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City Of Possibilities or Fluff City?

By Ned Stark and Andrew Loh

“My fellow Singaporeans, let’s seize the moment to sail ahead, into the bright and exciting future that we can already see. Together, let’s transform Singapore, and make this a special home for every one of us.”

- Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day message, 2007. (link)

Looking at the many construction sites around Singapore nowadays, one indeed gets the feeling that Singapore is in a furious stage of physical transformation. The pace of change has been turned up. Exciting new developments – for business, entertainment and housing – are being realized as we speak.

Singaporeans will also have noticed the increased number of foreigners everywhere – downtown, uptown, in the heartlands, at our work places.

We are on the bullet-train of change.

Yet, when the PM speaks of transformation, is he just referring to physical transformation? Or is he also referring to transformations in other areas as well – such as space for civil society, changes in our political system, independence of our media, and so on?

Does the government see transformation in these areas as important and indeed necessary for us to “sail ahead” as well?

Recent events have perhaps shown that the government is not yet ready to expand the space that Singaporeans can participate in, to build this “City Of Possibilities” – in spite of all that it, the government, has declared.

Civil Society

We've got to support Singaporeans being spontaneous, being unconventional. We should not put obstacles in their way.” - PM Lee, National Day Rally Speech 2004 , (link)

An unconventional idea (at least by Singapore’s standards) of holding a picnic in a park by People Like Us (link) was flatly turned down by the authorities. The reason? “We do not want it to be used as a venue for interest groups to politicise their cause." Nonetheless, some Singaporeans turned up and had their picnic anyway. (Left, picture from Yawning Bread)

Alex Au’s request to hold an exhibition of photos of same-gender people kissing was turned down. The authorities’ reason was that “the content exceeds our current guidelines.” (link)

Alex’s application for Professor Emeritus Douglas Sanders to participate in a forum here titled "Sexual orientation in international law: the case of Asia" was rejected. The reason this time? “The event is unlikely to be held in the public interest.”

Alfian Saat, playwright and poet, had had his services as a relief teacher in one of our secondary schools terminated for no apparent reasons. The Ministry Of Education has, so far, not provided any explanation why Saat was, obviously, found unsuitable to teach.

Martyn See’s film, Said Zahari 17 Years, was banned by the Ministry Of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA), even though it had been approved for screening by the Singapore International Film Festival and the Substation’s Asian Film Symposium. (TODAY)

It was in 2003 that the then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, when asked about Martyn See’s film “Singapore Rebel” which chronicled opposition politician Chee Soon Juan’s political activities, said:

“Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, to hell with it. But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change.” (link)

It’s been almost 4 years since. Nothing has changed. “Party political films” are still banned in Singapore. Vague and inexplicable reasons are given for disallowing certain events. There is no attempt by the authorities to engage those that they easily rebuff.

The media

Singapore’s press freedom ranking took a turn for the worse recently, when they were ranked 157th by Freedom House (link), several rungs lower than the 146th they previously received from Reporters Without Borders. (link)

Government officials have put scorn on such rankings. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew famously once told an audience of foreign journalists in Dec 2004: “You are not going to tell us how to run our country.”

Yet, this was contradicted by what Tommy Koh, chairman of National Heritage Board, said when commenting on the production of a film on Singapore’s history in 2005:

"Since we want the story to be told in an independent and impartial manner, and told in a way that would be of interest to viewers outside Singapore, I thought it would be better that it is done by a non-Singaporean company." (Straits Times, Nov 12 2005)

Therein lies the irony. A film by a Singaporean about a Singaporean is banned by the Singaporean authorities, but a “non-Singaporean” company is regarded as a better party to tell our Singaporean history, commissioned by our Singaporean authorities.

Are foreigners suddenly regarded as more qualified to tell our story?

Last year’s General Elections showed up starkly the biased reportings of the local media. Questions about its objectivity and impartiality still haunts it – even as we have already moved into the 21st century and with Singapore proclaiming its ambitions of being a “media hub”, an “information hub”, a “first world” country in a “golden age”.

The poor

The PAP’s Dr Lily Neo, who asked for more money from the government for the poor, was unceremoniously rebuffed with some rather pointed words from the Minister of Community, Youth and Sports:

How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?” (link)

Those words have shocked Singaporeans who have also been questioning if the government is really doing enough for the poor. Contrasted with the millions of dollars that the government is paying its ministers, the question of whether we are a caring, compassionate society has emerged.

Government officials also seem to be out of touch with the ground – some have declared, quite publicly, that “poverty has been eradicated in Singapore”, while another challenged others to “show me” the beggars in Singapore.

Martyn See’s latest film, Nation Builders (link), answers the question conclusively – which begs the question: “Are our government officials out of touch with the ground?” And if they are, how are they going to help the poor? Even NMP Siew Kum Hong has said that giving $290 per month to those on public assistance is “disgraceful”. (link) A PAP MP had also said that anyone who believes $290 is enough to live in Singapore is “not in touch with reality”.

Yet, the government has stuck to its guns and insists that $290 is enough. With the government publicly saying that their own salaries will be revised upwards 3 times by the end of next year (2008), it is no wonder that Singaporeans are aghast at the reluctance of the same government to increase public assistance to $400 as requested by Dr Neo – which is a mere $110 from the present $290.

Politics

Perhaps, if the government is serious about transforming Singapore, the most important changes should come from the political arena. This is where leaders are chosen, who then go on to enact laws which govern everything - and everyone - in the country.

The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system is seriously flawed. Without going into the specific flaws in it (which many have brought up already anyway), perhaps the one most significant is the one to do with the very fundamental idea of democracy.

This is the principle that each citizen must be given the right to elect its representatives.

In 2001, out of 14 GRCs, 10 were unchallenged by opposition parties – allowing the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to win 55 seats out of 84 and thus forming the government even before a single vote was cast. (link)

In 2006, 7 GRCs were uncontested out of 14. This time, 38 seats went to the PAP even before polling day. (link)

In the 2001 elections, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew decried the lack of “baptism of fire” for the PAP’s candidates.

With so many of our MPs not being elected (except by default) this brings forth many questions: Is our electoral process the best one? Is it the fairest one? Are our leaders the men and women whom the people would really want?

Changes to the political system are long overdue.

Hope

The prime minister will be delivering his National Day Rally Speech sometime later this month (August 2007), if tradition is anything to go by.

There have been hints in the media that the issue of the elderly, the poor and the widening income gap will feature quite prominently in his speech. It is therefore hoped that the PM will re-look the amount given to those on the Public Assistance Scheme.

What would truly inspire our nation, however, would be the PM unequivocally addressing the issues which goes beyond the economic, beyond the glitz of new buildings, beyond the fluff of superficial races and casinos.

The issues which will really and truly inspire the hearts and minds of Singaporeans – be they mavericks & unconventional, or ordinary & nondescript.

Let us not mistake superficialities for substance, or fluff for identity.

It is time the prime minister addresses these issues. That would be a true mark of a leader.

We will continue to expand the space which Singaporeans have to live, to laugh, to grow and to be ourselves. Our people should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas, or simply be different. We should have the confidence to engage in robust debate, so as to understand our problems, conceive fresh solutions, and open up new spaces. We should recognise many paths of success, and many ways to be Singaporean.” (PM Lee, in his swearing-in speech in 2004, when he took over as prime minister, link)

…to make the big leap forward, you need your mavericks, your geniuses, your people who can think outside the box." (MM Lee Kuan Yew, Straits Times, 2003, link)

 

You can read more of Ned’s writings on his blog, Winter Is Coming