Singapore Starts to Relax Rigid Rules

Posted by Barry Porter under Breaking News on 19 March 2000

During a recent international business conference in Singapore, an American businessman shared his eye-opening experience from the previous evening. He was strolling along Orchard Road shortly after checking into his hotel when he spotted a youth wearing a T-shirt with "F*** Christ" printed in big bold letters across the chest. Instantly, his preconception about "squeaky clean" Singapore was blown apart.

Earlier that same day, I went to buy a birthday card at Borders bookstore, also in Orchard Road, only to come across not one, but two cards with cannabis as their main illustration.

While Singapore may not yet be as "swinging" or "funky" as a recent Time Asia cover story made out, foreigners' stereotypical views of Singapore and its citizens are changing.

The republic's second generation leaders led by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong have begun a gradual, calculated opening up, gently distancing them from the decades of heavy-handed rule by then-premier Lee Kuan Yew, now Senior Minister. In his National Day address last August, Mr Goh painted a vision of a "Renaissance City", a bustling arts hub and a fun place to live.

"The idea is to be one of the top cities in the world to live, work and play in," Information and The Arts Minister Lee Yock Suan said.

To help spice up life and enhance competition, state-run television may soon lose its monopoly. Same, too, for Singapore Press Holdings which has maintained a 15-year conservative stranglehold on the newspaper business.

School and teaching methods are being switched from rote learning to foster more logic and creativity. Censorship procedures for books and music have been eased.

New flagship arts companies are to be set up, thanks to a S$50 million (HK$226.5 million) shot in the arm for arts funding unveiled by the government last week.

Novelist Catherine Lim is an example of how times have changed. In 1995, she was publicly lambasted by the Government for two politically sensitive articles in The Straits Times. Her columns were dropped.

Then, to her amazement, she was named a national role model last year by Mr Goh as he called on Singaporeans to display more creativity and embrace the arts. "It looks like I have been politically rehabilitated," she said.

Lim says the Government's motives are purely economic. "Globalisation is putting government in a quandary they have never seen before. They need to pull in foreign expertise and dissuade Singaporeans from leaving. To do that, Singapore can no longer be the rigid, antiseptic cultural desert it was once criticised as."

The Government admits its social liberalisation has economic overtones. Annual international surveys showing Singapore scoring poorly in terms of innovation and creativity are being taken more seriously given the republic's new, overriding ambition to become a world-class, knowledge-based economy. The Government knows that if Singapore is to breed a new generation of cutting-edge high-technology entrepreneurs, it is going to have to ingrain a little more free-thinking and originality in its youths.

To a large extent, change is seen as inevitable.

Some policies used by former premier Mr Lee to maintain a compliant and quietly content population cannot be so readily exercised in the Internet age.

David Lim, Minister of State for Information and The Arts, said: "The Internet does change the equation somewhat. It is a media that is very open and porous."

Explaining Mr Goh's Renaissance City philosophy, information minister Mr Lee Yock Suan assured parliament this month: "This is by no means a desire to hark back to the post-medieval days of European Renaissance. Rather, it is the spirit of creativity, innovation and multi-disciplinary learning and of socio-economic, intellectual and cultural vibrancy we want to help create."

He said: "In the era of the knowledge-based economy, such qualities take on an added imperative because they contribute to innovation, imagination and the creation of new knowledge - key inputs into the future economy."

If you visit Singapore these days, you can enjoy street entertainers, sculptures in the parks, and an increasingly wide variety of concerts and stage shows. This year's Singapore Film Festival, which kicks off on March 31, has chosen sex as one of its themes, although a Korean film, Lies, failed to make it past the censors because of its explicit content.

While the Government acknowledges it may have to be more tolerant, blasphemous T-shirts and drug-covered cards are not what it has in mind. "We have to establish some standards, some norms of what is acceptable expressions of behaviour," Mr Lim told the Sunday Morning Post.

Some areas will remain out of bounds. "Without being completely exhaustive, the key ones would be defamation, religious hatred, racial hatred and subversion," Mr Lim said. "We don't want a situation where anybody can . . . say anything they like about someone else without reference to the facts."

Second-generation leaders acknowledge a need to cede to public calls for more feedback and open policy discussion, while at the same time refusing to totally let go of the reins.

James Gomez, political commentator and author of a recent book on Singapore censorship, said: "We are in a transition between an old era and new economy. The tiers of the old order and way of thinking are still strong."

Opposition Workers' Party chief Joshua Jeyaretnam has been sued for defamation many times over the years by leaders of the ruling People's Action Party and is today on the brink of bankruptcy.

Other opposition figures have fled the country after being hounded through the libel courts.

This seems unlikely to change.

Similarly, Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, who was temporarily jailed last year after refusing to pay a court fine for daring to speak in public without a police entertainment licence, is still going to have to watch his words.

Applications for outdoor public speaking are normally automatically rejected on security grounds. Mr Lim said: "The police will have to judge whether it is an event likely to cause a public security problem. I think that is a very sensible approach."

Outdoor street protests are also likely to remain out of bounds.

Mr Lim said Singapore would never tolerate the kind of ugly public demonstrations seen during the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle last December. "If Seattle is our only model of a civil society, then I think civil society is not very attractive," he said, referring to the street riots.

For a country with a nanny-state image, the Government has been taking a surprisingly light touch towards the Internet, perhaps fearful of undermining the republic's ambitions to become an international info-communications hub. Just 100 Web sites, mostly pornographic, are currently blocked by the Government.

Many politically orientated Internet chatrooms have sprung up and are tolerated, along with some party political Web sites.

However, on-line political campaigning by parties is banned and users are reminded they still run the risk of being sued for defamation in Singapore.

"You can set up a Web site overseas. You can go beyond the jurisdiction, but then you break the law," Mr Lim said.

Instead of blocking sites, the Government has been promoting public education and sensible usage. The official National Internet Advisory Committee has recommended private sector self-regulation and called for more local, wholesome Internet content to be developed to which Singaporeans can be channelled.

In the television industry, the Government will decide whether to allow a second free-to-air or pay-television operator this year.

State-owned Media Corporation of Singapore and its spin-off Singapore CableVision currently hold a monopoly on local television and radio broadcasting.

New national newspapers may soon be launched outside the compliant Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) stable.

However, Trade Minister George Yeo has made it clear that core media will not be allowed to fall into foreign hands. "It is to make sure we have our own internal access," he recently said. "For domestic media principally concerned with Singaporean affairs, we must not cede control to foreigners because it may be manipulated for their own purposes without our knowing."

National subway operator SMRT and Swedish media group Modern Times have teamed up to apply for a licence to publish a free paper for distribution among Singapore commuters. Media Corp of Singapore is considering an entertainment-based Sunday newspaper or a daily evening paper. A third group, backed by British investors, is reportedly planning a newspaper to cater to the suburban market.

SPH, in turn, has plans for two new morning newspapers, a free publication and another, subscription based, for the young, Internet-savvy crowd.

So far, no new licences have been granted. None of these proposed newspapers are expected to be heavyweight or directly compete with core SPH flagship publications such as The Straits Times.

But it is a start.

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