By John Burton
Published: May 14 2005 03:00
The hanging yesterday of a former Singaporechampion athlete for smuggling cannabis has sparked a rare activist protest against the city- state's draconian anti-drug laws and has helped fuel a debate about civil liberties.
The issue of human rights in Singapore has received increased attention in recent weeks after the government appeared to be curbing free speech on the internet, while a local film-maker could face imprisonment for making a documentary about a leading opposition leader.
The issue of civil liberties is becoming more important in Singapore as it seeks to create a vibrant culture to attract tourists and permanent residents from aboard, while trying to stem a brain drain of local talent.
A study released this week by the World Bank on global political governance said that Singapore's otherwise excellent record on administrative efficiency, control of corruption and the rule of law was marred by its attitude to civil liberties, which was below average for Asia.
The World Bank suggested there had been a deterioration in civil liberties in the last two years. "There is a sense things are going backwards when it comes to human rights," said a foreign diplomat in Singapore.
The hanging of Shanmugan Murugesu for smuggling 1.03kg of cannabis has led to calls that mandatory death sentences for drug trafficking should be abolished in Singapore. There are no official figures on how many people are currently on death row. But since 1991, about 400 people have been hanged in Singapore, mostly for drug trafficking, giving the island of 4.2m people possibly the highest execution rate in the world on a per capita basis, according to Amnesty International in its 2004 report.
The government has refused to change its sentencing policy, saying the death penalty deters the widespread use of drugs.
The government is also facing criticism for its tight media control. Martyn See, a local filmmaker, is scheduled to be questioned by police on Monday about his documentary on opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan, which may have violated a local law that prohibits the making or distribution of any "party political film".
The case has attracted attention because of Singapore's desire to become a regional centre for the arts, including film production, to promote services to counter Chinese and Indian manufacturing competition.
Mr See was forced to withdraw the film from this year's Singapore International Film Festival after authorities warned that he could be jailed for up to two years or fined up to S$100,000 (US$60,000) if it was screened.
Mr See said his film was meant to present a portrait of a local figure who was willing to challenge the Singapore establishment, but he claimed he was not making a political endorsement of Dr Chee, head of the Singapore Democratic party.
"It appears there is a ban on work in which we intend to state or imply a stand on current government policy, regardless of what that stand is," said a protest letter by a group of film-makers to the pro-government Straits Times newspaper.
The controversy over the film follows a similar one over freedom of expression on the internet raised when a government agency threatened to sue a blogger for al-legedly defamatory remarks.
A*Star, the science and technology agency, withdrew a threat of libel after the blogger, a Singapore graduate student in the US, apologised, but the incident is seen as an effort to stifle dissent on the internet.
"Younger Singaporeans are distrustful of the pro-government media and they have gone to the internet to exchange information and challenge the government. [The libel lawsuit threat] looks like a shot across the bow to warn them to be careful," said a veteran Singapore journalist.
The government has said that strict libel laws are necessary to protect the reputation of officials, while limits on debate are needed to preserve harmony in Singapore's multi-ethnic society.
But newspapers, such as the Straits Times, are giving more access to critical views, including publishing a leng-thy essay this week by Catherine Lim, a prominent Singapore novelist, who warned that the government's overprotective attitude threatens to damage Singapore's ability to compete.
Singaporeans "can be compared to artificially nurtured hothouse plants, unable to survive if thrown among the sturdy plants in the wild" when "circumstances change and they have to fend for themselves", she wrote.
The essay underscored the challenge faced by the government of Lee Hsien Loong, the son of modern Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, in trying to respond to demands from a more sophisticated population that feels frustrated about influencing policy.
Although Mr Lee has relaxed some rules on free speech since he took power in August, many are unwilling to test the limits on what can be discussed.
"I feel that an underlying culture of fear persists in the political attitude of Singaporeans," said one letter writer to the Straits Times.