Singapore’s free speech policy criticised

John Burton
Financial Times
23 Jan 06

The opening of a light-rail commuter station would be a routine event in most countries, but the inauguration of a suburban stop for Singapore’s MRT system last weekend drew attention because of its role in a growing debate about free speech.

Residents near the Buangkok station had been lobbying for more than two years for its opening after SBS Transit decided to mothball the already-built station because usage was expected to be low, and this would cause operating losses for the transport operator.

The visit of a government minister to the area last year provoked a cheeky protest, with cartoon cut-outs of a white elephant posted around the closed station greeting his arrival.

Singapore’s no-nonsense government took the matter seriously. The police launched an investigation to try to identify the culprits and issued a warning to local grassroots leaders.

The police still had their eye on the troublesome area even after the government decided to open the station. A plan by a group of female high-school students to help raise money for charity by selling white elephant T-shirts at the station’s inauguration ceremony was seen as a potentially subversive act.

The police warned the students that if they wore the T-shirts “en masse, it might be misconstrued by some as an offence” since Singapore bans protest demonstrations.

The students complied by not wearing the T-shirts, although they were allowed to sell them, and issued an apologetic statement saying: “We are in no way attempting to judge or condone the Buangkok MRT incident.”

Singapore’s approach towards public protests has been influenced by the old Chinese saying that “a single spark can start a prairie fire”, or what Catherine Lim, a local novelist and social critic, describes as the government’s “nip-in-the-bud-ism”.

The episode would appear to bolster claims by critics that Singapore still has far to go to achieve an open society that tolerates differing views.

The debate on free expression comes as concerns are being raised about whether political curbs will affect Singapore’s future economic competitiveness as it seeks to rebrand itself as a global centre for creativity and innovation.

The government of Lee Hsien Loong claims it is promoting increased political openness, but critics say the pace of change remains slow.

Ms Lim says in spite of the apparent economic success of Singapore’s alternative model to liberal democracy, it threatens to create a monolithic society that lacks the flexibility to handle new challenges.

“I’ve come to believe with a heavy heart that even if the government wanted to do something about it, Singaporeans are so used to the government making decisions for [them], any major change will be viewed with alarm,” she told a recent forum at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies in Singapore.

The issue of whether Singapore is being damaged by public apathy has been raised by a recent financial scandal at the city-state’s largest charity, the National Kidney Foundation, which enjoyed strong government support.

When several people alleged that funds were being misused, they were successfully sued for damages by T.T. Durai, the NKF head. The government failed to probe deeply into the allegations until a libel case filed by Mr Durai against a local newspaper led to a trial that revealed discrepancies in the charity’s management.

Critics have focused on the incident as an example of a lack of checks and balances in Singapore and the risks faced by whistleblowers.

Singapore also suffered a setback in its quest to become a regional educational centre when Britain’s University of Warwick decided not to open a branch campus in the city-state because of worries about academic and political freedom.[update:CNA]

Government officials say political openness should be seen in the context of good governance and not as an end in itself. Singapore should be “cautiously radical rather than ideologically revolutionary” on political freedom because of its multi-ethnic society, Vivian Balakrishnan, a former dissident turned government minister, told the ISEAS forum.

But George Soros, the US financier who is supporting global democracy initiatives, recently told a Singapore audience that countries lacking transparency and free debate faced the risk of a public backlash during economic turndowns. The warning comes as Singapore is suffering from increased social inequalities between rich and poor.

Although Mr Soros said Singapore was not an open society, it “is a prosperous society, and prosperity and open society go together. So I hope that Singapore will become an open society.”

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