18 Jan 2006

Singapore’s free speech policy criticized

By John Burton in Singapore For The Financial Times.
Published: January 18 2006 01:27 | Last updated: January 18 2006 01:27

The opening of a light-rail commuter station would be a routine event in most countries, but the inauguration of a suburban stop for Singapore’s MRT system last weekend drew attention because of its role in a growing debate about free speech.

Residents near the Buangkok station had been lobbying for more than two years for its opening after SBS Transit decided to mothball the already-built station because usage was expected to be low, and this would cause operating losses for the transport operator.

The visit of a government minister to the area last year provoked a cheeky protest, with cartoon cut-outs of a white elephant posted around the closed station greeting his arrival.

Singapore’s no-nonsense government took the matter seriously. The police launched an investigation to try to identify the culprits and issued a warning to local grassroots leaders.

The police still had their eye on the troublesome area even after the government decided to open the station. A plan by a group of female high-school students to help raise money for charity by selling white elephant T-shirts at the station’s inauguration ceremony was seen as a potentially subversive act.

The police warned the students that if they wore the T-shirts “en masse, it might be misconstrued by some as an offence” since Singapore bans protest demonstrations.

The students complied by not wearing the T-shirts, although they were allowed to sell them, and issued an apologetic statement saying: “We are in no way attempting to judge or condone the Buangkok MRT incident.”

Singapore’s approach towards public protests has been influenced by the old Chinese saying that “a single spark can start a prairie fire”, or what Catherine Lim, a local novelist and social critic, describes as the government’s “nip-in-the-bud-ism”.

The episode would appear to bolster claims by critics that Singapore still has far to go to achieve an open society that tolerates differing views.

The debate on free expression comes as concerns are being raised about whether political curbs will affect Singapore’s future economic competitiveness as it seeks to rebrand itself as a global centre for creativity and innovation.

The government of Lee Hsien Loong claims it is promoting increased political openness, but critics say the pace of change remains slow.

Ms Lim says in spite of the apparent economic success of Singapore’s alternative model to liberal democracy, it threatens to create a monolithic society that lacks the flexibility to handle new challenges.

“I’ve come to believe with a heavy heart that even if the government wanted to do something about it, Singaporeans are so used to the government making decisions for [them], any major change will be viewed with alarm,” she told a recent forum at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies in Singapore.

The issue of whether Singapore is being damaged by public apathy has been raised by a recent financial scandal at the city-state’s largest charity, the National Kidney Foundation, which enjoyed strong government support.

When several people alleged that funds were being misused, they were successfully sued for damages by T.T. Durai, the NKF head. The government failed to probe deeply into the allegations until a libel case filed by Mr Durai against a local newspaper led to a trial that revealed discrepancies in the charity’s management.

Critics have focused on the incident as an example of a lack of checks and balances in Singapore and the risks faced by whistleblowers.

Singapore also suffered a setback in its quest to become a regional educational centre when Britain’s University of Warwick decided not to open a branch campus in the city-state because of worries about academic and political freedom.[update:CNA]

Government officials say political openness should be seen in the context of good governance and not as an end in itself. Singapore should be “cautiously radical rather than ideologically revolutionary” on political freedom because of its multi-ethnic society, Vivian Balakrishnan, a former dissident turned government minister, told the ISEAS forum.

But George Soros, the US financier who is supporting global democracy initiatives, recently told a Singapore audience that countries lacking transparency and free debate faced the risk of a public backlash during economic turndowns. The warning comes as Singapore is suffering from increased social inequalities between rich and poor.

Although Mr Soros said Singapore was not an open society, it “is a prosperous society, and prosperity and open society go together. So I hope that Singapore will become an open society.”

Related Article:
Warwick Uni and local institutes tie up to offer masters programme By Jason Tan, Channel NewsAsia


Anonymous said...

free speech is permitted; just seek approval first to ensure what you want to say is within "boundary markers"

white elephants, for example, are not within boundaries, and too bad the two groups of white elephant makers did not know

the RGS schoolgirls were creative, enterprising, and interested in politics; these are all encouraged, but are not as important as knowing limits

Anonymous said...

^what a moron.

Anonymous said...

heyhey who is being moronic? only morons would risk going beyond the boundaries

but of course singaporeans are smart; they stay carefully within the boundaries; I bet you do that yourself

Anonymous said...

^in my world, there is no boundaries.

Oh wait a minute, isn't that what free speach is all about?

Anonymous said...

moron 08:05:23 AM should just stay inside a 1m by 1m box since he loves boundaries so much...

Anonymous said...

that's what singaporeans do all the time, yourself included; when was the last time you went beyond boundaries?

sglaksa said...

Some people have different ideas on open society. They are the minority here. Who cares about them? The majority Conservative Singaporeans will not tolerate their nonsense.

Anonymous said...

who says singaporeans are conservative? gambling, prostitution, abortion, all allowed here; more liberal than most US states

you must mean "well controlled", like the who stays within boundaries all the time, while pretending to believe otherwise

Anonymous said...

^you're a troubled person..seek help immediately.

Anonymous said...

poor fellow, could not answer a simple question: when's the last time you went beyond boundaries?

people are satisfied with bread and circus, but prefer not to admit it; that's why control is successful: people obey, and agree they are free not to obey but choose to obey; they and upstairs both have the best of both worlds

Anonymous said...

when's the last time you went beyond boundaries?
well... prerty much when i stepped out of singapore soil for good.

if your gonna be as ignorant as fuck, maybe you should step out of your tiny boundary and choose your own destiny and what govt has rolled out for you.

Anonymous said...

typo : *and NOT what govt has rolled out for you.

Anonymous said...

so when you were in singapore, you toed the line like everyone else; easy to ask others to be different from a safe ddistance

Anonymous said...

good luck to you, buddy! one day when you choose to be different, you'll realize there's more to a singaporean life.

Anonymous said...

since you are so proud of being different, let's hear about what you actually did