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More Singaporeans ready to stretch bounds on free speech

Associated Press. May 3, 1999.

FREE speech has become the talk of the town in Singapore, a tightly controlled metropolis where citizens have long accepted that certain topics and questions are out of bounds.

The debate about loosening lips began in December with a civil disobedience campaign by Chee Soon Juan, leader of a 200-member political party. He has been jailed twice since then for giving political speeches without police permits, and he is banned from running for office for five years.

Most Singaporeans are uncomfortable with Chee's violation of the law. But even some governing party members and others are starting to question the many restrictions on speech in one of the world's best educated and technically proficient countries.

"Some space needs to be opened up to allow people to speak their minds without first having to obtain permission to do so," Zulkifli Baharudin, an appointed Parliament member, and prominent journalist Cherian George said in an opinion piece in the country's main newspaper.

"Part of maturing as a society involves recognizing the value of ideas, even when one disagrees vehemently with their source," they wrote.

In a world of instant communication, Singapore's leaders say their society must open up to maintain its dominant role as a financial, trade and political hub in Southeast Asia. The government is seeking entrepreneurs, financial wizards and technological experts as Singapore prepares to challenge Hong Kong as Asia's business nerve center.

The elite group that has made decisions for the country for 33 years is looking for ways to kindle wealth-creating thoughts while managing political and social notions that might endanger the status quo.

In a speech telling government administrators to find those with different perspectives, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, "Given the pace and complexity of change, we cannot leave it to a few senior leaders to anticipate developments."

For now, the government restricts freedom of speech and of the press and uses court cases to inhibit political opponents and critics, according to the US State Department's Human Rights Report. "The government has defined certain topics as out of bounds," it said.

The Home Affairs Ministry can have anyone detained indefinitely without charge for saying something that might arouse race or religious tension or threaten the national interest or public order.

Singaporeans, unsure of what is allowed, are reluctant to publicly discuss foreign policy, racial relations, defense matters, religion, judicial decisions or government leaders.

A veteran opposition politician, Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, faces bankruptcy, ouster from Parliament and closure of his Workers Party because of defamation suits brought by governing party members.

Many of the multiracial island's 3.7 million residents approve of some limits, judging from personal conversations and letters to the newspapers. They fear unfettered communication could bring strife to their clean, safe and affluent society.

Singapore's founder, Lee Kuan Yew, describes free speech advocate Chee as "dangerous."

"If everybody just turns up at a busy junction at lunchtime and makes a speech and runs around ... there would be pandemonium," Lee told New York Times columnist William Safire in a testy exchange in February. "We are not that kind of society."

Lee himself is known for speaking his mind bluntly. Indonesian President B.J. Habibie objected to Lee's criticism of his pending promotion last year. Malaysian leaders were offended by Lee's memoirs in September.

Chee challenges the traditional view that parliament is the only proper forum for questioning government policy. Arguing that free speech comes before election success, he chides the government-controlled news media for covering his trials but not his speeches.

Students at the National University expressed surprise that Chee was articulate and reasonable during a recent campus appearance.

Some Singaporeans heard Chee interviewed at length on the cable channel CNBC Asia, while government television broadcast none of his speeches. Some government officials weren't happy.

"If we are not careful, foreign broadcasters, like foreign newspapers, can undermine some of our important social and other policies," George Yeo, minister of information and the arts, warned parliament.

He said foreign broadcasters in Singapore were being asked to follow rules that limit opposition parties' air time.

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