake to assume that Singapore’s economic opening will lead to political freedoms, it is also a mistake to believe there is necessarily a popular desire for greater liberalization. If the government opened up speakers corners all over the island, would anyone stand up and speak? Not anytime soon. Outsiders assume that Singaporeans chafe under the rule of the PAP’s soft authoritarianism, but one leading Southeast Asia specialist disagrees: “Tough but fair government epitomized by the PAP is exactly what most Singaporeans want, especially as the events since 1997 confirm their government’s incessant warnings that Singapore lives in a tough neighborhood.” 6 Though some surveys show that Singaporeans want to be consulted on key government decisions, a recent poll by the Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao revealed that nine out of ten Singaporeans would not disagree in public with the government’s policies, even if they believed them to be flawed.

The poll is hardly the only evidence that most Singaporeans are apathetic. Although several activists emphasize that Speakers Corner is an important victory–“Once rights are obtained, they cannot be abrogated,” one said–attendance at the Corner has plummeted. Few people talk about politics, and no one protests the rules limiting speech. Forums on freedom of expression and politics in Singapore draw decent, but not huge, crowds. Few Singaporeans have any understanding of their constitutional rights, one leading lawyer complains. 7 The heads of several nongovernmental organizations report that at regional conferences on political issues or even relatively nonpolitical topics such as HIV, Singaporeans are by far the most timid Southeast Asians, frequently refusing to make comments that might appear in conference records.

There is still a deep reservoir of gratitude for the PAP, especially among older Singaporeans who remember when the island was an underdeveloped swamp, and the city-state has weathered the Asian financial crisis relatively well–GDP grew 10.2 percent in the third quarter of 2000. The government’s mass society campaigns have been effective in convincing citizens that there is no need for a vibrant civil society. Consequently, Singaporean civil society today is fragmented and weak, and many Singaporeans still tend to believe that national interest should take precedence over community or individual interests. That the government is allowing limited free speech in the Corner attests to how strongly it believes it still has the population under its sway. And, the government’s ability to co-opt virtually every key issue means that opposition parties can only run on one platform–simply that they oppose the government.

The cleverly packaged media monopoly sold to the public means that most Singaporeans receive only one set of views. In places like Burma, the domestic media are so atrocious that people seek out alternative outlets of information. But Singaporeans appear to be content with the Straits Times, which has lively sports, arts, and foreign coverage. The lack of competition in information gathering and reporting has created a culture in which even the innocuous details are heavily guarded. In comparison to the United States, where people who are placed on dot-com companies’ lists of potential advertisees inevitably receive junk email touting this or that new dot-com, in Singapore, foreign computer experts complain that they cannot even persuade some Internet companies to put out press releases detailing their corporate plans. Recent polls taken by opposition groups showed that, among eight Southeast Asian states, the only country where it was harder to obtain information about the government was Burma, which is ruled by a ruthless military junta.

Outgrowing the nanny

Not all Singaporeans are apathetic. The Internet, to which more than half of the populace has access, has made it easier for residents to read foreign reporting, allows Singaporean pro-democracy sympathizers to contact exiled dissidents, and serves as a cheap promotional tool for the few citizens’ groups dealing with political issues. The Web also has been a catalyst for the formation of online discussion groups and magazines, such as Talking Cock, a satire-heavy Web magazine that frequently needles the PAP. (Tellingly, Cock’s writers use pseudonyms.) In some cases, websites that began as general-interest sites in Singapore, such as, have begun exploring more explicitly political themes. Sintercom’s less biased commentary on local political affairs may have had a positive effect on the Straits Times, which in recent months has been more outspoken. “A good many Singaporeans will choke…on revelations of million-dollar Cabinet ministers,” the paper said in a recent editorial on the government’s move to raise annual cabinet pay as high as 1.7 million Singapore dollars (U.S. $1.02 million), the highest in the world. 8 Yet readership of online political discussion groups remains relatively limited.

In other small ways, some Singaporeans have tried to push the political door open wider. Plays like Ong Keng Sen’s Desdemona explore such sensitive themes as race, Singapore’s sterility, and even some aspects of politics. James Gomez and his supporters have launched the print magazine Shame, which Gomez has said will introduce competing political ideas onto the scene. And the fact that opposition politician Chee Soon Juan could draw roughly 600 listeners the last time he made a public speech shows that at least some Singaporeans are interested in hearing a variety of political ideas.

Still, it will be some time before the island develops a vigorous civil society, or a truly representative parliament elected in an open, unbiased atmosphere. Apathy and self-censorship may take a generation to overcome. The PAP’s subtle but rigid controls remain in place, the government has proved effective at recognizing its mistakes, the economy continues to perform, community ideals remain strong, and the idea that the Internet is a viable political tool remains unproven. Speakers Corner, though a step toward greater freedom, was initiated by the government and has not triggered much popular response. In one widely reported episode, when the British Broadcasting Corporation came to film the Corner, nobody turned up to speak.

Ultimately, a significant loosening up is likely to be precipitated by the ruling party only if Singapore’s growth stalls or a major misstep by the government finally forces people to become more politically active. Some pundits thought that the ministers’ salary raise might have been such a mistake, but the government backed off, and the furor over that issue has subsided.

More likely, the PAP’s inability to address the country’s widening income gap–the richest 20 percent of Singaporeans now make 18 times more than what the poorest 20 percent earn–could finally puncture the ruling party’s aura of invincibility. But the government has launched a major initiative to reduce income disparity, just in time for the next national elections, due in mid-2002. Will the PAP finally lose its grip on power? Don’t bet on it.

Joshua Kurlantzick is the Bangkok correspondent for Agence France-Presse. This article was made possible by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

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