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The country presents itself as a modern liberal democracy yet has an autocratic political culture
Singapore is proud of its place near the top of many international rankings. Its school system is by some measures the world’s best. The island state promotes itself as diverse, competitive and cultured – an exciting global hub. But there are two league tables which shame Singapore. The first, compiled by the campaigning group Reporters Without Borders, places the country 136th in the world for press freedom – below Iraq and Zimbabwe. The second is the rate at which Singapore executes convicted criminals: arguably higher, per capita, than any other country in the world.
Singapore presents itself as a modern liberal democracy: it has a parliament, elections, courts, a constitutional right to free speech and the consumerist gloss of capitalism. Its citizens are free to become rich and to travel. Many do both. The country has by any measure succeeded since independence. But its autocratic political culture – overseen by the country’s founding father and now official minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew – is highly and needlessly restrictive. The media is largely state-owned. Defamation and contempt laws threaten dissent. The latest victim of these is Alan Shadrake, a British-born writer sentenced yesterday to six weeks in prison and a large fine after being found guilty of contempt of court. His book Once a Jolly Hangman questioned the independence of Singapore’s legal system, and its use of the death penalty.
It is depressing that a country as successful as Singapore should feel the need for such restrictions on free speech. Singapore argues that, without them, the balance between the country’s Chinese, Malay and Indian populations would be upset. But the reality is that other successful parts of Asia – Hong Kong and Taiwan, for instance – have thrived by extending free speech and the rule of law. Singapore is making itself a less significant place by refusing to give its people the sorts of freedoms that are routine elsewhere.