22 June 2015 by Nithin Coca
On the surface, it is a model country. With strong, consistent economic growth, a high standard of living, and a business environment free of the corruption that plagues its neighbours, Singapore is often cited as the right way to grow a country fast while avoiding ethnic and religious tensions, with credit given mostly to its longest-serving Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away last month.
“Seldom has the death of a great Asian leader commanded as much appreciation in the West as the passing of Lee Kuan Yew,” said Jerome Cohen, a human rights expert at New York University.
Beneath this, however, is a different reality; centralised control and limited freedoms, stated as necessary for economic growth.
That made some sense before, but today, in a more prosperous Singapore, the recent shutting down of independent media sites and the arrest of a teenager blogger over a YouTube video provide just two examples of the way in which Singaporean authorities aim to maintain forced harmony in the face of increasing social pressures from rising living costs and migration into the tiny island-nation.
“The dark side to Lee’s legacy was always how basic human rights were sacrificed on the grounds of economic development,” said Olof Blomqvist, Asia-Pacific spokesperson for Amnesty International.
“We had hoped that Singapore’s next generation of leaders would usher in an era marked by respect for human rights, but unfortunately, we’re seeing the opposite.”
For 35 years, Lee was prime minister and faced almost no opposition, by design. As he once stated, “autocratic measures are needed for political stability, which together with rule-of-law, are essential for economic progress.”
This meant curtailing press freedom, overactive use of the death penalty, and a judicial system that supported the People’s Action Party (PAP, Lee’s party) power.
Because the economy grew, citizens were mostly placid – but those who spoke out were the ones who suffered under a leadership with little tolerance for open debate and dissent.
“An impressive body of scholarship is already emerging concerning the achievements and shortcomings of Lee’s distinctive and successful effort to coat Singapore’s economic and social progress with the veneer of legitimacy that skillful manipulation of the ‘rule of law’ can confer upon an authoritarian and often arbitrary government,” said Cohen.
Still, in many ways, it worked. Singapore’s per-capital GDP has eclipsed numerous democratic countries, including the United States and its former colonial overlord, the United Kingdom.
But not everything is rosy.
Living costs are rising faster than salaries. In fact, according to the Economist, in 2001 Singapore was only the 97th most expensive city in the world. Today, it ranks as number three, above New York, Paris, and Zurich.
Moreover, growing numbers of migrant workers are increasing pressures. According to the World Bank, from 2000 to 2010, Singapore’s population grew by over one million, from 4.02 to 5.31 million, eclipsing growth from the previous decade.
“Newcomers — particularly Mainland Chinese — are commonly seen as uncouth and prone to objectionable behaviors,” said Weiqiang Lin in a public statement for the Migration Policy Institute.
“Similarly, South Asian construction workers and Filipino domestic workers have also been singled out as targets of public backlash.”
Immigration in particular was what led the PAP, to lose its iron grip on Parliament during the 2011, when it only won 60 per cent of votes – an unprecedented low point in its 57 years of continuous, uninterrupted rule.
According to Au Waipang, a Singaporean blogger who has faced government reprisals in the past, the recent moves to restrict free speech are tied to the PAP feeling insecure about its ability to hold power.
“The PAP brand is really quite toxic. So they resort to tilting the field, to shutting down opposing voices, and resurrecting the politics of fear,” said Au.
This has led to the recent shutdown of independent media site The Real Singapore for violating the broad restrictions put in place by the Media Development Authority’s licensing system last year, pointing to an ever more shrinking media space for criticism of the ruling authorities.
“Singapore’s expansion of restrictions to the online space, as a platform increasingly used by citizens to get news and other information and participate in political discussions, is disturbing,” said Au.
Now, this is extending to citizens too.
Singapore made headlines when Amos Yee, a 16-year-old Singaporean who posted a video to YouTube criticizing the recently deceased Lee last month, was arrested and tried as an adult for numerous charges.
“It is a travesty that a teenager could face jail time simply for posting a video on YouTube where he dares to criticize the former leader,” said Blomqvist, adding that his conviction highlights the wide-ranging restrictions on freedom of expression in Singapore.
Elections will take place before the end of 2016, and Singaporeans will decide if PAP’s current leader, Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, deserves another term as prime minister.
The limited choices voters have, along with the growing restricted media environment, may foretell the continuation of Lee’s legacy.