Singapore: Is It Really Opening Up?


Terence Lee

The year 2004 has been a transitional one for Singapore. It witnessed its second 'changing of the guard' in August 2004 when Lee Hsien Loong was sworn-in as Singapore's third prime minister. This event was a matter of course for most Singaporeans, but nonetheless a watershed in the socio-political landscape of Singapore. What was perhaps more interesting for Singaporeans and Singapore observers was the ways in which the new Prime Minister consistently presented Singapore as a society that will 'open-up' under his premiership. This rhetoric began even before Lee Hsien Loong took office. In January 2004, Prime Minister-designate Lee declared at a speech made to the elite Harvard Club of Singapore that his government would promote further 'civic participation' by widening the limits of 'openness'.

At his swearing-in ceremony on 12 August 2004, Lee reiterated his vision of Singapore as an 'open' and 'civic' society by stating that Singaporeans should be free to express diverse views so that robust debates can ensue. In this way, there will be the opening up of 'new spaces'. Although many optimists and supporters have interpreted the new PM's statements as his pledge towards making Singapore more socially and politically open, there are serious doubts about his real intents. One would recall how the former PM Goh Chok Tong made similar promises upon taking office in 1990, only to see his terms of engagement redefined as 'out-of-bounds' or 'OB-markers' following a seemingly innocuous article in 1994 by novelist Catherine Lim which questioned his non-consultative leadership style. Like his predecessor, PM Lee's call for a more open Singapore is not to declare an 'open season' politically nor in civil society terms, but to project Singapore as a mature society and a progressive polity to the rest of the world. Here, the PAP government exercises what is referred to as 'gestural politics', where, by displaying the 'liberal' gestures of the regime, Singaporean voters as well as foreign visitors and investors would be attracted to the new Singapore and its leadership one way or another.

Some of the recent 'opening-up Singapore' gestures have been nothing short of breathtaking. Policy shifts have included the prospective acceptance of homosexuals into the civil service, the granting of permits for pubs and nightclubs to allow 'bar-top dancing', the introduction of extreme sports (e.g. reverse-bungee jumping and skydiving), and the automatic registration of societies and interest groups, and so on. While these forms of 'liberalisations' are intended to give hope to those younger Singaporeans yearning for more space to participate in national governance, it is quite clear that many of these changes occur at the 'non-political' level. Those desiring more open political spaces would do well to read the pre-existing fine print.

More recently, the government has been actively pursuing the possibility of building a casino in Singapore as a further sign of Singapore's 'coming of age'. While the government has long been opposed to allowing a casino due to its potential ill effects on society, it is now considering reversing the ban in order to stem the economic 'leakage' (estimated at between S$1.8 to S$2 billion annually) caused by Singaporeans who travel overseas to gamble. The latter half of 2004 saw the government heightening its island-wide opinion-gauging exercise through the media and other feedback channels in the hope of winning popular support for the proposal. People, however, remain deeply polarised over the issue as it essentially pits the moralist against the economic pragmatist.

The final decision on the casino is due to be announced in early 2005. Whether yea or nay, PM Lee will be able to proclaim that the rich debate on the issue has shown that Singapore is 'opening-up'.

WATCHPOINT: Will Singapore proceed with the construction of the casino as a further gesture of PM Lee Hsien Loong's 'opening-up' policy? If not, will the proposal receive a flat rejection, or will a 'wait a little while and see' approach be taken?


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