Singapore’s Moment at Center Stage
This is the first of a multi-part series to run over the next week in the Asia Sentinel in conjunction with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Singapore. It will examine Singapore's social and political structure, its relationship with the press, its concerns about regional security and other issues.
Singapore is about to face what is potentially its most embarrassing moment in the international spotlight.
The restrictions which the city-state typically uses to crush its critics have now come under fire from the very international bodies that it wants to suck up to - the IMF, the World Bank.
Even the IMF and World Bank recognize the right of NGOs to express different views – Singapore doesn’t. Now, with 16,000 delegates and several hundred members of the international press about to descend on the country, its repressive ways are about to come under scrutiny. And Singapore, which is stumping up hundreds of millions of dollars for the dubious honor of hosting the IMF-World Bank event, will most probably get a bad press.
Some NGOs who said they would protest on the nearby Indonesian island of Batam got a nasty shock. A few days later, Indonesian police seemed to be suggesting that such protests wouldn’t be allowed, causing concern that this change of tune in far-more-democratic Indonesia could possibly be related to the fact that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s president, was in Singapore recently. Surely the Singaporeans didn’t put pressure on their Indonesian neighbor and threaten to stop the very generous slow of investment into Batam, Bintan and Indonesia from the cash-stuffed government investor Temasek?
The timing is also interesting from the point of view of press freedom. Only last month, Singapore’s government reinstated regulations forcing five foreign news publications – the Far Eastern Economist Review, Time, Newsweek, IHT and Financial Times – to each stump up a S$200,000 bond and appoint a legal representative if they wished to publish in the tiny nation (population 4.4 million).
The move came shortly after FEER published a long interview with opposition politician Chee Soon Juan – much hated by the Lee family which runs the city-state. FEER was given until Sept. 11 to decide whether to pay up. Their decision is still unknown.
But one thing that foreign media groups might want to consider in the age of the internet – and at a time when Singapore arguably needs the foreign media far more than the foreign media need Singapore – is why on earth bother to be in Singapore? As a would-be financial center for Asia, Singapore should be well aware that the international bankers, brokers and foreign talent that the elite here likes to attract aren’t going to believe most of the rubbish they read in the propaganda sheets published by Singapore Press Holdings.
If the foreign media groups collectively pulled the plug, those bankers would squeal in protest – and maybe ask to be relocated back to polluted HK where at least the information flow is a bit more reliable and the lawsuits aren’t as crippling.
But of course if you listen to the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, you’d think this was an open and free society. Just last month, when Lee, the son of the country’s autocratic founder, delivered his tediously long address to the nation (wags wonder if he’s trying to vie with Castro in the how-long-can-you-address-the-nation-stakes), he stressed that the government doesn’t mind criticism. That must have come as news to the likes of Chee and anyone else who has ever dared to speak up against the Lee family and felt the force of their wrath.
The national day message – which the multilingual Lee delivered in Malay, Chinese and English – did have some interesting nuggets for Lee-watchers. To listen to the propaganda, you’d think that Singapore was a happy multi-racial community where everyone was treated equally.
Perhaps not: Singapore is very worried about its low birth rate – but particularly about the low birth rate of its majority Chinese. Minority Malays continue to have large families – so when Lee decided to deliver a lecture to Singaporeans about the need to procreate, interestingly he only included that in his English and Chinese speeches. The not-so-subtle message is that the Malay population – who are most visibly represented as counter staff in the numerous coffee shops – don’t need to multiply, thanks.
Of course, most people outside of such a micromanaged country such as Singapore would find it extraordinary that the prime minister should take it upon himself to lecture the population about their reproductive habits.
And then there was his stranger aside about how Singaporeans should think about jobs in the boring technology sector. Lee told his audience that there are plenty of jobs in the tech industry but that not enough Singaporeans are applying for them because they think these jobs are unattractive – you have to wear those funny suits like astronauts, and you can’t take smoke breaks and talk to your friends and you have to work shifts.
But, Lee lectured, the pay isn’t bad, so Singaporeans shouldn’t shun such important jobs. Coming from someone who has never worked on the factory floor for a crappy salary, that might have struck most viewers as a bit rich. Lee is one of the highest-paid prime ministers in the world, in the region of $1 million, an extraordinary fact given that he runs a country the size of a town council – though interestingly in recent years the government hasn’t given a breakdown for individual ministers, perhaps because it realizes how huge those salaries look to ordinary Singaporeans.
Lee Hsien Loong, who has tried for the past couple of years to adopt a more voter-friendly disposition in contrast to his normally stiff, formal manner, even tried to crack a few jokes in his speech though most of them fell flat, and one weird reference to street food got picked up by the internet community and was derided by a local blogger (Mr Brown) – or as one expert on local food put it, this just shows Lee doesn’t go to hawker markets (unlike other Singaporeans).
Not that Lee has done much to make himself popular. He’s made in his father’s mold and clearly hates any opposition. One of his most embarrassing gaffes came around the time of the most recent election, when he said that if Singapore had say 10 opposition MPs he would have to spend all his time “fixing them.” As Singaporeans wondered whether this was another sign of the government threatening to muzzle its critics with a slew of lawsuits, Lee’s press secretary rushed to explain that the PM didn’t mean “fix.” Still, everyone got the message loud and clear.
The government has to hope that the IMF and World Bank bigwigs will enjoy the big party put on for their benefit. As mystified Singaporeans point out, the city-state has never looked so spick-and-span – the flowerbeds decked out in hundreds of beautiful new plants, the roads newly painted and spruced up, and there’s even a Singapore biennial to prove to everyone that this is a cultured place that appreciates the arts. Too bad there’s so much rubbish at the biennale. The hacks who trooped off to City Hall to pick up their press cards were perhaps amused by the goodie bag complete with pen, notebook and pin.
Best gift of all was a key ring with a mini-memory stick attached. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, a man his 80s who shows no sign of relinquishing his control over the country, proudly told journalists ahead of the elections that there was no way he’d step down because he could do things no one else in the cabinet could do.
He went on to opine that if only all his experience and knowledge could be downloaded from his brain into a memory stick, he could eventually step down. So hacks excitedly plugged their free memory sticks into their computers to see if they had indeed struck gold with the LKY memory stick – but no such luck. The freebie contained a Discovery Channel program on Singapore and a promotional clip about property developments on the island.