30 Aug 2004

Singapore's moment

Singapore's moment

NYT Saturday, August 28, 2004

Singapore is rich, but seldom envied. Outsiders have long viewed the
gleaming city-state that attained its independence in 1965 as a tidy
but soulless place, the nanny state that banned chewing gum. The good
news is that new prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, the son of longtime
ruler Lee Kuan Yew, seems to realize that Singapore needs to loosen
up. At his swearing-in ceremony earlier this month, he said what not
long ago would have sounded like heresy in a nation where the bottom
line is the bottom line: "Prosperity is not our only goal, nor is
economic growth an end in itself."

Lee followed up his inaugural address with a more detailed speech
last Sunday in which he announced a long-overdue relaxation of some
restrictions on freedoms of speech and assembly. No longer will all
indoor political speeches and rallies require a police-
issued "entertainment license." That's a start, but younger
Singaporeans, who have no memories of the colonial period and only
vague recollections of the cold war, will expect Lee to be far more
aggressive in liberalizing the city-state's political culture. It
isn't clear that he can deliver. Earlier this year, Lee told an
audience at the city's Harvard Club that "not all policies are
amenable to public consultation," and went on to include foreign
policy and taxes as examples of things best discussed in private.
Equally troubling, Lee's authoritarian father still lurks in the
background, with the title of "minister mentor."

As for chewing gum, it is now available in Singapore, but only in
pharmacies, and only if it's sugarless and "therapeutic." That's the
kind of surreal in-between state of affairs that typifies the
nation's reluctance or inability to surge ahead and become a more
self-confident, tolerant and democratic society.

If Lee fails to forge this transition in short order, or insists on
only taking half-steps, Singapore's vaunted prosperity will probably
suffer. For decades, a business-friendly but politically
authoritarian Singapore thrived in comparison with its regional
competitors. Corruption sank the Philippines, Hong Kong suffered from
its uncertain status, and Singapore's immediate neighbors were even
more authoritarian backwaters. But now, with China opening itself to
the outside world and countries like Malaysia and Thailand prospering
and stealing manufacturing jobs from Singapore, the island city-state
needs to foster a free-wheeling society if it wants to remain the
region's primary economic hub in an age when the free flow of ideas
and knowledge is as important to the bottom line as the free flow of

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