Reform in Singapore? Don’t hold your breath

21 January 2004
Eric Ellis

On the surface, things have changed in Singapore, where even bawdy T-shirts are now openly on sale. Underneath, however, it looks like the same old story.

Singapore’s National Day Speechby the Prime Minister every August is usually a day reserved for self-congratulation and propaganda. But last year’s address by PM Goh Chok Tong was unusual, with a most peculiar anecdote. A sometimes awkward but likeable man, Goh told Singaporeans a story about how his heir apparent, Lee Hsien Loong, had once allegedly slapped a Cabinet colleague during a fit of rage. Goh said that of course it wasn’t true but it was the first time many puzzled Singaporeans had heard of the matter. That it came during a campaign to lighten the image of the remote Lee eldest son of Singapore’s de facto philosopher-king Lee Kuan Yew before he takes over as PM made it all the more peculiar in this virtual one-party state famed for leaving nothing to chance.

Anecdotes such as this, when uttered by dissidents and foreign media, are usually a one-way ticket to ruin in Singapore’s libel courts, where history shows the Lees have been very successful. But Singapore seems to have moved on. In airing the story even if to deny it had Goh committed a faux pas? Or was this a factional depth charge designed to slow the Lee juggernaut? Two months later, Lee gave an interview to Singapore’s government-controlled media saying it was his idea to
air the story.

Perhaps this is the much-hailed liberalisation that has allegedly swept Singapore under Goh. Lee fils is going out of his way to pledge he will continue to loosen the government’s omniscient grip. “Nanny should not look after everything all the time,” he told Singapore’s Harvard Club recently. “I have no doubt that our society must open up further.”

Singapore is soon to de-criminalise oral sex (are Singaporeans to assume no-one in their law-abiding government has ever been fellated?). Bungee jumping is now allowed, as is bartop dancing. One can also chew gum, for goodness sake, albeit with a prescribed medical reason for doing so. And there’s the discreet gay bars, such as Spartacus in industrial grey with a front door advising “Entry By The Rear.”

Sometimes the pudding seems over-egged. Near Orchard Road, a sweetly smiled vendor in her mid-20s plies T-shirts from a stall. There’s the obligatory “Singapore is a Fine City” the ubiquitous tee that lists in faux irony the various petty crimes one can be fined for here. But the rest of her selection is gobsmacking; one mimics the Starbucks coffee logo with the phrase “Starfucks”.

But we are in no sleazy back alley. This is one of those gleaming malls that give this city-state the not unwarranted reputation of being the only shopping centre with a United Nations seat. Perfect Singaporean families cranked out of the Lee Kuan Yew social cookie-cutter saunter past barely raising an eye.

Puerile? Unquestionably. Shocking? Ditto especially in one of the world’s most buttoned-down societies, which just happens to be Australia’s best friend in Asia. Why, this is the town that Peter Weir might have modelled The Truman Show on, with Ed Harris cast as Lee Kuan Yew. Or was it Sim City? Singapore’s metaphors are many, largely because there’s a ring of truth to them.

But that liberalisation is not much evident elsewhere. The media is as unchallenging as ever. Parliament is no vigorous debating chamber; there are just three opposition members in the 91-seat assembly.

Few dare to oppose the 45-year-ruling People’s Action Party, a tenure rivalling the Chinese, North Korean and Cuban communists. The government knows-best model of nation-building that Lee created in the 1960s seems little changed, with the Lee family in firm grip of key institutions and businesses. Lee Kuan Yew is chairman of the Government Investment Corporation, the country’s overseas investment arm with more than $US100bn ($130bn) in assets. His son is the GIC’s deputy chair and Finance Minister and chairman of the central bank and deputy prime minister. His wife, Ho Ching, is chief executive of Singapore’s other great investment anchor, Temasek Holdings, which is owned by her husband’s finance ministry. Temasek’s jewels are Singapore Airlines, South-East Asia’s biggest property and defence group Singapore Technologies (controller of Australia’s Australand group) and Singapore Telecom, which owns Australia’s Optus and is headed by another Lee son, Hsien Yang

The Singapore Inc establishment is quick to defend the appointments, pointing out that all Lees got their job on merit and there is no conflict of interest. If Singapore were Australia, Lee Hsien Loong would be Peter Costello, Ian Macfarlane, John Anderson and Nick Minchin all rolled into one, with his brother running Telstra and his wife heading, say, a BHP-News Corp-James Hardie-Boral-Patrick-Qantas combine. Even the zoo and Raffles Hotel come into the Lee family orbit.

When Lee junior takes over, which many consider will be this year, perhaps a more profound liberalisation challenge facing him is to unravel the network of these Singapore Inc government-linked companies that critics say are a dead weight on the economy and frustrate Singaporeans’ entrepreneurism.

And for popularity, snaffle himself one of those racy Orchard tees.

%d bloggers like this: