World Politics Watch Exclusive
In August, employees of the Singapore Ministry of Education received a memo telling them to guard their computers against miscreants "targeting Singapore government's web presence . . . in an attempt to discredit the event and embarrass the organizing country." The event is the annual meeting of the Boards of Governors of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The miscreants are anti-globalization protestors.
Yes, the IMF and World Bank are in town, with a total of more than 10,000 delegates, advisors, and hangers-on. This time, the hangers-on will not include the sideshow of civil society and anti-globalization protesters in the streets. In Singapore, public protest is illegal, and the world is seeing an IMF meeting where civil society is restricted to an 8-by-8-meter spot in a mall, beside Starbucks.
Most Americans who have heard of Singapore associate it with caning, the punishment meted out more than a decade ago to an American diplomat's son for vandalizing cars.
The Far Eastern Economic Review's blog has called Singapore the "Confucian answer to Plato's republic," alluding to the ruling People's Action Party's air of paternalism and discipline. But perhaps FEER just feels stung; its September 2006 issue drew government ire for publishing a slightly cheeky interview with a local opposition politician. The furor was accompanied by a defamation suit against the magazine brought by current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father Lee Kwan Yew, the long-time prime minister and the real strength in the party.
Lawsuits are a well-known People's Action Party (PAP) method to stave off political threats. Several foreign press organizations, such as the Economist and Bloomberg, have been required to fork over a $126,000 bond to cover any damages should they become embroiled in a defamation suit. They must either submit the bond or be banned from distribution in Singapore. In the case of defamation, not only is the bond forfeited, the publication must usually print a written apology.
It is overkill like this and the paranoia evidenced in the Ministry of Education memo that makes Singapore a puzzle to liberals. In a June press conference in New Zealand, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong answered a question about opposition politician Chee Soon Juan by saying "he's a liar, he's a cheat, he is deceitful, he's confrontational." He is bankrupt too, incidentally, after being on the losing end of several defamation suits brought by the Lees over the years.
Also in June, popular columnist "Mr. Brown" was suspended from the state-owned Today newspaper for a satirical article about the rising cost of living in Singapore. A response from the Ministry of Information, Communications, and the Arts said Mr. Brown's "piece is calculated to encourage cynicism and despondency, which can only make things worse, not better, for those he professes to sympathise with." Among the treasons in this free daily tabloid column were sarcastic jokes about the government's cheerful tone in a report about Singapore's growing wage gap and about high road taxes.
In February 2003, when millions of people all over the world took to the streets to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a text-message went around in Singapore calling for a protest in front of the U.S. embassy. Six people came to the embassy between three and four o'clock bearing flyers reading, "War is not healthy for children and other living things." All were hauled down to the police station for questioning as they arrived. A seventh man arrived late and was questioned and released on the spot.
Singapore says it is bending over backwards to accommodate the hippie hangers-on of the IMF by allowing the tiny protest area. However, it is no accident that the 500 anti-IMF protesters will look ridiculous corralled into a spot the size of a basketball court while Singaporeans gaze on this zoo-like exhibit and sip latte. But just so the locals don't identify with the people on the other side of the barrier, no Singaporeans are allowed to join and certain internationals have been blacklisted.
Lee Kwan Yew formed the Peoples Action Party when Singapore was still a British crown colony in 1954. Lee was left-leaning, though never a Communist. He set himself up as socialist enough to woo 1960s voters who admired the Chinese model, but not enough to get arrested by the British as an actual Communist.
After British rule, and a short period of federation with Malaysia, PAP swept Singapore's first elections as an independent country in 1968. In most constituencies, the party ran unopposed. In successive elections, right up until today, the PAP has continued to dominate Parliament. They have historically leveraged their control of broadcast and print media to shut down opposing voices. A winner-take-all voting system means that with 67 percent of the popular vote in 2006, PAP won 82 of 84 seats in Parliament. And most Singaporeans agree with the party's mantra that only the PAP can be trusted to ensure economic growth and racial harmony on the small island nation. Today Lee Kwan Yew's son, Lee Hsien Loong, is prime minister, and the father stays in the cabinet as "mentor minister."
Most of the PAP's legitimacy comes from its undeniable record of economic triumphs over the last four decades. Today, the country is literally without poverty. While some countries struggle to provide clean water, everyone born after independence in Singapore always has had access to health care, work, and an excellent education for a nominal fee. And the party does not tolerate corruption.
No party can beat the PAP on economic development. And should any opposition figure criticize a PAP member directly, he will risk being bankrupted with a defamation suit. Several politicians have been hounded out of public life in this way. Young people aspiring to a political career either join PAP or decide on another profession. Singapore is so small that it does not take very many PAP cadres to run the country, keep an eye on opposition and spread the government's message. After years of this, an opposition hardly exists.
The Indonesian island of Batam is an hour's ferry ride from Singapore. During the IMF meeting, blacklisted activists planned to move their protests over the water to Indonesia, which has a rich tradition of "street parliament," However, local businesses had no desire for a bunch of foreigners to come and make their island look anti-capitalist. Eventually, Batam agreed to host a forum with indoor protests only. After 1998, when Indonesia suffered from austerity measures that in retrospect even the IMF says were too harsh, people took to the streets. But perhaps now the Singapore model is looking attractive.
Indeed much of the Singapore model is popular with the people of neighboring countries. For reasons of political rivalry, Indonesia and Malaysia never officially praise Singapore very much. But many of their citizens look at the wealth and security across the straits with admiration. For Cambodians and Laotians making their first trip abroad, the Singapore subway is enough to amaze. Vietnamese democrats look at Lee Kwan Yew as a shining example of integrity that contrasts with their corrupt politicians. Many Southeast Asians are surprised to hear that anyone criticizes Singapore.
Indeed, Singapore knows how to make money. Government-controlled Singapore Airlines turns a profit every year, without subsidies, and provides excellent service. The country even squeezes money out of public transportation most years. The government has recently sold a gambling license for a casino to be built on reclaimed land downtown. It will be for foreigners and high rollers only. The entity behind such deals is Temasek Holdings, the government-run investment company. Temasek's average yearly return since 1974 is about 20 percent. The Singapore government runs a surplus every year and gives annual rebates to citizens -- holders of "New Singapore Shares."
And making money is the goal. The PAP says the cost of wealth is never-ending vigilance against confrontation. The vast majority of Singaporeans accept this. They are completely aware of their government's actions from reading the local newspaper. Without leaving home, Singaporeans can study the negatives of one-party rule if they want. Contrary to popular myth, the libraries stock Marx, Hobbes, Mao, Soviet history, and plenty of other political literature. And it is easy enough to get around periodic censorship. Singaporeans are plugged in. They could probably even change things if they tried hard enough.
But mostly, they're not interested. They're happy with their snug country and a clean ruling party -- for now.
Maggie Lee is an Atlanta-based writer and researcher specializing in Southeast Asia.