Summer in Singapore – it’s liberalisation time!

Read The Four Seasons of Singapore’s Politics

Singapore set for cultural liberalisation
John Burton
Financial Times
11 July 2003

Singapore had hoped its controversial operation this week to separate Laden and Laleh Bijani, the conjoined Iranian twins, would place it at the forefront of medical services.

Instead, the twins’ deaths on the operating table has raised ethical questions about whether the doctors were justified in undertaking the high-risk surgery.

But the tragedy has not deterred the city-state in its quest to be a global leader in service industries such as healthcare, media and education, as it seeks to revive a flagging economy and reduce its dependence on manufacturing.

In an effort to attract top-flight foreign talent for its service sector, staid Singapore wants to shed its 1950s image and become more like the swinging ’60s. Officials realise that an open, diverse environment is vital to compete against New York, London and Tokyo as an attractive site for the innovative and creative people needed for the growth of a knowledge-based economy.

The cultural revolution has moved into high gear this month. The government has dropped such petty rules as a ban against dancing on bar tops and will allow pubs to remain open all night.

A state committee, known as Remaking Singapore, is expected to issue a report today on cultural liberalisation, including easing censorship on cable TV that would allow the airing of such forbidden fare as the US series Sex and the City.

Goh Chok Tong, the prime minister, has disclosed that the government has quietly been hiring self-declared gays and lesbians for the civil service, in a society that has been seen as homophobic because of tough laws and strict censorship of gay themes in the arts.

Officials have cited a recent study by Richard Florida, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, that found the most gay-friendly cities in the US were also the most creative and prosperous ones, a conclusion that helped persuade the Singapore authorities to ease their attitude towards homosexuals.

Although Singapore has been consistently viewed as one of the world’s freest economies, it has maintained tight social controls. The long-ruling People’s Action party has been known for its puritanical zeal, reflecting what it says is the conservatism of its Confucian and Muslim populations.

When Lee Kuan Yew, modern Singapore’s founding father, became prime minister in 1959 he launched a campaign against “yellow culture”, the Chinese term for degenerate behaviour. Pornography, gambling dens and “decadent” songs were outlawed in the rowdy port city known in colonial times as “Sin-galore”.

Mr Lee decided not to outlaw prostitution because “we could not ban it without taking silly and ineffective action”. But bureaucrats since then have imposed trivial rules that often provoked ridicule about the “nanny state”.

Economic change has promoted the shift to cultural tolerance. Singapore has been losing manufacturing investment to China and other low-cost Asian countries.

It now sees its future in developing advanced service industries and acknowledges it must create a more sophisticated environment for them to flourish.