Singapore Trades Rights for Prosperity

March 07, 1993|By ELIZABETH LU

Bangkok, Thailand. -- A popular T-shirt seen around Singapore says it all: No importing chewing gum, $10,000. No spitting, $1,000. No urinating in lifts, $500.

The question, some joked, is whether one day wearing the T-shirt will be added to the list of prohibited activities subject to fines.

In Singapore, domestic and international publications are tightly controlled, films are censored, the political opposition remains small and closely monitored and a plethora of rules and regulations dictates the lives of Singaporeans.

Westerners may find the laws restrictive. But residents often disagree.

"I don't read Cosmopolitan anyway," a Bangkok resident said of the American magazine banned in her native Singapore. "There are so many other magazines to read."

Some Singaporeans call the ban on chewing gum silly, but they shrug it off. It simply isn't important enough to bother about. "We were brought up that way," one Singaporean said.

More than 76 percent of Singapore's population of 2.7 million is ethnic Chinese, 15 percent Malay, 7 percent Indian and Pakistani and 2 percent other races. Yet Singapore has experienced little racial violence -- nothing on the scale of the massacres of ethnic Chinese in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia during the 1960s.

Mention human rights in Asia and what typically comes to mind are the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing or Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in Myanmar.

Few may realize that Singapore, better known for its phenomenal economic successes, has also been a target of international human rights critics. Organizations such as Asia Watch have faulted the city-state for achieving prosperity at the expense of personal, political and press freedoms.

Yet, to Singaporeans raised and educated in a society that reveres Confucianism and its emphasis on authority and order, the sacrifices of personal freedom in the name of national prosperity are often justified. Singapore is so small and so racially diverse, they argue, that its special circumstances call for decisive, not necessarily democratic, rule.

American-style democracy, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said, has no place in Singapore or anywhere else in the developing world, because the checks and balances interfere with governing in a developing country, "where executive action JTC must be swift to forestall disorder."

In essence, Mr. Lee was saying that human rights are a luxury not every nation can afford -- that when a developing nation, such as the Singapore of the 1950s and '60s, is struggling with economic survival and real or perceived political threats to its existence, human rights can and should be qualified in the name of law and order.

But when a country has matured and become an economic power, should not the degree of individual liberties also be upgraded accordingly?

This is the paradox of Singapore: Whereas Singaporeans three decades ago could not afford the luxury of full human rights because the country was poor and struggling, now they cannot afford the luxury of full rights because the country is rich and everything is going so well, and Singaporeans, in general, seem to prefer the status quo.

True, there is a small and increasingly vocal political opposition, and thousands of Singaporeans have emigrated in search of better economic opportunities or more freedoms. But most seem complacent.

It's easy to see why. Mr. Lee is generally credited with having created an economic miracle, turning a seedy, graft-ridden Singapore into a prosperous, modern nation with no tolerance for corruption.

For many Singaporeans, the end justifies the means. The end being clean and safe streets, a comfortable lifestyle and virtually no unemployment or poverty. As one woman said, "In Singapore we are so comfortable. Why go to the doctor when you're not sick?"

Singapore writer Sia Cheong Yew praised his government's decision more than 20 years ago to abolish trial by jury because of the "inherent weakness of the [jury] system. . . . The Rodney King verdict has reassured me that we did the right thing."

In a way, Singaporeans seem to fear that without patriarchal rule, without self-discipline and sacrifices in personal liberties, the prosperity bubble would burst. A majority of Singaporeans agreed with Mr. Lee's goals, even his methods.

To understand their mind-set, one has to understand the upbringing of today's Singaporean. Mr. Lee infused the Singaporeans with Confucian ideals. The goal, said his protege and successor Goh Chok Tong, was to develop citizens of upright character. In the process, they also produced citizens who have learned to respect authority.

Like a stern father or a headmaster, Mr. Lee -- who became "senior minister" when Goh took over in 1990 -- often relies on the Confucian tactic of public humiliation to keep Singaporeans in line.

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