S’pore creates more space for fun, not civil society

Ivan Gan
2 September 2003

By the standards of this strait-laced city state, known for its no-nonsense approach to governance, revolutionary ways to loosening up have been underway in recent years.

A few years back, in a bid to encourage its citizens to ease up and have fun, the government of this country of more than 4 million people started to legalize a range of previously prohibited activities, ranging from foam parties to bungee jumping.

In August, the government gave the green light for pub patrons to dance on bar-tops, igniting the bar-top dancing craze across the city-state.

During the National Day Rally on August 17, Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said that increasingly, the government will adopt a mindset where everything is allowed unless we say it is not.

In the past, we operated largely on the principle that everything is not allowed unless we say it is. Now we will give greater room for experimentation, Goh said during the National Day Rally, held in conjunction with celebrations of Singapores 38th year of independence on August 9.

Baby steps

That experimentation has led to some changes in the social and entertainment scene. For instance, some pubs and discos located away from residential areas have been allowed to open for 24 hours. Before the new ruling in August, all nightspots had to close by 3 a.m.

That is welcome news to tourists and those who enjoy a night out.

As a form of entertainment, bar-top dancing will definitely bring more life to pubs in Singapore and allow patrons wider scope for enjoyment, said Rudy, a 40-year-old Caucasian tourist.

Bar-top dancing is symbolic. Some people say its a baby step, I dont think so. I think its a huge step. In the context of mindset change, its a huge step forward, said Dennis Foo, the operator of Devils Bar, in an interview with Channel News Asia, an Asian television news network based in Singapore.

But while these measures enhance the freedom of citizens by increasing the scope of their leisure activities, critics say these scratch but the surface and do little to address what really ails Singapore: the lack of civic participation in political, economic and social issues.

Public apathy is usually blamed for this, but it has also been nurtured over the decades, in large part by strict legislation on public speeches and gatherings as well as the formation of clubs and societies.

According to an editorial on the website of the Think Center, an independent, multipartisan political nongovernmental organization in Singapore, illiberal democratic practices are the main obstacles to taking ownership of this country.

Free speech

In a statement Saturday to mark the third year of the Speakers Cornera free-speech corner that has been slow to pick upthe Think Center urged Singaporeans to rethink their silent political culture.

The development of free speech is related to other freedoms like access to information, assembly and procession, it said, but these are discouraged by restrictive laws such as the Internal Security Act, Official Secrets Act, Undesirable Publications Act, Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act and Sedition Act.

How much longer will the people have to wait to have their rights to opinion, expression and peaceful assembly recognized? We need more than frivolous freedoms such as bar-top dancing and bungee jumping, Think Centers statement said.

Think Center also cites the Miscellaneous Offenses (Public Order and Nuisance) (Assemblies and Processions) Rules, which require any assembly of five or more persons in any public place to get a permit.

The Public Entertainment Act requires Singaporeans to apply for a license in order to make a public speech, although the constitution explicitly grants the freedom of speech, association and assembly to citizens.

The Societies Act does not allow civil groups or societies to engage in any form of political activity or their funds and premises to be used for any political purpose, unless they have approval from the Registry of Societies.

The last two acts are a legacy of the British colonial government, and have been retained in Singapores statutes after independence in 1965.

Top-down approach

Chee Soon Juan, an opposition politician from the Singapore Democratic Party, was jailed in 1999 and 2002 under the Public Entertainment Act for making public speeches against the ruling Peoples Action Party (PAP) without a license.

The PAP has had a monopoly on political power in Singapore since 1959, when the first parliamentary elections were held. It holds all but two of the seats in parliament.

The Singapore governments view that the constitutional right to freedom of speech and assembly is subject to parliamentary limitation and restrictions to safeguard national security or public order are consistent with the PAP leaderships winner-takes-all approach toward governance, Lily Zubaidah Rahim, a history lecturer with Australias University of Sydney wrote in the Bankok-based English-language daily The Nation.

Some acknowledge that the governments tight controls have grown deep roots and now inhibit the growth of civil society and an interest in public issues.

In Singapore, the government has been running everything. When it decides to give us more freedom, we lack the initiative to do things,
Raymond Tan, a 26-year-old graduate, lamented in an interview.

Still, the more open and more consultative style of Gohwho took over the premiership from Senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew in 1990has led to some changes, albeit slow and limited.

Under Goh, committees were formed in 1997 and 2002 to seek views from students, retirees, homemakers, professionals, on political, social and economic issues. However, they still reflect a top-down approach because cabinet ministers head both committees.

Future scene

If the government cuts down on the elaborate laws and regulations with regard to the formation of societies and public gatherings, it will lend impetus toward a thriving civil society, Martin Cheah, a 29-year-old undergraduate, said in an interview.

The future political scene, however, is not yet all clear with a leadership change coming up. Last month, Goh stated unequivocally that Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yews son, will be his successor before the next general elections in 2007.

It remains to be seen whether Lee Hsien Loong, commonly perceived as an unapproachable politician who takes a no-nonsense stance, will continue with Gohs steps toward some openness.

Benjamin Tang, an engineer, said: Deputy Prime Minister Lee will retain Gohs open style during the transitional phase of the leadership change, in order to minimize disruption. In the long run, however, he may evolve his own style.

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