Singapore: Not quite enough to make the trains run on time

Anthony Lewis

August 09, 1993|By Anthony Lewis

THIS must be the best-planned, most perfectly maintained city in the world. The streets are clean, the transit system efficient. If you are seen littering a park, you may be given an apron and put to work for several hours cleaning up.

Housing is Singapore's most amazing accomplishment. More than 85 percent of the country's population of just under three million people live in apartment buildings put up by the Housing and Development Board, a public body. Virtually all of them own their apartments -- and can sell them, often at a large profit.

"What started as a socialist idea has made capitalists of the residents," the board's chairman, Hsuan Owyang, said.

I visited Bishan, a new town of about 110,000 people, half an hour from downtown. It is a mix of high-rise buildings and lower ones, with small parks in each neighborhood, swimming pools, schools, jogging tracks, parking garages. A sign reminds residents of the "Neighborhood Cleanliness Competition."

The Choo family, on the 15th floor of a new and well-maintained building, has an apartment with a master bedroom and bath, two smaller bedrooms, another bath, kitchen and living-dining room. It cost them $60,000 six years ago. They could sell it now for $200,000.

How can public housing work so well in Singapore when it is in such trouble in America? Chairman Hsuan gave a number of reasons.

Every employed Singaporean is forced to put 20 percent of his or her pay, matched by the employer, into a savings fund that cannot be touched until retirement -- except for down payments on public housing units. The board makes loans and subsidizes the interest payments.

The board has a master plan for 50 years ahead, with room for one million more people in what will altogether be 22 new towns. It acquires undeveloped land by condemnation at lower than commercial prices. The Singapore constitution carefully omitted a property clause.

"The fact that we've had one-party government up till now has made it smooth," Mr. Hsuan said. "The goal was clear, and we all knew what we wanted."

There is no unemployment to speak of in 'What started as a socialist idea has made capitalists of the residents.'

Singapore. Drugs are hardly a problem. The penalty for importing them is death. Anyone can be tested for drugs at any time, and if the test is positive, sent off for treatment -- without a right to object. The threat of Chinese gangs is controlled by holding about 1,000 suspected gang members in detention without trial.

But there one begins to see the other side of this city-state: the fact that it has an autocratic government, regulating the lives of its citizens to the tiniest detail, and extraordinarily intolerant of anything that it perceives as a threat to its power.

The People's Action Party has been in power since Singapore became an independent country in 1965. Over the years there have been only a few opposition members in Parliament: at the moment, 4 out of 81 seats.

Last December a 30-year-old neuropsychologist, Dr. Chee Soon Juan, ran against the prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, in a parliamentary by-election. He lost but got 25 percent of the vote. He has paid dearly.

In March, Dr. Chee was fired from his position at the National University of Singapore, ostensibly for misusing about $130 in university funds for a courier service -- an expenditure approved by the head of his department, a government member of Parliament. When he said the firing was political, various university employees made new accusations against him. He told the press the charges were false. They sued him for libel.

If the past performance of Singapore courts is a guide, Dr. Chee will lose the libel actions and be broken financially. All this because he believed, as he told me, that "we can have more democracy and openness and still be efficient."

The crushing of Dr. Chee is not the only symptom of intolerance for criticism. Last week Singapore limited the circulation of the Economist because it had not printed promptly enough, in full, official letters disagreeing with statements about Singapore in the magazine.

Singapore's rulers have produced great social benefits for its citizens. But no government can make wise decisions forever in the absence of real criticism. And the intellectual atmosphere here is stifling. Some of the best-educated young people are trying to leave. It is not enough to make the trains run on time.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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