Singapore trades freedoms for happiness

Bryan Murphy
The Daily Campus
09 Feb 08

Ho-ho-holy crap. Most people tend to make decisive judgments without fully realizing their implications, from “Yeah, applying early decision is an amazing idea,” to “You’re right, we don’t need to use a condom for this.”

To that list one could add, “Sure, let’s go to study in this small tropical island nation without fully realizing that it’s essentially a one-man state whose track record on press freedoms ranks it below the civil-war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan and Djibouti.”

Think of some form of political expression you might reasonably expect to employ in the United States and it would almost certainly get you incarcerated in Singapore. In the U.S., it’s not really such a big deal if you’re a famous political analyst who goes around calling a former presidential candidate a “faggot” and doing so certainly won’t hurt your next big book deal – though it will serve to further convince everyone that you’re a leathery old shrew.

Consider, by way of comparison, the plight of Dr. Chee Soon Juan, the leader of an opposition party here in Singapore. During the 2001 General Elections in Singapore, Dr. Chee made a stir about a $17 billion loan to former Indonesian President-slash-brutal-dictator Suharto. You might think an astronomical loan to a man whose administration was specifically condemned by the U.N. Human Rights Commission for its abominable conduct and repeated slaughters of unarmed protesters would be fair game for a bit of political rabble-rousing, but you’d be wrong. Dr. Chee was hit with libel suits totaling 500,000 Singaporean dollars ($352,933) by Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, at the time the senior minister and prime minister of Singapore, respectively. Dr. Chee lost.

An interesting thing about libel suits filed by high-ranking members of the Singaporean elite is that you are pretty much guaranteed to lose them – especially if you belong to an opposition party. Another interesting fact is that under Singapore’s Constitution, those fined at least S$2,000 cannot run in Parliamentary elections for five years. As one could easily imagine, the libel suit is a favorite tool in the political arsenal of Singapore’s ruling class. One must concede that there is a certain element of poeticism to this form of control. Rather than taking one’s political opponents into a small room and shooting them, one sues them until they are reduced to hawking self-penned novels by the side of the street like a crazy old man – as happened to Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, the first member of an opposition party elected as a member of the Singaporean Parliament.

Then, if some group tries to make a documentary about the tragic plight of such a street-side novelist and decides to call it, hypothetically, “A Vision of Persistence,” one need only remind the filmmakers that according to the Films Act in Singapore, it is illegal to make a film which “contains wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter,” or could be construed as making a comment on “a current policy of the government or an issue of public controversy” – though, of course, the prime minister can also ban any film whatsoever at any time at his utmost discretion.

Addendum: the possession of “obscene films” is also a crime, carrying a fine of S$1,000 per film, though prostitution itself is not illegal in Singapore.

More unsettling than the thought that a cursory scan of my hard-drive by a police officer would result in about S$500,000 worth of fines, however, is the total apathy of the younger generation here to their seemingly unnoticed plight.

So as not to seem negative, I’ve got to mention that the National University of Singapore student body has the Huskies whipped in terms of athleticism and entrepreneurialism. One cannot seem to take three steps on this campus without passing a horde of toned bodies or flat tummies – nor can one get from one class to another without being bombarded with offers to purchase roses for their loved ones, sweets for their friends, or tickets to student plays and dances.

However, there’s almost nothing here in the way of student debate societies or political groups. Not that there isn’t more than ample soil for an advocacy group to grow in. Prostitution is legalized in this nation, yet there are no feminist protests. Pornography is illegal, yet there are no free-speech advocates. Possession of a gram of marijuana might not even get you a night in jail in certain cities in the U.S. – Boulder, Colorado, cough cough – yet the U.S. has spawned “Students for Sensible Drug Policy.” Meanwhile, in a nation with the highest per-capita execution rate in the world – where the vast majority of executions are drug-related – there is nary a whimper of protest raised.

Of course, I don’t expect anyone in the U.S. to care at all about the political apathy of Singaporeans. As Jimmy Buffet would say, “It’s their own damn fault.” The unsettling implication is what their silence might mean for, well, all of us. Why don’t Singaporeans complain when minor drug pushers are straight-up hanged, or when is added to a national block list? Mostly, it’s because things are pretty good here. Singapore is extremely clean, extremely safe and extremely wealthy. No one gets worked up over Presidential elections – even when they’re entirely canceled by the Presidential Election Commission – because what does it matter? “The Father” will take care of things, anyway.

It’s part of the American value-system to believe the rest of the world is chomping at the bit for their chance for democracy and personal freedom – but really, one has to wonder how many in the Third World want to emulate America’s rights and how many really just want to emulate America’s economics. The Singaporeans seem to have settled this question for themselves and the answer is not what John Locke would have hoped. One has to ask oneself what the truth is even here, in the homeland of Thomas Jefferson – what price do Americans affix to their freedoms? Is a couple hundred dollars from an Economic Stimulus plan enough to buy them off? If not that, then how about a vague assurance of freedom from terrorism?

It’s the romantic view to believe that everyone burns with a deep-seated desire for freedom and political rights, but it often seems more accurate to assume that everyone burns with need for an iPod and a Corolla.

Weekly Columnist Bryan Murphy is a 4th-semester economics major currently studying abroad in Singapore. His column appears on Friday. He can be reached at… 

%d bloggers like this: