Kiasu in Singapore

Michael Backman
Age, Melbourne
31 May 2006

Kiasu is the term Singaporeans use to describe the unpleasant side of their culture. Acting in a kiasu manner means being greedy, unwilling to share and insensitive to others. Many Singaporeans feel this is a good description of the Government and its approach to power. The winner-take-all attitude is out of step with other nations.

No one can deny that Singapore is an easy place (although not necessarily a good place) to do business, compared with its neighbours.

Singapore scores highly on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index: it is ranked No. 5 of 158 countries. The Global Competitiveness Report ranks Singapore No. 6 of 117 economies.

The Government likes to broadcast these figures. But it doesn’t broadcast that it executes more people per head a year than almost anywhere else. Reporters Without Borders has Singapore No. 140 of 167 countries for media freedom.

It is as if Singapore is more a ruthless corporation than a country with a civil society, its people more employees than citizens, and its broadsheet, the Straits Times, more like a staff bulletin than a newspaper. As a Singaporean diplomat once told me, “We don’t have journalists in Singapore; only propagandists.”

Increasingly, people around the world are beginning to laugh at Singapore; they laugh at its Government’s petty and self-serving restrictions on what people can and cannot do. But in Singapore, many people are unaware of this because the Government-controlled media feed them a diet of only good news stories.

Race relations are often used as an excuse for restrictions. But Singapore has one of the most homogeneous race profiles in the world: 77 per cent are Chinese, the rest comprise Malays and Indians.

Singapore does not have the racial complexities of many countries.

The Maria Hertogh case is cited as an example of how Singapore is on the edge racially, and used to justify various restrictions. Rioting erupted among Malays after a court allowed a Dutch girl who was raised as a Muslim to be returned to her Catholic parents. This was 56 years ago.

No viable opposition has been allowed to form, and without robust national debate Singaporeans are becoming politically de-skilled.

Accordingly, the Government comprises plenty of ministers but few politicians, and there is little elegance to their art. They know only how to clobber: too often alternative viewpoints are responded to with public humiliation, threats, defamation writs and detention. Business should consider these aspects and not just competitiveness when assessing Singapore as a place for investment.

The Singapore Government hates people like me commenting on what it regards as its internal affairs. It hates it because foreigners cannot be controlled. But that does not stop the Singapore Government from intruding in the internal affairs of other countries.

Eddie Teo, Singapore’s new high commissioner to Australia, has written letters to the Age critical of my recent columns. This is the first time Mr Teo has lived outside Singapore in 35 years and no doubt he finds a free media refreshing.

In one letter, Mr Teo claimed Singapore’s defamation laws follow the English model. He is wrong. The British government does not sue opposition politicians so they are bankrupted and cannot run for parliament. If the British are to be blamed for Singapore’s laws, then they can be blamed for Singapore’s economic success. It was they who established Singapore as a free-trade port, which has made Singapore rich.

He says Singapore has a good legal system. That is true, but only compared with Indonesia, the Philippines, China and Thailand. Laws that have not had the benefit of open public debate and passage through a robust parliament are not really laws but decrees.

Rule of law becomes rule by law and many things are possible. Execution without a jury trial is one; torture is another.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, writing last month for the Open Democracy Foundation, describes how torture was used in Singapore in the 1980s. A group of young lawyers, Catholic aid workers and women playwrights were rounded up by Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) and detained without trial because they were suspects in an alleged Marxist conspiracy. They were not terrorists, they were political activists. The worst they seemed to have done was distribute Marxist literature.

They were deprived of sleep, doused with cold water and blasted with refrigerated air. The torture was not physical and left little evidence, which was its point. Instead, it was psychological and left what Robertson terms the Singapore scar.

The minister then responsible for the ISD was Lee Hsien Loong. He is now Singapore’s Prime Minister.

And who headed the ISD and Defence Ministry’s Security and Intelligence Division for much of the 1980s? Eddie Teo, Singapore’s high commissioner to Australia, the man who now enjoys our media freedoms, but who has spent much of his career denying Singaporeans similar freedoms. Some might regard that as kiasu.

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