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October 13, 2005
The U.S. ambassador to Singapore criticized restrictions on political freedom, as he bid farewell to the economically powerful Asian city-state this week.
Ambassador Franklin L. Lavin noted that Singapore is a strong U.S. ally in the war on terrorism and in efforts to promote free trade, but it “will pay an increasing price for not allowing the full participation of [its] citizens.”
“What are the bounds of expression? What say should citizens have in their government?” he asked. “In this era of Web logs and webcams, how much sense does it make to limit political expressions?”
Singapore, annually rated as one of the world’s freest economies, remains politically dominated by the People’s Action Party, which holds 82 of the 84 seats in the country’s Parliament. The party has dominated politics since independence from Britain in 1959.
The State Department’s annual human rights report for 2004 released in February said the government generally respected the rights of its citizens, except in politics where it used its “broad powers to limit citizens’ rights and to handicap political opposition.”
Singapore also “continued to restrict significantly freedom of speech and freedom of press,” the report said.
In Washington, Singaporean Ambassador Heng Chee Chan yesterday noted that her country has made great advances in political freedom over the past several years.
She took no offense by Mr. Lavin’s criticism, which she noted were only a few paragraphs in a three-page speech.
“Ambassador Lavin speaks as a friend of Singapore’s,” she said. “He has served his country well. … He knows Singapore will change. In fact, it has changed a lot, probably not as fast as many Americans would like.”
She said that restrictions on bloggers are confined mostly to prohibitions against hate speech in a multiracial society such as Singapore’s.
In his speech Tuesday, Mr. Lavin expressed confidence that Singapore “will sort through these challenges.”
“Singapore has much to be proud of, and the United States will stand side by side with Singapore,” he said. “My view of foreign policy is simple: We — America and Singapore — are the good guys. This doesn’t mean that other countries are the bad guys, and it doesn’t mean that we are always right, because we make our share of mistakes…
“What it means is that America has a great deal in common with Singapore in approach to problems such as political stability, economic growth and cross-border threats, be they man-made or natural disasters…
“We both know that a pluralistic, meritocratic society is the best way to ensure a better life for our citizens.”