An Unnatural Country and a Sin City – Singapore’s Brand of Democracy and Globalisation

Make no mistake about it. The recent speech by Singapore’s Ambassador to the US, Chan Heng Chee, on the topic of democracy in Singapore (delivered on March 8 to students at the Yale Law School; edited version published in ST, 20 April 2012) is an excellent summary of the state of our nation today, whether you buy the Yale-Singapore cooperation or not. The edited and published speech looks like a perfect bait screaming for responses. Somehow, the very way it couches the current challenges of Singapore in diplomatic speak only serves to remind us of everything that is wrong in the country. So let’s entertain ourselves:

TITLE: An Unnatural Country’s Take on Democracy. (If Yale can go to China to teach and set up programmes, why is it so controversial to go to Singapore?)

Well, thank you, we got one keyword in the title right. Singapore is indeed a country most UNNATURAL. What’s unnatural is not just the fact of Singapore being under the rule of a one-party government for the past 50 years. It’s also the way Singapore has developed under a unique model of capitalism under authoritarian rule, which goes against the logic of liberal democracy.

What’s unnatural is not just a population ratio of one foreigner to two locals being taken as ideal by the government of our sovereign country (and now the NPTD report says Singapore needs 20,000 to 25,000 new citizens each year). It’s also the way the state has embraced neo-liberal globalisation without meeting demands of accountability and transparency as part of liberal democracy – nobody can even oppose the way public transport such as buses and MRT is run in Singapore, the transport minister would say “it is the profit incentive of commercial enterprises that spurs efficiency and productivity improvements”, and now LRT passengers have to walk on a sky bridge. What is the excuse for all this?

1st Para: “IN THE last decade, Singapore has been frequently cited as a model of success. One hears references to the ‘Singapore model’, whatever the speaker may mean. Mr Yasser Arafat proudly asserted that he wanted Palestine to be the ‘Singapore of the Middle East’ and Mr Shimon Peres suggested Gaza could be the ‘Singapore of the Middle East’.”

What’s the point of all this? That Singapore has made it and we can all live happily together ever after? Or is this a hint that Singapore has to be the “Israel of Southeast Asia”? Is this why Singapore has the 4th highest defence spending per capita in the world?  In terms of percentage of government expenditure, Singapore even has higher defence spending than Israel, with 24.4% of budget allocation, versus 15%, whereas Israel has higher social spending than Singapore.

So what achievements can Singapore boast of at the moment? The S$8-billion casino resort Marina Bay Sands, built by the influential magnate Sheldon Adelson, the patron of Newt Gingrich and friend of Binyamin Netanyahu, the man who funds rightwing groups in Israel and anti-Muslim campaigns within the US?

Never mind where all that money is going to. What happens when we have cases like some man who lost $25k in one night and $100k in all? We just call it a social problem, call it ‘problem gambling’ and refer him to a pastor? Shall we also celebrate the growth of pawnshops in Singapore?

“The 1970s and early 1980s saw double-digit growth. Singapore’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) today is around US$50,000 (S$63,000), depending on the exchange rate.”

But what does this mean for Singaporeans’ well-being and quality of life? Interestingly, a latest IPS report entitled ‘Inequality and the Need for a New Social Compact’ has just highlighted that while Singapore’s per capita GDP in 2000 was 83% of the US, Singaporeans’ well-being (measured by consumption and adjusted for factors such as leisure, longevity and income inequality) was only 44% of the US level.

“We are known for non-corruption…”

Well, last year we came to know that a clerical officer for the Ministry of Home Affairs was accused of 455 fraud charges and cheating the government of more than S$600k, and a deputy director of IT at Singapore Land Authority cheated the government of more than S$12m. This year, we have a former commissioner of Singapore Civil Defence Force and a former director of the Central Narcotics Bureau arrested for ‘serious personal misconduct’.

This month, procurement lapses have been found in 6 ministries – lapse such as committing to a purchase beyond approved budget; using inappropriate term contracts resulting in gross overpayment for items purchased; setting unrealistically short period for submission of bids thereby limiting competition; and not giving equal opportunity to tenderers to revise their bid prices when requirements were changed.

“Why this fear and anxiety particular to Singapore? In 1901, Yale set up a Yale-in-China programme in China, then hardly a thriving democracy.”

Now that’s comic relief – Singapore is compared to an old Chinese dynasty, back when men were wearing pigtails and women had to bind their feet!

“Singapore is a democracy. Information flows freely and there is freedom of expression; not like the US, but…”

We are definitely not like the US or more than 80 other countries which have seen movements inspired by Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Singapore at Raffles Place was an expected flop given the police control (Read: ). We only have events like Occupy Bishan or Occupy Dhoby Ghaut when the MRT breaks down.

Here is what Dr Michael Montesano, who formerly taught in NUS, wrote about ‘freedom of expression’ in Singapore in his article ‘Is Yale a Reliable Partner for the National University of Singapore?’ (3 April 2012):

‘Singapore’s PAP government pays no heed to most criticisms levelled against it, whether by scholars at Singaporean or foreign institutions.  It has long since concluded that only criticism of very particular kinds can do it damage.  And it simply does not take most scholars in the humanities and social sciences seriously in any case; too many of them are liberals.  Second, Singapore’s regime of self-censorship is enforced through unspecified “OB markers” (with “OB” meaning “out of bounds”).  Never knowing how far one can safely go in expressing oneself, Singaporeans learn to remain carefully short of where they think the line might be.’

Ask for freedom of expression in Singapore? Our cultured minister Yaacob Ibrahim will say traditional media can ‘separate wheat from chaff’. No wonder a Facebook page of him has only 89 likes at last count. Netizens may be exercising ‘code of conduct’.

Singapore now ranks Number 135 in the world in Press Freedom Index.

“Democracy is a concept best understood in reality as elastic. There are basic criteria that must be met. The most important is free and fair elections.”

OK, never mind the gerrymandering. Basic criteria do not even include free press or freedom of assembly? Is it fair that despite 40% voting for the opposition, only one GRC has been won by the WP? Is it fair that the SDP can’t even hold a townhall meeting to discuss healthcare issues? Is it fair that the PM can just drag his feet in calling for a by-election? (Is he too busy with his dinner menu?)

“The United States is more democratic than India, and India is more democratic than Singapore in some respects, but not others. We are more egalitarian and meritocratic.”

Well, our Primary 1 registration can be as complicated as the Indian caste system too.

“The birth of nations do not come with a clean slate. Societies have history, traditions and different ethnic and religious mixes and endowments of natural resources. Democracies evolve. Our first generation leaders wanted a political system that would help, not hinder, the development of the unlikely nation. It was a matter of survival.”

One can only speculate what this is supposed to imply. As in, ISA was necessary? It was necessary in 1963, and in 1977, and in 1987, and today? Disregard of human rights is a matter of survival?

“The link between democracy and growth is not so simplistic and the link between democracy and successful economies is not so clear-cut.”

Indeed, an assumption that economic development requires autocratic rule is a terrible assumption. But let’s cite Dr Montesano again:

‘PAP Singapore has achieved what it has achieved through the use of institutional forms alien to liberal economic climates: the Housing and Development Board, which has built the flats in which some eighty percent of the country’s population lives; the Jurong Town Corporation, which created to turn-key facilities on this island for foreign investors in the industrial sector; the National Trades Union Congress, whose leader sits in the PAP cabinet and which functions to keep the country strike-free; the Development Bank of Singapore, which originally served to channel finance into sectors of the economy deemed crucial to national progress; a range of state firms across numerous sectors, now corporatized and called “government-linked corporations”; the People’s Action Party, a vanguard party with a small cadre membership whose secretary-general serves as prime minister; the People’s Association, devoted to the promotion of “racial harmony and social cohesion” in Singapore; Temasek Holdings and the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore, two sovereign wealth funds; and many, many other institutions . . . including the National University of Singapore.’

“Singapore is a democracy. Ministers can lose their seats. We lost a very talented Foreign Minister George Yeo in last year’s elections.”

We may not have lost George Yeo if not for the GRC system. A lot of us may have preferred to lose someone like Lim Swee Say instead.

“The governing party is trying to win back votes. It has become even more responsive to the ground.”

For example, in Bukit Brown?

“Because of our history – birth, location and ethnic mix – press freedom would be different. The liberty to say whatever you want runs into an angry Muslim population north and south. Rights and freedoms come with responsibilities. There are limits to freedoms.”

It’s incomprehensible why such Western rhetorics of ‘clash of civilisations’ have to be repeated in multicultural Singapore yet again, and why the same religious community has to be highlighted again. If we are talking about liberty in sexual orientation for instance, it was an anti-gay church that AWARE was running into a few years back (or rather, the church infiltrated AWARE). The liberty of churches in claiming Darwin’s evolution theory is wrong may also run into an angry secular population everywhere. Freedom in society may also be limited by the ideology of Confucian ethics in legitimising elite rule. Does MDA represent any particular religious or ethnic group?

“But globalisation also creates greater inequality and we have seen its dark side in recent years.”

Just say it: yes, we have seen its dark side in Singapore. Singapore already ranked as having the second highest level of income inequality in developed countries in 2009, with Gini Coefficient of 0.425. And now when economist Lim Chong Yah proposes a wage shock therapy, it is immediately rejected by Lim Swee Say, the minister that local media identifies as the ‘labour chief’. Let’s not blame it all on globalisation, as if the government cannot control the processes.

The sensational case of the 48 men hiring an underaged prostitute also reminds us what wealth disparity can do.

“Democracy is precious. It is important, but so is economic development, and producing a future for the people to live decent lives. For Singapore, used to enjoying good governance and development, I hope we find the right balance. I hope citizens join the debate so we can have the best of all worlds.”

Damn right. Let’s have more debates. Enough of assuming that democracy and economic development are enemies to each other. And enough of assuming that economic development alone will bring well-being and quality of life to the citizens. We need more democracy to ensure it.


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