Free to choose? Not in Singapore

In a week when one country’s deeply flawed election process is attracting criticism from Washington, the appointment of another autocrat for Hong Kong has got barely a mention. When Xinhua murmurs approval at the ‘democratic process’, we should allow ourselves a little snigger and impolitely ignore them:

The nomination period of the Hong Kong Chief Executive Election ended Thursday afternoon, and Donald Tsang was the sole valid candidate in the Chief Executive (CE) election and has automatically become the Chief Executive designate of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).

Western governments have form in Asia: Diem, Suharto, Marcos. All thrived with backing from Washington and the West, cast aside when expended. This isn’t a rant about the past, though. And you can put a decent Realist case that getting along with little HK is non-optional, given that his much harder and meaner Big Brother is watching closely.

You can’t say the same about the next country down on the most important list of all, the Heritage Foundation’s monomaniacal Index of Economic Freedom: Singapore. HK and Singapore fill the first two places on the plutocrat’s hit parade. But it’s a grimmer tale for political and civil liberties. Freedom House, hardly a leftist hangout, rates Singapore substantially less free than Mali or Mongolia. Less free than Benin, Bolivia and Burkina Faso. Their 2003 country report, partly concerned with the conduct of the 2001 parliamentary elections, documented the serial use of civil defamation suits to silence opposition politicians, evidence of judicial bias, commonplace nepotism and widespread journalistic self-censorship (if you know what’s good for you…). Just prior to those elections the Home Affairs minister claimed that voting was a privilege, not a right. The report continued:

[Ruling-party PM] Goh responded [to electoral opposition] by warning that neighborhoods voting against the [ruling] PAP would be the lowest priority for upgrades of public housing estates, where some 85 percent of Singaporeans live…The government uses civil defamation laws, strict electoral rules, curbs on civil liberties, patronage, and its influence over Singapore’s media to undermine the opposition’s prospects in elections…

The only place where Singaporeans can make public speeches without a license is Speakers’ Corner, which is located in a downtown park. Speakers, however, must register with the police at least 30 days in advance, and their speeches are recorded by the government and kept for six years.

You would have thought the negotiation of a major trade deal with the US would have provided the ideal opportunity to advance the cause of freedom. Prime Minister Goh, having scraped home with 82 out of 84 seats in parliament, travelled to Washington for a handshake on the lawn. One for the scrap-book. He met Bush at least three times, in fact. They talked trade, talked Iraq, talked terrorism and North Korea. They talked SARS and biomedical research and tropical diseases. Bush’s verdict on the despot?

“The Prime Minister is a wise man. He understands Southeast Asia very well. And a lot of our discussion was about how we continue to foster our agenda which is one of peace and freedom, as well as prosperity through trade.”

The Free Trade Agreement entered into force on January 1st, 2004. Singapore is now a favoured partner of the US, effectively immune to the weighty political pressure that active US trade policy can bring. Not a word in any press release or press conference on the state of civil and political liberties in the tiny state. No mention either that Singapore is home to JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, Bank of America and 102 other foreign banks. The US State Department website notes:

Singapore has consistently supported a strong U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. In 1990, the United States and Singapore signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which allows United States access to Singapore facilities at Paya Lebar Airbase and the Sembawang wharves. Under the MOU, a U.S. Navy logistics unit was established in Singapore in 1992

Last month, a local Singaporean window-cleaner was hanged for possession of a kilo of cannabis. Political films are still illegal, and their screening subject to two-year prison terms. Civic rights have actually waned in the last decade.

Tony Blair will be in Singapore next month, though with a different agenda. Changi airport at the height of the chewing-gum crisis ten years ago was close enough for me — and things have actuallly got worse since. Until the cause of global freedom starts to mean more than the freedom to buy and sell, or the freedom to be bought and sold, none of us, not even liberal idealists like me, are going to believe.

  1. Singapore’s high ratings on the Heritage Foundation index is a bit odd. Although there’s low levels of taxation, there’s huge amounts of forced saving, much of it into state-directed investment funds to pay for infrastructure, etc.

    On the main point… yes, but… My guess would be that the Administration sees bigger fish to fry – even within the region, they’d sooner see Indonesia achieve lasting political order, and Malaysia clean up more, than upset an otherwise stable applecart in Singapore. Sad but true. There’s also another side to this – Singapore has lots of goodwill in Washington because Lee Kuan Yew was reliable during the Cold War. Again perhaps, sad but true.

    Anyway, the US obviously doesn’t see freedom solely in terms of freedom to buy and sell – ask the window cleaner…

  2. Didn’t Blair praise Singapore in 1996? According to Lexis Nexis the Guardian reported,on January the 9th of that year, that:

    ‘Mr Blair, who has spent five days trying to impress on Asia the new thinking in Labour, told reporters that Mr Lee’s success in building a society encompassing all its citizens “very much reflects my own political philosophy.”‘

    Offically he was harpering on about his now largely forgotten Stake-holder welfare policy – but with ID cards and the succession of anti-terror laws, one wonders what else Blair meant by that statement.

  3. Could the Heritage bunch be having a tiny little dig at the wonderworld of Singapore and its’ immediate neighbours on their little list from a sarcastic point of view? I mean, heading the list is Hong Kong! a place where the chief executive is chosen from forty selectees, somehow that doesn’t quite spell ‘democracy’ either.
    As a comment on the final name on the posting, with an illiberal agenda all of his own, Tony Blair must feel quite at home with Prime Minister Goh’s pronouncements on comments on the secret ballot, which presumably doesn’t exist to any degree from his viewpoint!

  4. Jamie K said:

    “I mean, heading the list is Hong Kong! a place where the chief executive is chosen from forty selectees, somehow that doesn’t quite spell ‘democracy’ either.”

    I think it was d-squared who said it originally, but the Heritage people’s idea of freedom consists of going down to the local harbour and doing a quick yacht count. The rest is frippery.

  5. Pingback:

  6. Mira said:

    I have a problem with the opinion that it is the West’s (or more precisely the US’s) actions which ultimately determine the democracy quotient in countries like Singapore. I speak as a Singaporean whose vote repeatedly helped to squeeze in one of those 2 opposition MP’s. Yes, Singapore has had a deeply repressive government since 1959 and many of the details outlined in your post are correct. However, you missed out on the most important reason for the sorry state of affairs in S’pore: the populace is solidly behind the ruling party despite (or maybe because of, given the Chinese penchant for a firm hand at the wheel) its autocratic excess. The government is widely seen as having delivered on economic prosperity and social stability. For a people who were dirt poor only a generation ago, facing an uncertain future as an ‘alien’entity in a somewhat hostile neighbourhood,these accomplishments seem enough.

    The elections , for all their pettiness towards opposition candidates, are free and regular -if the people had deigned to do so, they could have had a very different sort of government and society. I say this sadly as someone who has been involved with what civic society there exists here. Singaporeans are, by and large, willing to pay the price in terms of civic and political freedoms for their own disneyland with the death penalty. Of course inheriting a crappy parliamentary election system from the Brits helped as did the repressive Internal Security Act the Brits initially set up to fight the communists.

    A note: the Americans have actually operated under the radar here in the past, aiding the cause of several opposition figures, notably Francis Seow, now a fugitive in the US. This is more than any other western power has done. Rice’s articulation of the new US foreign policy to support the ‘democratic aspirations’ of people everywhere(once they are done with the middleeast, of course, ha!) is not necessarily a cynical lie.

    Do enough Singaporeans have such aspirations? If they do, they will not need the help of the Americans or any other of you patronising western liberals- we will manage it under our own steam, thank you.

    The SALE, not consumption, of chewing gum may still be banned in genuinely democratic and free Singapore. Please note that one always knows that one is dealing with patronising western claptrap when chewing gum is overblown into a ‘crisis’ and invariably brought up in relation to Singapore. It is really a non-issue here but then again, none of you pundits really cares about Singapore nor Iran for that matter, do you?
    It is all about the US and ultimately, you.

  7. Jarndyce said:

    I think you’ve missed the point somewhat, Mira. I was writing a piece specifically about Western policy towards Singapore in the context of our pseudo-concern with spreading democracy across the globe. You are an educated and monied people, so ultimately it’s up to you to do something about your ‘freedom quotient’, if that’s what you want. However, it’s incumbent on us not to give illiberal semi-despots photo opportunities on the White House lawn to parade in front of the folks back home.

    Oh, and the “chewing gum crisis” reference was a joke. SOHF?