Singapore: Openness with Limits


Chua Beng Huat

Recent general observation suggests that the PAP government has been liberalizing avenues for public opinion as part of the new ideology of 'inclusiveness' promulgated by the new Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. Singaporeans, particularly those in civil society organizations, are responding and using the new opportunities to make known their concerns. However, openness obviously has its limits, as illustrated by two developments in October.

The 'White Elephant saga' that arose from the completed but mothballed Buangkok Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train station was finally brought to a close. A brief recap of the story: To protest the inconvenience and express their frustration, some residents put up several large cartoon-cut-outs of aesthetically pleasing, white elephants, lining the fences by the station, during cabinet minister Dr Vivian Balakrishna's tour of the housing estates in August. The message was humorous and clear; and the minister noticed. The act was 'illegal' because it was done without a permit from the police. Acting allegedly on a complaint, police investigated the incident. This was obviously a difficult case for the police because public opinion was overwhelmingly against any punishment and, as it turns out, the 'culprit' was an unnamed leader of a government-sponsored grassroots organisation. After, what was to impatient Singaporeans, an inordinate period of inaction, the police finally declared that it would not prosecute the 'culprit' because the act was not malicious and did not hurt anyone; he was given a 'stern warning'.

The future of such actions remains uncertain because the law has not been changed and anything could happen the next time around. This led Cherian George, a regular social commentator, journalist and academic to suggest that the PAP government's handling of the 'saga' is an illustration of his general thesis that the government strategically 'calibrates' its use of coercion to keep the people in line. These comments led to exchanges between him and the Prime Minister's office.

In contrast, two young men were charged with 'sedition', a law that has not been applied for more than twenty years, because their anti-Muslim commentaries posted on weblogs were considered provocations that could disrupt racial peace and harmony. They were both fined and jailed, one for one day and the other for six months. The cases reiterated the government's zero tolerance for disruptions of race and religious harmony.

These events show that the public sphere is expanding as promised by the ideology of inclusiveness but with different levels of reservations.

WATCHPOINT: Expect further debate on casinos, since publication of the conditions for tender has been further postponed until the end of November.


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