October 23, 2005
Insight Down South By Seah Chiang Nee
FOR many years, Singaporeans have showed little interest in politics, preferring to leave matters to the government as long as it gives them a good life. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) called it “the social compact” and it worked like this: The government has a duty to provide jobs and govern well; if it succeeds, it is the citizens’ duty to vote for it. If it fails, then the people have the right to choose another.
Based on Confucianism, it was enunciated by Lee Kuan Yew and largely supported by the people in the years when Singapore’s economic growth faced few problems.
At the time, the government was superb and it delivered, year after year.
Then the world economy changed with the emergence of China and India, and Singapore began to stagnate and was overtaken by many better-endowed nations.
Globalisation has made it impossible for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to rely on the same “social compact” to rule. No government can guarantee jobs. At the same time, the voters, too, have changed, and so has the PAP.
In recent years as the rich-poor gap widened and unemployment rose, murmurings of hardship by citizens (especially those above 40) have become shriller.
Now that general elections are a year or possibly months away, the political temperature has risen and the government is more willing to crack down on any “threats” to orderliness.
Last week, the political excitement rose by a few degrees when two important foreign commentators joined the debate.
The ambassador of the United States, Singapore’s strategic ally, delivered one of its occasional admonitions against the city-state’s limits on political expression.
In his departure speech, Franklin L. Lavin said governments would pay an increasing price for failing to give citizens freedom of choice and expression. It was posted on the embassy website.
At the same time, one of Britain’s top 10 universities announced it would scrap plans to set up a campus in Singapore because of concerns about academic freedom.
The decision by the University of Warwick council dealt a blow to the city-state’s ambitions to attract more foreign students.
Singapore requires international educational institutions operating in the city-state to agree not to conduct activities seen as interference in domestic affairs. Local universities are also under scrutiny.
Thio Li-ann, a Singapore law professor who drew up an advisory report for Warwick University, had warned “the government will intervene if academic reports cast a negative light on their policies”.
It is the first time that a foreign university has refused to meet government conditions.
Singapore is already home to several foreign campuses, French business school INSEAD, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It aims to double the number of international students to 150,000 by 2015 as part of a strategy to reduce its reliance on manufacturing.
Warwick and Australia’s University of New South Wales were the only two foreign universities selected by Singapore’s Economic Development Board to set up a full-scale campus, which can award undergraduate degrees.
But it was the American ambassador’s remarks that raised excitement here.
“Singapore has flourished over the past 40 years, but is a 20th century model adequate for the 21st century?” Lavin asked.
“Remaking (Singapore’s) economy is, in a sense, the easy decision. Shaping a political system to reflect the needs and aspirations of its citizens is more difficult and more sensitive,” he added.
His remarks are not surprising given America’s policies on human rights. Liberal Singaporeans cheer them but PAP supporters find them undiplomatic and interfering.
He said it was surprising to find what he called constraints on discussions given Singapore’s strong international links.
“In this era of weblogs and webcams, how much sense does it make to limit political expression?” Lavin added.
PM Lee recently ruled out adopting a Western liberal democracy with a multi-party system in the next 20 years, saying that it was unsuitable for the country.
Neither the American nor the British message will have any impact on politics here. Nevertheless, it is a blow to Singapore’s ambition to attract global talent to become a great global city.
When he became Prime Minister a little over a year ago, Lee promised a freer, inclusive society, but critics say there has not been any real movement towards it.
On the coming election, Lee said he expected to win a strong mandate although his party could perform less well compared to 2001. People who know him say that he is sincere in wanting to open up gradually.
Some observers say he leads the right place at the wrong time, having taken charge when Singapore is going through a painful transition.
For its long-term survival, the city’s declining domestic population needs desperately to be topped up by a large influx of foreigners, but this is under attack by Singaporeans who have lost jobs.
Lee is sandwiched by two groups of unhappy voters. The biggest are unhappy “heartlanders” in the housing estates who are struggling with a lower standard of living, unemployment and rising costs.
These “bread-and-butter” worriers outnumber the second group: young Singaporeans who want greater personal liberties and a freer press. Online petitions demanding more “human rights” have so far attracted relatively less interest.
The government’s strong point, however, remains its ability to convince the majority of Singaporeans that it can generally govern well and provide efficient services.
This will probably sweep them back into power again.