Shooting the messenger in S’pore

Alex Au
Asia Times

Three recent incidents have brought renewed attention to the repressive nature of Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP)-led government at a time when the island state is bidding to attract more foreign tourists and investment.

A book critical of the way the death penalty is applied in Singapore saw its British author, Alan Shadrake, arrested on July 18. He was interrogated for 39 hours and now faces possible imprisonment for contempt of court.

Earlier this month, the government banned the latest video made by filmmaker Martyn See, including an order that all copies of the film be removed from the Internet. See’s film focused on a November 2009 speech made by former political prisoner Lim Hock Siew, who was detained without trial for 19 years from 1963 to 1982. The speech described his time behind bars and the lack of due process that kept him there.

In June, another ex-political detainee, Vincent Cheng, was barred from speaking at a forum organized by the National University of Singapore’s History Society. The ban on his participation came from the National Library Board, the venue’s state-affiliated owner. Detained from 1987-1990, Cheng was accused of being a “Marxist conspirator” out to subvert the state, a charge he has vehemently denied.

Earlier this year, Singapore opened two multi-billion dollar casinos to draw more foreign tourists and has boasted rapid gross domestic product (GDP) growth. But behind the glitzy facade and fast growth is an enduring authoritarianism and state-sponsored human-rights abuses.

The three incidents continue a pattern of strong-arm rule that dates to when the PAP first rose to power in 1959. It has ruled uninterrupted ever since and has been quick to squash any serious opposition or dissent.

Over the years, the PAP has relied on fast economic growth and rising prosperity to maintain its legitimacy. Singapore’s GDP grew 16.9% year-on-year in the first quarter this year and provisional estimates suggest it expanded 19.3% in the second quarter. Even allowing for an expected slowdown in the second half, full year GDP growth could hit the 13% to 15% range.

The rosy figures may be attributed partly to the low baseline for the first two quarters of 2009, when the economy recorded negative growth in line with the global recession, and partly from exports to Asia’s other robustly growing open economies. However, Singapore’s growth and profits are increasingly generated by foreigners for foreigners, with the city-state permitting ever-rising levels of immigration to power the economy.

Citizens now question how much they are benefiting with so many foreigners competing for jobs and limited housing. Meanwhile, the income divide is fast widening. Nominated member of parliament Viswa Sadasivan recently noted that based on 2008 figures, Singapore has a much higher Gini coefficient – a statistical measure of income inequality – than other Asian countries, including China, Malaysia and the Philippines.

If sterling headline economic numbers fail to quell the growing grumbling and skepticism over government policy, some wonder how much longer the populace will tolerate the PAP’s authoritarianism, most commonly demonstrated through detentions without trial and tilting the electoral system in its favor. The result is a ruling party that feels itself perennially under siege by ungrateful citizens, and ever fearful that its skeletons in the closet will one day be exposed. The government and ruling party are therefore extremely thin-skinned about any criticism of their record, legitimacy and policies.

One of those policies being questioned is the state’s frequent use of hanging as a means to combat drug abuse. Amnesty International lists Singapore as having the highest per capita rate of executions in the world. Two features of Singapore’s draconian drug laws make the city state stand out among other countries. The first is that anyone found guilty of trafficking in 15 grams or more of heroin, 30 grams or more of cocaine or 500 grams or more of cannabis, is given a mandatory death sentence. The judge has no discretion as to the penalty and mitigating circumstances have no effect in such cases.

The second is that anyone caught in possession of these minimum amounts is presumed to be guilty of trafficking unless proven otherwise. Persons caught with drugs in their bags or vehicles find themselves needing to prove the negative – that they did not know the substances were there, which is a very high hurdle to clear when typically they come from marginalized sections of society who cannot afford lawyers.

Selective justice

Shadrake’s contested book, Once a Jolly Hangman, spotlights lesser-known issues in Singapore’s justice system through his discussion of several historical cases. In particular, he asserts in his book that some accused persons have in the past managed to escape the gallows either through pressure applied by foreign governments or connections to Singapore’s elite, while the poor and disadvantaged meet the hangman disproportionately.

Singapore’s censors warned off local bookstores and distributors from stocking and selling the book, and the republic’s attorney-general said it “contained passages that scandalize the Singapore judiciary”. Shadrake was hauled out of bed by authorities in the early morning of July 18 and held for 39 hours in a police lock-up before being allowed to post bail of about US$7,000. He was interrogated subsequently for 11 more hours and faces possible imprisonment after his court date on July 30.

His case recalls that of US lawyer Gopalan Nair, who in 2008 faced contempt of court proceedings after he sent out an e-mail criticizing a Singapore judge for accepting a high salary in handling a trial involving the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, Chee Soon Juan, in one of many state prosecutions against Chee and his opposition party. Nair later retracted and apologized for his words in exchange for a warning from the court instead of a jail sentence.

Shadrake’s case blew up before the dust from the incident over the Lim video had settled. See’s camera had recorded a November 2009 speech in which Lim described his 19 years in detention without trial and the lack of due process that kept him behind bars. Lim had espoused socialism as an ideology in the early 1960s and, together with others from the then-opposition party Barisan Sosialis, was then seen as a threat to the ruling PAP.

He was arrested and kept in prison for longer than many others who have been given life sentences, which usually means 13 years after remission for good behavior, because he refused to recant, Lim claims. Another political detainee, Chia Thye Poh, was imprisoned and his movements closely restricted after release for 32 years. He, too, had been accused of pro-communist subversion.

As required by Singapore law, filmmaker See submitted his video to state censors in February 2010 for rating. Meanwhile, it was uploaded to YouTube on the Internet. On July 12, the censors banned the film and gave See slightly over a day to remove the online version of the video on threat of prosecution. See complied, but the video has now been uploaded by other anonymous netizens to different sites after See waived his copyright in perpetuity.

In justifying the ban, the censors said, “The Singapore government will not allow individuals who have posed a security threat to Singapore’s interests in the past, to use media platforms such as films to make baseless accusations against the authorities, give a false portrayal of their previous activities in order to exculpate their guilt, and undermine public confidence in the government in the process.”

As such, the government is asserting that its version of events shall be the only one allowed on record. From the government’s perspective, Lim’s personal recollection and thoughts about the way he was treated must necessarily be false. Like detention without trial, the ban on See’s video means that the distinction between true and false is arrived at by government fiat, rather than through the impartial weighing of evidence and the free inquiry of historians and uncensored media.

Independent historians consider people who were at the forefront of important or pivotal events as a crucial resource for understanding that history. But when the History Society of the National University of Singapore included ex-political detainee Cheng in its line-up of speakers for a seminar on June 4, the state affiliated National Library Board (NLB), as venue sponsor, insisted that his name be withdrawn.

The board relied on a technicality – that Cheng’s name was a late inclusion – to bar him from speaking. Cheng himself wrote to the board pointing out that not only “academics and researchers make history”, but so do “the actual actors of history”.

The ban, he said, left him far from “convinced that NLB is an august institution of independence and integrity” and that if their role was to be “a mouthpiece of the government, no matter in how subtle a way, then let it be publicly known so that people will know how to deal with you”.

There is a rising air of desperation over the way the Singapore government attempts to monopolize the writing and interpreting of history, while stamping out any criticism of the way it has bent public institutions to its will.


Alex Au (also known as Yawning Bread) is one of Singapore’s foremost bloggers on socio-political issues, in addition to his activism over gay rights and human rights.

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