Singapore’s social contract under strain

John Burton
Financial Times

When Today, a state-owned newspaper, recently published a satirical article by a popular internet blogger known as Mr Brown, the Singapore government was not amused.

The information ministry sent a sharp letter saying his views could undermine national stability. The editors quickly decided to suspend Mr Brown’s regular column indefinitely.

The incident appeared to contradict promises by Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, to promote more political discussion in the tightly ruled city-state. “We are building a more open society and encouraging freer debate,” he claimed in a National Day speech last week.

The reason the offending column hit a raw nerve was that it complained about the rising cost of living when the income gap is widening.

The social contract under which Singaporeans gave up certain civil liberties in return for prosperity is under threat.

There are other signs of official nervousness. New conditions for the circulation of foreign publications were recently imposed. Singapore banned outdoor demonstrations by international non-governmental organisations during next month’s IMF/World Bank annual meeting. And Dr Chee Soon Juan, a leading opposition leader, is being tried for alleged defamation against top government leaders and speaking in public without a police permit.

The moves come after the long-ruling People’s Action party suffered an 8-percentage-point drop in support during May’s general election, which focused on widening income disparity.

Shortly after the election, the government revealed that the income gap was bigger than at any time since independence in 1965. The bottom 30 per cent of households have seen incomes fall since 2000.

Singapore’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, places the city state at 105th in the world, between Papua New Guinea and Argentina, based on data from the latest United Nations Development Programme report.

“A two-speed, dual economy appears to be emerging in Singapore,” said Citigroup.

“Globalisation, for a small open economy, may be having a disproportionately large impact.”

The government has allowed some forms of freer expression, particularly in terms of theatre performances because they attract a small audience.

The recent Singapore Theatre Festival included several plays that were critical of the political and social climate.

“The younger generation of journalists is trying to challenge the government and push the envelope on what it can report,” said a senior editor with Singapore Press Holdings, which publishes most of the local newspapers.

But the government is pushing back, warning journalists not to overstep what it calls “out-of-bounds markers.”

The information ministry said Mr Brown was “exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the government’s standing with the electorate,” when instead he “should offer constructive criticism and alternatives.”

Singapore has tightened regulations this month on leading international publications, including the Financial Times, the
International Herald Tribune, Time, Newsweek and the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER).

The rules, which already apply to the Wall Street Journal Asia, require the publications to post a security deposit of S$200,000 and appoint a representative in Singapore who could be sued, and gives the government the power to restrict their circulation. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press freedom group, said the rules were meant to intimidate the international media from reporting on Singapore’s domestic affairs and encourage them to practise self-censorship.

The information ministry said the press act “serves to reinforce the government’s consistent position that it is a privilege, and not a right, for foreign newspapers to circulate in Singapore.”

“They do so as foreign observers of the local scene and should not interfere in the domestic politics of Singapore.”

The move came shortly after FEER published an interview with Dr Chee, whom it called Singapore’s “Martyr” and ahead of the IMF/World Bank meeting in Singapore next month, the biggest international conference it has ever held.

Dr Chee, who promotes the idea of civil disobedience, had suggested he might use the occasion to stage public protests.

Under an agreement with the IMF and World Bank, Singapore pledged to allow an approved list of NGOs to take part in the proceedings. But it recently said the NGOs would have to get police permits to gain access to the lobby of the conference centre, where they can “gather and engage” delegates.

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