12 Dec 2005

The front door's open, the backyard's locked

To be global, must we rethink our conservative outlook at home?
Monday • December 12, 2005
Terence Chong

Terence Chong

IF Singapore's policy-making style had to be summed up in a phrase, it would be selective globalisation: The conscious effort to encourage certain forms of globalisation and discourage others.

The Government, on one hand, encourages economic globalisation through the synchronisation of local financial regulations and policies with international standards and, on the other, it energetically protects an Asian "conservative" society from the ills of satellite dishes, pornographic magazines and other unwholesome global commodities.

This constant oscillation between being globally open and locally particular has given rise to the Singapore paradox.

The city-state enjoys its status as one of the most globalised countries in terms of migration, global finance and telecommunications. Yet it regularly garners criticism from international human rights institutions for its insistence on its own brand of politics, whereby certain civil liberties are curtailed in view of local multi-ethnic and multi-religious realities.

The practice of selective globalisation expresses the need to remain globally connected for the sake of nothing less than national survival and the desire to retain certain notions of tradition and conservatism that protect specific interests.

For the most part, the Government has succeeded in juggling the often conflicting demands of the local and the global. Nonetheless, three events this year suggest that this may have ramifications for its global city ambitions.

In June, the Government denied fridae.com, a gay portal, the entertainment licence to hold its annual Nation Party. fridae.com responded by moving its annual bash to Phuket. Ordinarily, this would not have been an issue but for the fact that the Government acknowledges there are homosexuals in the civil service, thus making the licence withdrawal look like a step backwards.

fridae.com's pullout may have mollified the majority of conservative Singaporeans, which was the objective, but it does little to show the international community that the city-state is culturally exciting.

In the words of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, if we are only contented with being the cleanest and safest city, then the "with-it" world will pass Singapore by.

There was also an unexpected poke in the eye. In his farewell speech on Oct 11, the out-bound United States Ambassador Frank Lavin mildly criticised the Singapore Government for its repression of political expression. He also recounted his embarrassment at being asked by local police if he wanted to press charges against the demonstrators protesting outside the US embassy over the Iraq war. These remarks were surprising in a post-Clinton era, and are significant in light of the Singapore Government's strong support for the Bush administration's "war on terror" campaign and the Iraq war.

Lastly, but no less surprising, was Warwick University's decision not to set up a campus in Singapore. After months of deliberation and feasibility studies, the British university, renowned for its research excellence, declined the Economic Development Board's invitation, citing its concern over both financial costs and the lack of academic freedom in Singapore.

This marks the first time a potential investor has publicly cited Singapore's famed out-of-bounds markers, its emphasis on non-confrontational academic analysis and the Government's intolerance for dissent, as reasons for not coming.

These three incidents suggest an important lesson: A nation-state and a global city require a different management ethos. Conventional arguments for cultural and ideological protectionism may sit well with the character of nation-states, but they are increasingly incongruent with the functions of global cities.

And since a global city becomes one only when others recognise it as such, all global cities require cultural legitimacy from the international community of transnational professionals, creative class and international opinion-shapers who have the power to confer it recognition.

The competition to distinguish one's self as a global city is, in reality, the competition to win legitimacy and recognition from this international community.

The fact that Singapore's survival as a nation-state depends on its status as a global city means the Government has little choice but to constantly shift gears between the national and the global when it comes to policy-making, thus compelling it to send mixed signals to this international community.

Casinos are allowed but satellite dishes are not; topless cabaret shows are permitted but civil disobedience is not; and the list goes on. These discrepancies are at the heart of the dilemma facing Singapore at the dawn of the 21st century.

Globalising at one's own pace and terms may be prudent for a small nation-state but how much of this prudence can an aspiring global city afford?

The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.


Think Singaporean said...

"....Singapore Government's strong support for the Bush administration's "war on terror" campaign and the Iraq war"

Truly, during his visit to India recently, old lee dished out some advices to the young Indians and particularly demonstrated "that's leadership......Everybody believed there were weapons of mass destruction including the intelligence agencies."

What a good advice and example he could give? When I read this in the weekend Today dated 26 Nov 05, I was stunt. No wonder we have mandatory death penalty in sg.

I truly hope India remembers and practises what Mahatma Gandhi had done. Also advised by the Nobel Peace Laucreate, His Holiness Dalai Lama that through "NON VIOLENCE will there be WORLD PEACE AND HARMONY".

It is indeed very important to mix with the RIGHT people and the RIGHT friend so that we would not be misled and influenced by others.

pantalaimon said...

A typically bizarre complete failure to address this in terms of the actual welfare of the people and the moral force of the claims of freedom, and instead to portray questions about Singapore's future as some kind of weird economic marketing exercise. The questions is not what the 'Government' has been 'successful' at 'juggling' or 'competition' as a 'city'. It's about what human beings should not be allowed to force one another to do. We're not part of someone's greater agenda. We're ourselves. I couldn't care less about whether Singapore was an appropriately global city or not.

Anonymous said...

Unless you are given to solitude (which is rather doubtful, as you seem rather gregarious), everyone is part of "someone's greater agenda". To argue otherwise is to labour under delusions and to believe that you are entitled to have it every which way. It doesn't happen that way. If it does, pray tell, where is your utopia on planet Earth?

Anonymous said...

My own view is that people can be themselves so long as they don't impinge on other people's interests or sensibilities. It is wrong for someone to make a snide remark with sexual connotations in a public place about two women spotted walking together. Equally, it is wrong for gay men to go around talking loudly among themselves and commenting on how ugly other people around them look. Sadly, these two examples are actual incidents which have happened in Singapore, and to me they impinge on other people's sensibilities. Yet, am I to infer that some would argue these individuals have the perfect freedom to make these hurtful comments, and should not be called to account and publicly shamed for such comments?

Wowbagger said...

Anonymous wrote:It is wrong for someone to make a snide remark with sexual connotations in a public place about two women spotted walking together. Equally, it is wrong for gay men to go around talking loudly among themselves and commenting on how ugly other people around them look.

I fervently hope the above is a parody.

pantalaimon said...


I think you've chosen to take my remarks at a rather odd level of generality. I'm not really interested in discussing them in the abstract: I made my comment in the specific context of the discussion of Singapore as a "global city", and was concerned primarily with suggesting that whether Singapore properly fits the bill is of very little importance to me or to anyone who conceives of themselves as having individual lives which can be characterised as something other than cogs in a big bland machine. It is to me obvious beyond all controversy that social interaction and interdependence is necessary, unavoidable and desirable for any fulfilling life, and so if you wanted to be tritely general about things you could say "we are all part of someone's greater agenda." That truism doesn't address the point I was making, namely that I and anyone else with an iota of independence of mind would rank "whether this makes us a global city" as a completely bizarre concern in assessing any given policy move by the government.

And my, I had no idea you could tell from my excessive posting on the Internet, typically a sign of a loser of some description, whether or not I am in fact "gregarious."

Anonymous said...

It's not the number of postings that indicated your gregariousness, but their content which made that all too obvious... Even more obvious when you label someone else a "loser", because by implication you consider yourself a winner, a plaudit derived by your many social interactions no doubt.

from your local loser :)

Anonymous said...

wowbagger, the examples were not parodies at all; they did actually happen. Some of the same crowd who cry discrimination are also the ones who engage in the highest level of such activity. That's why they will never have the moral right to demand certain things for themselves which mainstream society frowns on.

Anonymous said...

Note the way at least one poster so easily hurls personal insults on those he/she disagrees with. This is the same person who demands greater freedom. Does that freedom include the freedom to insult others at the drop of a hat, whether it is on the Net or elsewhere? Is there a great deal of strength and moral rectitude in that?

pantalaimon said...

The "loser" comment was tongue-in-cheek, guys. I was making fun of myself, and expressing puzzlement as this remark about "gregariousness" which seems to have come out of nowhere. I would have thought that was obvious since I basically said that I was posting too much on the Internet and that this is usually the sign of a loser. CHILL OUT.