Image of Singapore tarnished

November 29, 2005

By Garry Rodan

WHATEVER the merits or otherwise of the Singapore Government's refusal to grant clemency to Nguyen Tuong Van, its handling has dealt a blow to Singapore's image. The city-state is renowned for bureaucratic efficiency and meticulous attention to detail by its political leaders.

This didn't square with John Howard learning from reporters that, while he was making his plea to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Van's mother was already in receipt of the Singapore Government's decision letter.

More than clumsy diplomacy, the clemency episode is the latest illustration of growing challenges facing the ruling People's Action Party in managing contradictions inherent in the Singapore development model. Singapore's increasingly sophisticated market economy has also involved the proliferation of government-linked companies that are central to the power base of the PAP. And Singapore's rise as a regional media and information hub has gone hand in hand with stringent curbs on free expression.

For four decades, its leaders have skilfully reconciled competing political and economic pressures to preserve state economic interests and authoritarian rule. But in the context of globalisation, managing and concealing contradictions is proving more difficult.

It is the internationalisation of government-linked companies that has driven involvement in Burma and which contradicts the harsh, punitive stance on drug trafficking within Singapore. As Australian media have highlighted, while Singapore's courts have been sending hundreds of drug mules to the gallows, GLCs have seized on business opportunities in one of the world's leading drug-source countries. At home, GLCs are insulated from such media scrutiny.

With the internationalisation of Singapore's cashed-up GLCs, the negotiation of free trade agreements and the more comprehensive integration of Singapore into the global economy, official rhetoric depicting Singapore as a transparent market has also come under unprecedented critical international scrutiny. Temasek Holdings, with a portfolio of $83billion in about 40 companies, and the Government Investment Corporation, managing more than $140billion of taxpayers' money in overseas investments, have been the principal focus. Many of the companies involved are not publicly listed and are exempt from legal or regulatory requirements for routine external reviews or public declarations.

In separate FTA negotiations with the US and Australia, the lack of transparency of GLCs and the independence of Singapore's regulatory authorities were contentious issues, viewed by the US in particular as serious obstacles to competition in the domestic market.

The International Monetary Fund has also called for more transparent fiscal and monetary frameworks and raised concerns about the scope for conflicts of interest in Singapore owing to interpenetration of executive power, regulatory authority and leading GLCs. For instance, Lee's wife, Ho Ching, is the executive director of Temasek.

Contradictions are also playing themselves out in domestic politics. The Government's transparency claims have been an unwitting political opportunity for critics. In August, 12 anti-riot squad police wearing helmets and knee-high protective gear, and armed with shields and batons, formed a phalanx in front of the Central Provident Fund (national superannuation) building in the city centre. This was in reaction not to a security threat but to four silent protesters wearing T-shirts and carrying placards demanding greater transparency and accountability in the use of public funds.

Although the protesters did not appear to violate the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act, which requires a permit for a public meeting of more than five people, they were dispersed and their T-shirts and placards confiscated on the pretext of possible charges of causing a public nuisance.

Tension between the media hub and curbs on free expression also entered a new phase this year with the mushrooming of internet weblogs (or blogs). With no moderators, system administrators or web content managers for Singapore's authorities to monitor, filter or warn, they have provided new avenues for government critics. The blog of Chen Jiahao, the former beneficiary of a government scholarship to study at the University of Illinois, was at the centre of one controversy when he criticised scholarships as overly restrictive. After threats of defamation proceedings from a leading state bureaucrat, Chen was intimidated into shutting down his blog.

The Films Act contradicts the state-nurtured image of Singapore as a creative arts hub, as does propaganda by the government-controlled media. This act was invoked earlier this year when Martyn See's Singapore Rebel, a documentary on political dissident Chee Soon Juan, was withdrawn from the Singapore International Short Film Festival. The making, distribution and showing of films containing "wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter" is banned under the act, which provides for a two-year jail sentence or an $80,000 fine.

Creative thinking is alive, though, with political activist Yap Keng Ho filing a police complaint against Singapore's national broadcaster MediaCorp for allegedly violating the Films Act by screening a number of pro-PAP, party-political programs.

Significantly, such contradictions have not hitherto prevented a string of international educational institutions from conducting operations in the city-state. However, concerns about academic freedom weighed heavily when one of Britain's leading institutions, the University of Warwick, last month declined Singapore's invitation to set up a campus. This not only put Singapore authorities in damage control, it has raised the bar for all other courted institutions. Can the University of NSW, for instance, maintain its academic reputation without the formal and binding protections of academic freedom sought by Warwick's faculty? To genuinely realise its ambition of becoming a global schoolhouse, Singapore might have to make significant concessions. This is easier said than done.

The authoritarian PAP regime is not going to collapse any time soon. It has proved remarkably resilient precisely because it has been constantly modified. But new challenges present Singapore's leadership with a dilemma. Either it embarks on a successful new phase in refining the mechanisms of authoritarian rule or it will increasingly struggle to manage the inherent contradictions of its own success.

Garry Rodan is director of the Asia Research Centre and professor of politics and international studies at Murdoch University in Perth.