15 Dec 07
A climate of fear that stops citizens from speaking out against the government could eventually lead to the decline of Singapore, novelist Catherine Lim says.
Lim, Singapore’s best-known writer, praised the government for its economic achievements but said its Achilles’ heel could be its suppression of criticism, such as defamation suits against opposition politicians and bans on protests.
“A compliant, fearful population that has never learnt to be politically savvy could spell the doom of Singapore,” Lim told Reuters in an interview.
Lim, 65, is one of few dissident voices in Singapore and has criticised the government in opinion pieces in the local press.
But her latest article, an open letter to the prime minister in which she pleaded for a political opening up, was rejected. She has posted it on her website www.catherinelim.sg
She said the worst-case scenario would be for a future leader to get away with corruption “because of the ingrained, unquestioning trust of a fearful, overly dependent people”.
Another factor is that the current generation of young people are exposed to views from around the world and discussion on political freedoms on the internet, she said. Her latest article has generated a string of comments in Singapore’s active political blogging community.
“You could have a case of younger Singaporeans creating unrest because they do not have an outlet,” she said.
Lim also argues that the tight political control could hurt Singapore’s aim of attracting the talent needed to retool its economy from manufacturing to a hub for research and services.
“What Singapore wants is managed creativity. So not only would those really creative people not want to come, but those who are here want to get out,” she said.
Lim, whose works include The Bondmaid, said Singaporeans had been conditioned to believe that material prosperity and messy politics were mutually exclusive, but she pointed to Scandinavia as evidence that this is not the case.
“Singapore needs to develop our own model of political freedom and Singapore has the maturity, expertise and institutions to move forward,” she said.
Lim’s thesis is that the Singapore government has instead made “systematic use of fear” to silence dissident voices, through “out-of-bounds markers” to stipulate what Singaporeans can and cannot say should they choose to criticise the government.
She points to examples of people not voting for opposition parties for fear of losing their homes, promotions or jobs, and defamation lawsuits that can result in permanent financial ruin.
Singapore’s leaders have filed and won numerous libel suits against opposition politicians and foreign media organisations, saying this is necessary to protect their reputations.
The Home Affairs Ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on Lim’s statement.
In a 2005 newspaper interview, Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng denied that there was a climate of fear in Singapore, and said that its citizens had spoken up at public forums without reprisals.
The People’s Action Party has ruled Singapore since it separated from Malaysia in 1965, shunning what it has termed “Western-style” adversarial politics.
The city-state’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, still holds an influential position in the cabinet of his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
“The Lee Kuan Yew model was superb for its time. But it may collapse, not immediately, but 20 years down the road,” Lim said.
In recent years, Singapore has attempted to shed its conservative image and tried to generate “buzz” by introducing casinos, promoting its arts and education scene, and hosting a Formula One race next year.
In October, the city-state legalised oral and anal sex between consenting adults, although it kept a ban on gay sex, after a rare debate on the issue in parliament.
“They seem to have drawn a line when it comes to opening up politically, and that to me is dangerous,” Lim said.
But Lim said she does not intend to enter the political sphere to push for the changes she advocates.
“I like my independence,” she said with a laugh.
“It’s okay to be an armchair critic.”