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17 April 2004
Singapore, a byword for big-brother authoritarianism, is to shake off its repressed image by adopting new measures to free up the lives of its citizens.
The city state has accepted 60 of the 74 steps that a special committee recommended last year to open up the tightly-controlled society and broaden people’s horizons, local media reported yesterday.
But many of the “Remaking Singapore” measures will result in government agencies still dominating people’s lives and some are little more than cosmetic, particularly with regard to the arts and freedom of expression.
Schools and colleges will have more flexibility in the students they accept, and rules for the registration of new societies and associations will be relaxed.
Buskers will no longer have to give their proceeds to charity, although they will still have to audition, and academics will be encouraged to participate in public policy debates.
But proposals to loosen public entertainment licensing regulations and establish a “free arts zone” where rules can be relaxed to facilitate free expression were rejected.
The minister for national development and head of the Remaking Singapore committee, Vivian Balakrishnan, was quoted in the Straits Times newspaper as saying the changes and shifts were “significant” but “at a pace [at] which we can carry the vast majority of Singaporeans”.
The government’s move comes amid continued recession and the luring away of companies by other countries in the region. “In the future, the government will try to confine itself to specifying a negative list of undesirable, anti-social or illegal activities,” Mr Balakrishnan told the Guardian. “Everything else will be fair game.”
Some tangible changes have been introduced. Homosexuals are now welcome in the civil service; bar patrons can dance on table tops; nightclubs in certain areas can open 24 hours; the Rocky Horror Picture Show has had its first showing and the hit TV show Sex and the City and Cosmopolitan magazine will soon be available.
New economic pillars beyond the traditional hi-tech manufacturing and financial services are being built in the biotech, education and healthcare sectors. This is being done partly by attracting world-famous names to the island republic through larger investment budgets than are available elsewhere.
One of the foreign stars is Alan Colman, the Scottish scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep and is now undertaking stem cell research in an attempt to cure diabetes. He turned down offers in Britain and the US in favour of Singapore.
“What I’m benefiting from is an experiment to see if they can change the mindset of the intelligentsia, the people coming through the universities, to make them more innovative,” he said. “Whether it’s in my area or others, they’re just trying to change people because they recognise it is for their future success.”
In many other respects Singapore is still “the fine city”, so called because people can be prosecuted for trifling offences such as chewing the wrong sort of gum, jaywalking and not flushing the toilet.
Sinapan Samydorai of the Think Centre, a mainly internet-based political forum, says the government is still micromanaging despite what it says.
“They need to differentiate between national issues and local issues,” he said. “Imagine if the president of the United States was pronouncing on how to flush the toilet.”