No free press? No problem

November 6, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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This website will carry a 7-part series of articles comprising of excerpts from Dr Chee Soon Juans latest book Your Future, My faith, Our Future. Heres Part VI.

Even if Singaporeans are ignorant but ultimately blissful vassals, can this be considered a good thing? Non-participation of the citizenry in the political process and a controlled media can only create a culture in which the state is able to manipulate public opinion at will. If history teaches us anything, it is that such a system eventually leads to the undoing of society. Consider the recent past: Autocratic systems in Eastern Europe and, more recently, East Asia, supposedly predicated on the support of the masses, all crumbled under the weight of non-transparency and non-accountability. In Singapore, the CPF crisis is a case in point. For lack of an opposition party and independent media to ferret out the flaws within the system, the pension scheme structure has resulted in the loss of economic stability for present and future generations of the elderly in their retirement years.

Yet it cannot be argued that apparently well-informed people are genuinely supportive of the system under the PAP. These individuals are often the ones who have vested economic interestsprimarily business peoplein seeing the present system prevail. The lack of a free flow of information, which is considered vital to the business world, doesnt seem to faze them. In fact, some feel that Singapores restriction of the media allows the government greater flexibility to deal with economic crises such as the one in 1997. Flexibility is a euphemism for the ability of the government to reduce wages in times of crisis.

Indeed, the international business community often praises the PAP for its pro-business stance. This recognition, however, has been achieved at the expense of working Singaporeans. Without adequate legal and political re-presentation, employees have little protection against management. The complicity of the corporate sector in maintaining the authoritarian structure in Singapore is symbolic of capitalism not only without heart, but, more dangerously, without brains. What appears to be political stability stemming from government austerity lasts only as long as the economy is able to employ workers more quickly than it dismisses them.

For almost three decades, Suharto was feted as having brought stability to the restive islands of Indonesia, a period during which the Indonesian economy expanded rapidly. Business people loved the sense of security and ignoredeven applaudedSuhartos uncompromising political behaviour. When the Asian crisis arrived, hitherto festering political problems boiled over with a vengeance, completely blind-siding policymakers and analysts. How could they have foreseen the implosion? The failure to integrate social and political factors sufficiently meant that intelligence gathering of the country by the media was necessarily blinkered. Some experts are convinced that the problems that caused the Asian crisis were not economic but social. An independent media would have significantly improved the quality of the analyses. Even Malaysia, noted for its lack of political strife before 1997, has seen its stability eroded in the aftermath of the crisis.

Clearly, it is imprudent to praise an undemocratic system that forbids the operation of a free and independent media for bringing about political stability. Nobel laureate and economics professor Amartya Sens words are worth repeating here: When things go well, the protective power of democracy may be less missed, but dangers can lie round the corner (as indeed the recent experiences of some East Asian and Southeast Asian economies bring out).

Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom is sold at Select Books (Tanglin Shopping Center), Kinokuniya Bookstore (Takashimaya Shopping Centre, Orchard Road) and the SDP office (1357A Serangoon Road, Singapore 328240).