Old guard comes under constant questions from next generation

20 Apr 07
Jakarta Post

Under all the economic and social policies of Singapore, measured to as much precision as possible, the young grow up in what some here call the kiasu, or anxious culture of competition.

Young author Ee Lin See tells us a bit about My kiasu teenage life in Singapore, the title of her first novel. On top of trying to get boys and classmates to like her, the character Pei Yi is frustrated with brilliant friends pretending to be lazy so they can beat the rest, and the really lazy resorting to tricks to keep others from studying!

It is questions from such young people that challenge the old guard. Their parents largely appreciate the fundamentals set in to ensure harmony and an industrious, highly skilled people – “secularism, meritocracy and multiracialism.”

But today’s questions are often about how strict attitudes will enable Singapore to measure up to their leaders’ own ambitions of developing the island state into the world’s hub of everything. Officials say that while the state is now more “relaxed” regarding efforts at censorship, they cannot risk the potential sensitivities of diverse racial, ethnic and religious groups.

Recent results of such caution have included the ban on a film about Said Zahari, a journalist jailed for 17 years. The director was reportedly confused as the film had passed earlier censors.

Last October, blogger Benjamin Koh, 27, was sentenced to one month in jail for violating the Sedition Act; another, Nicholas Lim, 25, was jailed for one day and fined the maximum of S$5,000 for the same crime by posting “inflammatory racist remarks” on the Internet.

On March 31, a member of the small opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) said police “harassed” him following the public launching of a book by the party’s leader, Chee Soon Juan.

The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts stated that police had “advised” Chee that he may have violated the prohibition of assembly without a a permit under the Miscellaneous Offenses Rules, as well as “providing public entertainment without a license under the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act.”

Earlier this month European MPs invited to talks hosted by the SDP were not allowed to speak on issues related to Singapore.

Currently, sexual issues seem safer than politics. In the years when Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister, Singapore banned the racy Cosmopolitan magazine. This year, on April 5 to be precise, the curtain went up on 251, a theater production inspired by the story of Annabel Chong, known as Singapore’s “porn princess”.

Some articles in the dailies don’t seem all that timid to the outsider. An editor said that the authorities realize that an international hub must at least appear to have a credible press, while others said they more or less agree with government policies. Age is a factor, an editor acknowledged; the young don’t know what the elders went through, he said, while young reporters complain about self-censorship in the media.

In a book published last year – a compilation of columns written by the “post-1965ers” in The Straits Times, a writer questioned whether the ruling party had the capacity “to self-correct and change” should corruption seep into the body politic.

If the PAP were to experience an internal power struggle, “do we have another set of capable people?” asked Peh Shing Huei, who has known Singapore only under the PAP.

And in anticipation of the government’s next possible moves regarding the Internet, columnist Alex Au recently asked why Singapore had nothing on a par with established online news sites, such as the well-known Malaysiakini.com.

“How can Singapore, in its purported aim to become a cutting-edge knowledge-driven economy, afford not to have a vibrant digital news industry?” Au asked.

While the authorities say they are constantly “refining” the regulation of content to keep up with the times, bloggers are ranting and teasing the government as they never could before.

There’s no need to control the bloggers, says Minister Vivian Balakhrisnan, also second minister in charge of information and communications. Everyone just needs to be sure he’s speaking the truth, and “be responsible and face the consequences,” he said.

Given strict law enforcement and the threat of violating a host of laws, like the ones mentioned above – and, critics would say, an authoritarian attitude – few are ready to face those “consequences”.

Some say they fear losing their livelihoods as a result of bankrupting libel suits by government big shots, as happened to Chee Soon Juan