4 Jan 2006


Wednesday, January 04, 2006
by John Cobin
This column is the first segment of a two-part series commenting on the lack of liberty in Singapore.

Amid its pristine spires, economic prosperity,[1] efficient subway and infrastructure, and the almost perfect cleanliness and crime-free environment of Singapore lurks an eerie fiend: slavish oppression. After serving as a British colonial outpost in Southeast Asia from 1819, the small[2] “Parliamentary Republic” of Singapore attained peaceful independence from Britain in 1958 and set up its own government linked with Malaysia. The tropical city-state attained complete independence in 1965, and has since grown to a population of 4.24 million. The nation has virtually no agricultural production and relies completely on tourism, banking, manufacturing, and trade (imports) for survival. It has blossomed into an offshore tax haven in recent years and many multinational firms have their Asian headquarters in Singapore. Singapore is ranked second in the world (behind Hong Kong) in the Cato Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World 2005 index.[3] During our December 2005 visit, my wife and I experienced favorable first impressions to say the least.

With the world’s second busiest port,[4] first world shopping malls, and top-notch public services, one might be tempted to think that Singapore is a bastion of capitalism and freedom. However, upon closer scrutiny, one can see that Singapore more closely resembles Hitler’s Germany overflowing with its Brown Shirt regiment. Let’s not forget that Germany emerged from the Great Depression earlier under Hitler’s rule and began to enjoy economic prosperity under him. Some have labeled Singapore’s socioeconomic system as “neomercantilist”; others as simply “fascist”. And fascism seems to fit Singapore’s model well: a regime that (1) exalts the nation above the individual, (2) uses violence, propaganda and censorship to forcibly suppress political opposition, (3) engages in severe economic and social regimentation, and (4) engages in corporatism. When it comes to freedom, money simply isn’t everything.

In her online article in “Happy-face fascism”,[5] Sue Ann Tellman rightly calls Singapore’s civil society “parental authority institutionalized in a nation-state.” Judging from reports during our recent trip to Singapore, things have not changed much in the last eleven years. The single-party nanny state has produced dire proactive policies. For example, public toilets are monitored and non-flushers are fined, jaywalkers are resolutely fined, personal grooming standards (e.g., hair length) have been regulated, the sex industry is severely regulated (with prostitutes being licensed and routinely cleaned up by state-approved doctors), the press is not free and import of foreign publications is restricted. The importation, manufacture, possession, and sale of chewing gum have been banned since 1992 (except for medical purposes).[6]

Breaking the rules can result in beatings (with a bamboo cane), large fines, imprisonment, expulsion, and, in extreme situations, capital punishment. Hanging is the mandatory punishment for drug dealers, as one Australian teen found out in December 2005. Criminals like rapists and vandals are stripped naked and caned until their buttocks are hideously bruised and bloodied.[7] There is no “cruel and unusual punishments” proscription like the American Constitution’s Eighth Amendment in Singapore. My wife’s cousin Russell Compton was only in Singapore—which he referred to as a “Lego city”—for six hours. While sitting on a city bench he noticed that someone had left a piece of trash there. Fearful lest he be accused, he picked up the litter and disposed of it.

Tellman comments: “the Government promotes ‘family values’ to provide the social stability needed for continued economic growth. In the Singaporean context this means complete subservience to the state and its social dictates.” One such dictate provided for government housing on a 99 year lease basis. The leaseholds are not cheap and the majority of Singaporeans have no hope of passing on their homestead to future generations. (Only the very wealthy can afford an inheritable, non-time constrained freehold in Singapore.) At least the Singapore state is honest about who really owns the land and buildings. Social stability is also “enhanced” by tight regulation of industry and trade, often including stiff payments for the privilege of doing business. If you think this sounds a little like what America is becoming you are correct, both in terms of policies pertaining to real property “ownership” and individual liberties.


[1] Singapore’s per capital GNP was nearly $25,000 in 2004.

[2] Singapore is merely 264 square miles in area.

[3] http://www.cato.org/pubs/efw/ says: “Economic Freedom of the World measures the degree to which the policies and institutions of countries are supportive of economic freedom. The cornerstones of economic freedom are personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to compete, and security of privately owned property.” Out of a possible 10 points, Hong Kong scored 8.7, Singapore 8.5, and the USA, Switzerland, and New Zealand were tied for third place with 8.2.

[4] The world's busiest port is Hong Kong.

[5] Sue Ann Tellman (1995), “Happy-face fascism,” New Internationalist, issue 263 (January). The author wrote under a pseudonym so as to preserve the ability to re-enter Singapore.

[6] The penalty for smuggling gum into the country is a year in jail, and a 10,000 Singapore dollar (US$6,000) fine. The ban was imposed to keep the subway running on time. Used wads of gum had been disposed of on subway train doors, preventing them from closing and disrupting service.

[7] Rapists suffer severe beatings. American teenager Michael Fay experienced a notorious caning in August 1993 for vandalism.


Anonymous said...

Imho this extract reflects the writer's attitude:

"My wife’s cousin Russell Compton was only in Singapore—which he referred to as a “Lego city”—for six hours. While sitting on a city bench he noticed that someone had left a piece of trash there. Fearful lest he be accused, he picked up the litter and disposed of it."

Anonymous said...

For a piece intended to expound 'the lack of liberty in Singapore', this comes across as more of a mindless, exaggerated, skewed tirade compounding every little trivial pickings like the chewing gum ban so favored by lesser minds.

Worse is the hyperbolic comparison to Hitler's Germany. More than just irresponsible, this comes as an extremely unjustified accusation given that to say the least, Singapore is an ethnically diverse and tolerant country, a very far cry from the intolerant, ruthless nature of the Nazi state.

If the assignment of a "fascist" state rests on the criterion of corporatism, then every modern nation state on earth today who has hosted some MNCs or Green Earth Vigilance Group could be considered as 'fascists'. This is of course, excluding the possibility that some mighty powerful religious groups can exert their interests in certain places and not be considered 'fascists'.

Sure, Singapore does not share America's 8th Amendment but having this written in stone does not guarantee that it is always followed as indicated by some recent events. Besides, this comment makes one wonder whether it is more 'cruel and unusual' to punish someone who has consciously committed a crime or is it more 'cruel and unusual' to punish someone who has not even stand trial? Of course, one must, in the best circumstances, neither be cruel nor sadistic but this is exactly the question begged by such a skewed and juvenile comparison in the first place.

For an article which is seemingly (and trying very hard to be concise and fair) extolling the many virtues of liberty, it is quite surprising to see that the skewness extends into the private ownership and eventual inheritance of estates as well. Would not sheer liberty consist of one's own lived independence and freedom than being tied down and managing one's parents' profits or even debts?

Indeed, for an article written to give some insights into issues of liberty in Singapore, this comes across as a mindless and lazy bashing of many tin cans which in effect, is more skewed than it is helpful for responsible reflection.

Anonymous said...

The author's website, if you do some research (http://www.policyofliberty.net/) has this to say:

"Policy of liberty is dedicated to the advancement of liberty and responsibility in society. Its philosophy is pro-life libertarian (rather than neo-conservative) on economic issues, adhering to biblical norms for proper social perspective but rarely looking to the state for solutions to social problems."

AND, if you look at his resume from the same website, you will realize that he has only been to Singapore about one time in his life. So, that should give some perspective to his article. He can still say what he wants since that is what free speech is about but research and put everything in perspective.

Anonymous said...

I think it is quite clear what his stance is without the background query but let's only attack the statements. Given this, why put such a laughable and uninsightful, not to mention ill-researched and biased article up in the first place?

soci said...

The argument is that if a state meets not just the 'corporatist' criteria but...

"(1) exalts the nation above the individual, (2) uses violence, propaganda and censorship to forcibly suppress political opposition, (3) engages in severe economic and social regimentation, and (4) engages in corporatism"

then it is fascist. Where he got the definition from I have no idea. But according to his criteria the Sg state falls under the concept of fascism.

soci said...

simply arguing that it is "laughable and uninsightful, not to mention ill-researched and biased article" is not enough to remove the article.

Yes attack the statements, with counter evidence, insight, objectivity and seriousness, don't just say it without providing counter evidence.

ren said...

I brought in 5 packets of gum and two pirated dvds *sweats* two weekends ago from JB. The officer checking my bag only looked at the dvds and advise me not to buy pirated stuff in future. Oh, and he said, "chewing gums are ok."

Well, I didn't spent a year in jail!

soci said...

hi ren

Hooray for anecdotal evidence - that has obviously undermined his entire article.

I will remove it immediately and contact the parents of Van to inform them that their son wasn't hanged, Fays parents to let them know that he wasn't caned, let my Singaporean friends know that the 99 year lease is a myth etc...

Anonymous said...

singapore pays too much attention to the opinions of westerners, and not enough to its own people's

(BTW: I am neither a westerner nor a singaporean)

Anonymous said...


You are not reading my statements correctly. I asked for the motivations for why the article was put up, not for reasons enough to remove it.

Providing counter evidence is only good if the statements made were fair in the first place. It is fair to say on this that I have nevertheless, provided counter-arguments where it is obvious to do so.

Examples that you furnished makes no sense whatsoever as far as the context of liberty is concerned in Singapore: there are places where there is death penalty, including many states in the author's own country; corporeal punishment is still being practised in many places and many in the USA on a year to year lease with no security whatsoever. Eviction is common if rent cannot be paid when increased and many young people are forced to share an apartment in most bigger cities with a deferred version of the american dream quite a long way off.

To paraphrase what 'anonymous' said, Singapore should not pay any attention to the opinions of westerners only engaged in the propaganda of sensationalism.

Anonymous said...

Okay... as an American, I would like to ask not only the Americans who are reading here but also the Singaporeans and other to consider a few points.
(1) Most times Americans are thought of as hopelessly into themselves and vain, thinking that the world ends at the border. And we can be. Most notably, we assume that what works in the U.S. will work everywhere else. Lee Kuan Yew pointed out that this was not the case, and love him or hate him, he was right. Singapore is an island of prosperity in what is still a swamp of political, military, religious, and economic turmoil. That cane is needed to keep the snapping turtles out of the boat. Depending on what happens with China, it may not even matter in the long run.
(2) Singapore's justice system may be harsh to some. I can assure you that the opposite extreme (the U.S. and the West) is not better. If Singapore loses the bubble and goes the way of the U.S., where armed robbers, drug dealers, and vandals get chance after chance and no punishment, they will not survive. The U.S. cannot afford it's zero gravity in no zero gravity criminal justice and social experiment in no standards, none of the time for much longer. People in the U.S. are getting tired of it, for one thing. When Fay was caned, a whole heck of a lot of Americans not only thought it was good but wanted to do the same things here.
You think hanging is bad, wait till the idiot drug dealers are doing drive by shootings on Orchard Road. If you let them get the upper hand and don't put them in their place hard, you will have it happening. Trust me, I've seen the elephant in the U.S.!!
(3) Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will Singapore be; their model of personal freedom versus responsibility is still evolving. I urge the people of Singapore to move carefully, because you are in your most dangerous time right now; look at the rest of the world and judge where those who have gone before you have gone. You have much of it right.

zeen said...

Commander Oneshot,
I applaud your post! As a Singaporean currently living in the US I agree with what you have stated in your post with this to add:

1) After leaving Singapore, I realized that the other side of the fence is not all green. Different systems have its pros and cons. What the common views/perspective of the average Singaporean is not completely correct. For example, these were some of my misconception of US prior to actually living here:
a) Healthcare is free and provided by the govt.
b) US has a great education system

For a, it is definitely not free, I'm paying close to 200+ a month for health, dental and vision and that does not include what my employer must pay. This is even when I had not seen a doctor for the past 3 years!

As for b, sure, the private schools are generally good but at what price?! If you cannot afford one of the private schools, it will depend on where you live or what Americans know as school districts. It makes the difference between a good education and one where you can get by without even learning how to read!

Sure, there are a lot of not so desirable policies, things going on in Singapore that I do not like. In fact I know close friends of mine who will fall off the chair when they this email from me as I'm usually bashing Singapore policies and of course the government like a lot of Singaporeans do. However, I strongly believe that a non-Singaporean who like the author who had only visited Singapore once and based everything else on what he read has no right to make the kind of judgemental remarks. BUT one other thing I learnt in the US is the 1st Amendment. He can say what he like and I can thrash him for it but he has the right to write what he thinks as that is his opinion.

soci said...

to anon this seems to sum up his motivation-
"If you think this sounds a little like what America is becoming you are correct, both in terms of policies pertaining to real property “ownership” and individual liberties." This statement also seems to have relevance to Commnader Oneshots argument. Is commander oneshot asking for less freedom in the US?

commander oneshot.

You appear to be arguing that economic prosperity and democracy are incompatible, is that a correct interpretation? The RSF 2005 report argues to the contrary.

Would that be the USA that has the highest level of imprisionment per capita in the world. Yes the USA has its problems, I have yet to see a country that doesn't. Are you arguing that by undermining freedom, liberty and human rights you can fix those social problems.

Isn't Singapore an economically developed country NOW. How long does this 'building' have to go on until democracy is introduced in Sg?

You appear to be arguing that economic prosperity and individual liberty are incompatible

soci said...

having read Commander Oneshots blog I do feel that he or she would like to see the end of certain freedoms -

"Where Islam prospers, there begins the end of Western civilization and every right Westerners cherish-- including the right to go half dressed, drink, and do and say what you want. Any non-Moslem, even the liberals who I would normally never expect to stand up for anything, should be able to get behind the bandwagon of saving what we have."

Anonymous said...

this article is grossly exaggerated and subjective. one finds it hard to evaluate the validity and credibility of its claims, because it is simply derogatory in nature.

Anonymous said...

the interesting questions are (a) why casual observers have such difficulty understanding the real problems of singapore (there are many, as Nicholl Highway and NKF reveal); (b) why SOC finds the article worth posting on his blog

Gilbert Koh said...

Actually I thought it was a pretty lousy article myself. The comparison between Singapore and Germany is ridiculous.

Go and try beating up the Jews in Singapore lor; or bullying the Malays; or insulting some religion; or oppressing some minority group. Maybe just post a few rude remarks about them on the Internet.

Then see what happens to you next.

Ridiculous - the comparison between Singapore & Germany.

The Legal Janitor said...

I find that the author has a severe lack in critical thinking and logic. Doesn't reflect well on us libertarians for someone claiming to be one to write so badly.

On top of that, there is a critical error in his facts. Van was not a teenager, as the author asserts. Whether it was an honest mistake or a calculated misrepresentation, we do not know.

But when he combines this factual error with commentary on the lack of protections similar to that provided by the 8th amendment in the US constitution, the resulting impression is one that portrays Singapore as a cruel state that punishes minors with the death penalty.

Which is obviously not true. Any article that can assert something that is patently false such as this deserves no respect.

The Legal Janitor said...

An additional point:

For a libertarian, he seems to have an incoherent stand on prostutition.

Libertarians believe that private acts between consenting adults are no business of the state. Therefore, logically, prostitution should not be illegal.

His quibble with prostitution in Singapore is that it is heavily state-regulated. The question is, is the state of prostitution in Singapore better than in the USA?

The simple fact is that prostitution is illegal in the vast majority of states in the US. Compare outright criminalisation with regulated legality, and then ask oneself the all-important question: which one gives more liberty?

Anonymous said...

Glad I checked back by here today; Soci-- no, I do not believe that economic prosperity and individual liberty are incompatible. I do perceive that in Singapore, which is surrounded by enemies and challenges, what works in the U.S. or elsewhere in terms of individual liberty may not work there, not at all. You have Indonesia, China, Malaysia.. and various insurgents and terrorists that might take advantage. I do know this, you could not run Singapore like you could the United States. What we are doing here in my estimation would collapse Singapore overnight. We let too much go in terms of controlling our bad apples, for one. I do not presume to know what "the answer" is for Singapore, but I further say that they are working toward it. As far as Islam and the U.S. or other goes, since it was referenced; the U.S. is based on Judeo-Christian concepts of law, the self, justice, and the universe at large and Islam has a very different take on these things. I believe that a nation that is Islamic will inevitably wind up at loggerheads with a Western nation. They want different things. I used some of the activities of Westerners to illustrate the point, ie. what is acceptable and not. I was not necessarily endorsing going half dressed... if someone wants to live in Saudi Arabia, or Iran, let them and let them choose their system. But I would not want to see the system in those countries in the U.S., no small reason being that I am a product of a different culture and civilization.

Anonymous said...

the poor fellow was probably quite frustrated by his inability to start any in depth discussions with anyone during his visit; you know how hard it is to get people to open up

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