Time for Singapore to reflect

Time for Singapore to reflect

Thailand's southern neighbour has just celebrated with pride and emotion 50 years of existence as a nation state.

Echoing in our ears have been tributes to the founding fathers of Singapore for laying solid foundations for social and economic achievement that all countries would like to emulate.

The golden jubilee comes just five months after the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, who more than anyone else is associated with creating modern Singapore.

Amid the festive mood, however, 5.5 million Singaporeans have a lot to reflect on as they prepare to vote in elections likely to be held next month.

Certainly, there are those who want to comb over the history to get at the exact truth rather than the state-created version. Films and online forums salute heroes besides Lee, especially those who were framed and shunned into exile. Among them was Lim Chin Siong, a People's Action Party (PAP) stalwart who was later accused of instigating violence and being a communist.

SOME politically active Singaporeans might want to comment more freely about their leaders and the values they proclaim must be upheld. Yet many others want to keep the status quo, for Singapore to stay "superb" and "undisturbed by racial disunity". Not a ripple of dissent will you hear from them.

The outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion, of course. The ruling party redraws constituency boundaries before every vote, but this year it did so only recently, giving the already feeble opposition no time to adjust.

In fairness, the PAP delivers the socio-economic goods so that people keep voting it in. Thus, the wave of freebies during the current celebrations may make voters incline toward the PAP in the coming months.

Living in a country that claims a longer albeit very rocky experience with hdemocracy", I don't dare comment. But I see one trend both countries have in common. There is a generational shift in favour of greater freedom of expression, but also a counter-surge among reawakened conservative elements to stifle dissent, questioning and soul-searching. The latter is not limited to the old and wealthy, as many believe; it cuts across social class and generational lines.

While some Singaporeans take cohesion for granted, and PAP governments point to 50 years of peace, stability and warm relations among diverse races and religions, others warn against complacency.

Being a young and a small nation surrounded by larger neighbours has made many Singaporeans understand that it is important to be united, says a friend who is a professional in his thirties. And in order to stay this way, racial harmony is critical, he says.

In reality, however, such harmony is pursued more in letter than in spirit. The multi-racial teams of political candidates introduced in 1988 were a convenient way for the PAP to blunt competition because small opposition parties rarely could recruit enough quality politicians to fill a slate, then three members and now six.

Similarly, freedom of speech is curbed through a powerful Sedition Act under which those who "incite racial and religious disaffection" face detention.

Publicly, Singaporeans therefore avoid asking difficult questions and limit frank exchanges of opinion.

Straits Times political correspondent Rachel Chang, in her article in the book 50 Things to Love about Singapore, acknowledged that managing racial and religious conflict was getting harder, given rising religiosity and emboldened lobbying, enabled by social media.

The prosecution of 16-year-old Amos Yee for "insensitive and obscene remarks" about Jesus and Lee Kuan Yew on YouTube at a time of national mourning was a great test of how tolerant Singaporean society was prepared to be. It also reminds people that Singapore has a democratic deficit. Fifty years of PAP rule have been greatly enabled by defamation suits used to intimidate dissenters and, at times, foreign media.

YET, More individuals are now speaking out about rising inequality, how the Malay minority continues to lag Chinese and Indians, the plight of foreign workers, and antediluvian laws against gays.

But speaking out carries a high price. Roy Ngerng fought a defamation suit over comments implying that PM Lee Hsien Loong had misappropriated money from the Central Provident Fund. Tan Pin Pin's film To Singapore, With Love was banned in the city-state.

The coming election, therefore, will be watched as a barometer of how far Singaporeans want to move along the path to greater freedom.

For Thai people, this is a great lesson and a reminder to lend solidarity to the voices of the voiceless.

Readers can send their feedback or comments to asiafocus@bangkokpost.co.th

Achara Ashayagachat

Senior reporter on socio-political issues

Bangkok Post's senior reporter on socio-political issues.

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