US envoy slaps Singapore over freedom of speech

John Burton
Financial Times
14 Oct 05

The outgoing US ambassador to Singapore has criticised the city-state’s restrictions on free speech in a rare public rebuke by a US official of one of Washington’s closest Asian allies.

Ambassador Frank Levin said Singapore’s 20th-century political model may prove inadequate for the 21st century, warning that the government “will pay an increasing price for not allowing full participation of its citizens.”

The ambassador told an audience at a farewell dinner that he was “embarrassed” when police asked him if he wanted to press charges against six demonstrators protesting the Iraq war in front of the US embassy in 2003. Singapore bans demonstrations of five or more people.

“I said ‘no.’ I mean, go ahead, hold the signs and say something if you want to,” said Mr Lavin, who will become under-secretary for international trade at the US Commerce Department.

Mr Levin said it was “surprising to find constraints on discussions here” given Singapore’s strong international links in the economic sector. “In this era of Weblogs and Webcams, how much sense does it make to limit political expression?”

Singapore’s one-party political dominance provides “enormous strengths,” such as “very high quality leadership,” but it also has weaknesses since “the lack of open and vigorous debates might reduce a government’s popularity if it doesn’t let ideas or views be properly aired.”

Lee Hsien Loong, the Singapore prime minister, said last week that he did not believe that Singapore should adopt an “idealised form” of liberal democracy, explaining it was unsuitable for the country.

US-Singapore ties have strengthened during Mr Lavin’s four-year tenure as ambassador, including the signing of bilateral free-trade agreement and a new security framework that might lead to an increased US military presence in the city-state.

Recent US ambassadors to Singapore, including Mr Lavin, have normally been highly supportive in their comments on Singapore. Mr Lavin’s predecessor, Steven Green, left his post to become head of a Singapore-listed venture capital fund and was appointed a special advisor to the Singapore government and its honorary consul-general in Miami.

But Patricia Herbold, Mr Lavin’s successor, has suggested that the Bush administration might be preparing to take a tougher line on Singapore’s human rights record.

Ms Herbold, a lawyer and Republican fundraiser, told a US Senate hearing on her confirmation that she would continue a dialogue that Washington has with Singapore regarding the openness of its society and its political system.

US-Singapore relations have improved steadily since late 1980s, when Singapore accused the US of interfering in its internal affairs by alleging that the US embassy had secretly provided financial support to an opposition politician.

At the time, Singapore relaxed its ban on demonstrations and allowed a large protest rally to take place in front of the US embassy.

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