28 Aug 2006

Singapore’s social contract under strain

Financial Times
August 19, 2006
By John Burton in SINGAPORE

WHEN Today, a state-owned newspaper, recently published a satirical article by a popular internet blogger known as Mr Brown, the Singapore government was not amused.
The information ministry sent a sharp letter saying his views could undermine national stability. The editors quickly decided to suspend Mr Brown's regular column indefinitely.

The incident appeared to contradict promises by Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, to promote more political discussion in the tightly ruled city-state. “We are building a more open society and encouraging freer debate,” he claimed in a National Day speech last week.

The reason the offending column hit a raw nerve was that it complained about the rising cost of living when the income gap is widening.

The social contract under which Singaporeans gave up certain civil liberties in return for prosperity is under threat.

There are other signs of official nervousness. New conditions for the circulation of foreign publications were recently imposed. Singapore banned outdoor demonstrations by international non-governmental organisations during next month's IMF/World Bank annual meeting. And Chee Juan-soon, a leading opposition leader, is being tried for alleged defamation against top government leaders and speaking in public without a police permit.

The moves come after the long-ruling People's Action party suffered an 8-percentage-point drop in support during May's general election, which focused on widening income disparity.

Shortly after the election, the government revealed that the income gap was bigger than at any time since independence in 1965. The bottom 30 per cent of households have seen incomes fall since 2000.

Singapore's Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, places the city state at 105th in the world, between Papua New Guinea and Argentina, based on data from the latest United Nations Development Programme report.

A two-speed, dual economy appears to be emerging in Singapore,” said Citigroup.

“Globalisation, for a small open economy, may be having a disproportionately large impact.”

The government has allowed some forms of freer _expression, particularly in terms of theatre performances because they attract a small audience.

The recent Singapore Theatre Festival included several plays that were critical of the political and social climate.

“The younger generation of journalists is trying to challenge the government and push the envelope on what it can report,” said a senior editor with Singapore Press Holdings, which publishes most of the local newspapers.

But the government is pushing back, warning journalists not to overstep what it calls “out-of-bounds markers”.

The information ministry said Mr Brown was “exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the government's standing with the electorate,” when instead he “should offer constructive criticism and alternatives”.

Singapore has tightened regulations this month on leading international publications, including the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, Time, Newsweek and the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER).

The rules, which already apply to the Wall Street Journal Asia, require the publications to post a security deposit of S$200,000 (US$127,000, €99,000, £68,000) and appoint a representative in Singapore who could be sued, and gives the government the power to restrict their circulation. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press freedom group, said the rules were meant to intimidate the international media from reporting on Singapore's domestic affairs and encourage them to practise self-censorship.

The information ministry said the press act “serves to reinforce the government's consistent position that it is a privilege, and not a right, for foreign newspapers to circulate in Singapore.”

“They do so as foreign observers of the local scene and should not interfere in the domestic politics of Singapore.”

The move came shortly after FEER published an interview with Dr Chee, whom it called Singapore's “martyr”, and ahead of the IMF/World Bank meeting in Singapore next month, the biggest international conference it has ever held.

Dr Chee, who promotes the idea of civil disobedience, had suggested he might use the occasion to stage public protests.

Under an agreement with the IMF and World Bank, Singapore pledged to allow an approved list of NGOs to take part in the proceedings. But it recently said the NGOs would have to get police permits to gain access to the lobby of the conference centre, where they can “gather and engage” delegates.


Matilah_Singapura said...

The notion of "social contract: is ficticious nonsense.

There is a fundamental point about a contract being proper : that it is entered into VOLUNTARILY

Question: Did you read, understand and sign such a thing called "a social contract?"

I didn't.

Perhaps it is time to ask the questions:

1. Who is more important? The "society" or you, the individual?

2. Who owns your life: you, or the state?

antipathy said...

The social contract mr burton talks about is not your traditional rossian general will social contract.
I would be accordance with you,matilah singapura that i reject all forms of theoretical "social contract" as proposed by the old thinkers, as they are rigid and were served up as a solution for their ideal views rather than as an observance of what is actually occuring in society.

However, i state that mr burton's version of a "social contract" in the article is not really a "social contract" per se where one gives up one's right to adjudicate for the right of "freedom" from whatever forever and ever, but rather just a colloquial way of saying you reap what you sow.

Overtime it shall be proved that the marginal benefit for having PAP as a government, the oft-cited, stability, economic success, racial tolerance et al, becomes overshadowed by the marginal cost(unless they shape up or ship out).

We signed the Burton Social contract when we voted in the PAP for their 57th year in government, but the social contract in this case is amenable.

To answer the question that matilah proposed, at least in my opinion
1. I liken this question to Isaiah Berlin's notion of Freedom (+ve and -ve). I am however of the opinion that they are not diametrically opposed. You are served when society is in good health.
2. I believe i own my life, however i am sure i owe my life to something higher than my physical being.


Anonymous said...

It's an implicit social contract...66.6% "signed up" and endorsed the contract by voting in the incumbent.

They are not stupid. They did it with their eyes open, knowing that "more good years" are ahead. This is Singapore, my friend, where soul, conscience and morals can be sold to the devil for the mighty dollar.

Matilah_Singapura said...

I didn't vote. I don't vote in national elections — period. Therefore, by your argument, I didn't "sign" any contract.

The fact that 66.6% of the people voted is their business — there is no way on earth I would ever vote for a "representative" to represent me politically.

Therefore those 66.6% of the people who belive in a form for social contract get the government they deserve.

I don't really care for Berlin's version of freedom, or Jefferson or George Bush or Karl Marx or whoever. As an individual, I assure you I have my own version of freedom. I also have my own values and beliefs, and free will which means I get to choose how I will act, and whether or not I will "obey" any laws/rules/standards relating to "other people's values".

Democracy was a flawed concept to begin with, and it has demostrated to be a form of tyranny — the tyranny of the favoured group, most of the time (not necessarily though) a tyranny of the majority. I t has also demonstrated itself to be a cause of gang warfare: one political gang against the others, with the most powerful one always resorting to dirty tricks — like locking up dissenters and bullying opposition parties.

So enjoy your democracy! And I'll enjoy my ideas of selfish individualism private property, self-ownership and, I'll be happy existing and "pursuing my happiness" in a globalised world. Becasue of the spread of global capitalism, the many wonders of this fantastic planet can be experienced by any average "middle-class" Jo and Jane now, and is no longer limited to the rich, aristocracy or monarchy.

Democracy is going to shoot itself and humanity in the foot again as the resistance to "globalisation" gathers momentum.

Anonymous said...

matilah, if democracy is demonstrably a form of tyranny, then this unfettered proclaimation of your own freedom, indeed, the glorification of your self and its freedom of choices, is but an empty yet petty tyranny of self. If the world is to progress beyond cave trolls trolling for bites on one's front lawn (but wait: where did the notion of property come from?), then there should be some merit in coming together for some good, whatever that may be, than this purely, truly selfish anarchic type that would make even a hard core libertarian convulse.

If you want to go this way, you better live in Mordor where you either have a big brother eyeing you all the time to make sure you are safe, or act like the biggest cave troll around with the biggest club: because there will be no one to look out for you or your interests should you one day fall sick, or old, or simply unable to enjoy and taste your "wonders". If you think you can type or badmouth this much worthless vehemence when you grow older (i.e. less 'free'), better think again.

You really belong to those types with so much freedom and free time on your hands that have nothing to contribute and constantly shoot your mouth off to pollute people's thoughts. If you don't vote, or don't see merits in some form of democratic process, then it is really simply and ultimately better for yourself to shut up. One, the dissolution of democracy is simply going to rob you of your own freedom when everyone is going for themselves. Who enjoys freedom when you are out defending against others all the time? Two, when democracy dissolves, you may just very well have to eat what you set out to reject: to obey the gangster and his laws with the biggest stick. You may very well enjoy this type of unfettered freedom as a parasite living at the margins of other's toil, sacrifice and blood for a better society but surely in a totalitarian or truly 'cave troll' state, you can hardly do that.

Matilah_Singapura said...

What makes you think that democracy is the way to protect individual freedom?

I take it you prefer collectivism to my preference of selfish individualism? ;-)

Well, to each his own I suppose <--(the true libertarian position: leave people alone!)

Anonymous said...

Your question then depends on who you mean by that individual within that democracy you speak of. If you mean the people pragmatically, then to a large but incompletel measure, yes. If you mean the tyrants or dictators that sometimes so happen to find their exploitative niche in democracies, then no.

Your selfish individualism is normatively subversive, therefore it must be criticized. Besides, the logic of your argument is completely at odds with what you profess on how to live and how people should live. You contradict yourself more than once, selling snake oil and acting like some half wit charlatan. You are quite wrong to assume that a true libertarian, or communitarian, or whatever X, would leave someone alone if he or she feels that a charlatan would threaten the values supporting the enterprises he or she believes in. Try to see what the near theoretical libertarian GWB does when someone threatens his cherished 'liberty'. I did not quite go so far but if you have your normative position, I have mine as well.

Matilah_Singapura said...

anon 1:14

> You are quite wrong to assume that a true libertarian, or communitarian, or whatever X, would leave someone alone if he or she feels that a charlatan would threaten the values supporting the enterprises he or she believes in.

Gotcha! Now I've caught you LYING.

I NEVER threatened any of your values. I merely stated my opinion.

So much for your so-called "libertarian" (let's forget those useless communatarians — "communists in libertarian clothing).

Aren't you lucky you have an "anon" nick. Without an identity, you can get away scott free by exaggerating so you can "win" an argument.

Anyway, enjoy your pyrrhic victory!

Anonymous said...

Ha, you are just as 'anon' as I am. The sole distinction is that I have a simple name, and you have quite a convoluted stupid sounding one.

Matilah_Singapura said...

Go shout yourself a beer for that scintillating observation, and a penetrating insight. (Congratulations for using your brain correctly. For once. Have faith. In time, your skill may improve.)