Uniqueness of perfection that sits to our north

July 17, 2008
Singapore Democrats

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Michael Backman
The Age

The International Bar Association has found that, when it comes to criticism, Singapore is in no need

A report released last week, Prosperity versus Individual Rights? Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law in Singapore, published by the International Bar Association, provides a fair and balanced account of how Singapore’s Government really operates.

It lists 18 recommendations for Singapore to strengthen its rule of law and to better promote a civil society. They are all reasonable, as is the analysis on which they are based.

But of course the Singapore Government doesn’t think so. Even though the IBA provided the Singapore Government with a draft of the report, allowed it to comment and then inserted the Government’s views in the final report, the Government still managed to diss the report by the end of last week, just as it disses everything remotely critical. Singapore’s Government is unique among governments around the world: it doesn’t need advice.

The report chronicles how human rights are constrained by the Singapore Government and how freedom of speech is in the hands of the police.

It lists the media restrictions that ensure the media does not monitor the Government but is more its mouthpiece.

It describes the restrictions on the right to assemble. One bizarre practice highlighted is the constitutional requirement for members of parliament to resign if expelled from their elective party, thereby ensuring that elected members do only what their party rather than their constituents or even their conscience tells them. Another aspect mentioned is the cowing of the Singapore Law Society so that even this channel for independent comment on laws and proposed laws has been neutered. Many questions about the independence of the judiciary are raised too.

Singapore’s Ministry of Law described the report’s observation that Singapore’s judges seemed professional in commercial cases but exhibited bias in cases involving Government ministers as “absurd” and “unsubstantiated”. In actual fact, the 77-page report makes a very good case for bias. It is the ministry’s rebuttal that lacks substantiation.

The report chronicles how defamation actions brought against opposition figures by Government ministers have bankrupted them, thus rendering them ineligible to sit in Parliament. That undischarged bankrupts should not sit in Parliament is not the issue. The Australian constitution has a similar provision. What is problematic is how defamation actions seem to be used specifically to target opposition figures to bankrupt them to ensure they then cannot sit in Parliament.

Of course, opposition figures in Singapore must be guarded in their public utterances as they well know the consequences of a slip-up. But the trouble is, when opposition figures give the ruling PAP (party) an inch in this regard, the PAP leaders gleefully grab a mile. Ministers lack the generosity of spirit that government politicians exhibit in other modern countries in this regard. In local parlance, they have shown themselves to be “kiasu” (literally, afraid to lose).

Examples abound. Former attorney-general Francis Seow cites in his book Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary (2006) Devan Nair, a former president of Singapore. Nair describes how Lee Kuan Yew fumed after opposition figure J.B. Jeyaratnam had been returned to Parliament in the 1981 elections. “I will make him crawl on his bended knees and beg for mercy,” Lee is purported to have said.

Race-based riots — 58 and 44 years ago — are used to justify many of the Government’s controls, when in fact Singaporeans today have been gutted of passion. They have been supplanted by consumerism and materialism — safe refuges in the face of a Government intolerant of dissent. Today, the only thing likely to lead to anything approaching a riot is a half-price sale for Chanel handbags.

The report says Singapore’s economic development is impressive but not unique. Australia has six Singapores dotted around its coasts. Each of these cities has been built without the media and political restrictions that Singapore’s Government feels are needed even though each Australian city has a population far more ethnically diverse than Singapore’s.

Singapore’s leaders like to describe their country as a small island with no resources. It magnifies their achievement. But Singapore’s economic hinterland are Malaysia and Indonesia — it sits bang in the middle of a sea of resources.

It draws on these resources just as Melbourne draws on the resources of the rest of Victoria.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Singapore’s development has been the virtual elimination of corruption. There are those who claim that corruption is integral to Asian culture and therefore unavoidable. Singapore shows such commentators and, more importantly, the rest of Asia, that being Asian is no excuse for corruption.

Time and time again, Singapore’s leaders argue that those who want to comment on politics and even policy should form their own political party and stand for election. All others are required to shut up. Singapore’s leaders cocoon themselves against challenge and seem affronted by scrutiny. It’s as if they haven’t done a good job in building Singapore. But they have, and that is the frustration. Why must they act as if they haven’t?

As you read through the measured paragraphs of the IBA report, you can almost feel the pleading; the advice to a friend: “you’re wealthy, you’re educated, you’re like us now. Take that final step — join us — the community of civil, prosperous societies. Do it, before you embarrass yourself more.” But this friend is too proud to listen.