Beautiful and brutal state of contradiction

April 17, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Writer

SINGAPORE -- This affluent city-state is a Southeast Asian Oz, a miraculous place of undeniable material achievements -- ,, complete with its own wizard, founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

But it also may be as close as you can get to a "Brave New World" -- a nation of educated sheep controlled by an authoritarian government so thoroughly and efficiently that even though Singapore is committed to capitalism, it's openly admired by the Chinese Communist Party.

"You can find anything you want here depending on how you look at it: the Star of the East or a prison without walls," says a Singapore surgeon in his early 30s.

The young doctor typifies Singapore's extreme contradictions. Educated abroad, he could live anywhere but says life here is best. Like many Singaporeans, he also fears his own government so much he won't have his name attached to any comments about it, however innocuous.

Long before Singapore threatened to punish an American teen-ager for vandalism by flogging him with a rattan cane, such contradictions posed a stiff challenge to the common Western assumption that economic and political freedoms go hand-in-hand.

The sentencing of Michael Fay to six lashes across his bare backside by a martial arts specialist -- an ordeal that will permanently scar him -- has riveted U.S. attention on this tiny, often overlooked and highly unusual island republic.

The 18-year-old American's sentence has drawn wide support from Americans fed up with crime in their own society. But embracing Singapore could prove uncomfortable for many steeped in American values.

Singapore is the modern world's first successful Confucian state, a society of largely Chinese immigrants built on the traditional Chinese cultural concepts of respect for authority and collective rights, rather than Western notions of civil liberties.

Under Mr. Lee's shrewd, at times ruthless leadership, the 240-square-mile nation has advanced in just one generation from fishing villages and swamps to one of the world's cleanest, greenest and safest metropolises.

So dull that you expect to hear Muzak in the air, Singapore is gleaming office towers, endless blocks of good public housing, immaculate parks, uncongested highways and so many shopping plazas that one wag dubs it "the first mall-state."

Singapore has the highest per capita foreign reserves in the world. Its 2.8 million residents' average income tops that of its former colonizer, England, and is second in Asia only to Japan, where many would envy the quality of life here.

About 85 percent of all Singaporeans own their homes. More than half own stocks, the highest percentage in the world.

Unemployment is negligible. Government is efficient, untainted

by corruption. Ethnic Chinese, Malay Muslims, Indians and others live here harmoniously.

But for its entire 35-year history, Singapore has been ruled by a single party controlled by one man, 70-year-old Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the nation's first and only prime minister until 1990.

Despite Mr. Lee's long history of anti-communism, Singapore's political system in some ways mirrors the highly centralized party-states of Communist regimes. His position now is much like Deng Xiaoping's within China, except that Mr. Lee appears to be in robust health.

The city-state holds fair elections with compulsory voting, but Mr. Lee's People's Action Party (PAP) always wins virtually all of the seats in Singapore's Parliament. In the last general election in 1991, the PAP only received 59 percent of the votes but ended up with 77 of the body's 81 seats.

The PAP has achieved this electoral feat by its record of good works, its sweeping bureaucratic control, gerrymandering of election districts, deep public apathy and co-opting, intimidating breaking opponents.

The party-government runs Singapore's trade unions, controls its media and owns some of the country's largest enterprises. It must approve nonsocial assemblies of more than five people.

Singapore bars Playboy and Cosmopolitan magazines. It censors movies and videos for sex and violence. It sets limits on the circulation of other publications -- including the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Asian Wall Street Journal -- that refuse to give it the right of unedited reply to articles. It rarely allows privately owned satellite TV dishes.

It also recently used an Official Secrets Act to try, fine and threaten with jail five journalists and economists for publication of a leaked government economic-growth estimate, a move that has scared the press here.

And over the decades, thousands have been imprisoned without trials under Singapore's Internal Security Act, including both criminals and political activists.

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