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SingaporeLightens Up at 40

The ruling party relaxes rules on censorship and gum chewing. But its grip on power over its 4.2million citizens remains.

September 25, 2005|En-Lai Yeoh | Associated Press Writer

SINGAPORE — Singaporeans are seeing HBO's "Sex and the City" on TV. Actors may utter four-letter words on stage. Opposition parties can gather without police permission -- as long as they do it indoors.

Tiny and famously disciplined Singapore, which turned 40 last month, its continuing to lighten up.

Gone are the days when chewing gum and long hair were banned. Singaporeans are even allowed to bungee-jump and dance on bar tables.

Apart from easing censorship, Singapore's leaders are lifting a long-standing ban on casinos, allowing not one but two to open.

In April, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained: "We risk being relegated to the second league if we rely only on past achievements. We must continue to reinvent ourselves."

Political analyst Ho Khai Leong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies says the ruling People's Action Party is being pragmatic without relaxing its grip on power over the island and its 4.2 million citizens.

"It can't remain authoritarian when globalization is on [the] doorstep," he said. "There is a dynamic to the desire to be more open."

In 40 years, Singapore has gone from backwater of the British Empire to gleaming financial center with one of Asia's most modern economies. It is also a model of social engineering, where the citizenry, mostly ethnic Chinese, is regularly targeted in civic improvement campaigns: Speak proper English! Get to weddings on time! Have more babies! Wave to your fellow motorists! Homosexuality remains punishable by jail.

The unusual meld of capitalism, authoritarianism and state-encouraged behavior modification was perfected by Lee Kuan Yew, the British-educated father of the present prime minister, who led Singapore to independence in 1965 and ruled it for 25 years. At 81, he is regarded as an elder statesman of Asia, and remains a powerful influence on the Cabinet, where he holds the title of "minister mentor."

But while the economy has leaped forward, political reform has been glacial.

The People's Action Party has never lost an election, holds 82 of the 85 seats in Parliament and will probably trounce the ragtag opposition again in the next election. Its two most prominent opposition figures have been bankrupted by defamation suits won by ruling party members and, under Singapore law, bankruptcy disqualifies someone from running for office.

Although government leaders say such lawsuits are intended to protect their reputations, the U.S. State Department and the human rights group Amnesty International say they are designed to cripple the opposition.

Leading foreign newspapers also have been frequently sued by ruling party stalwarts, and the international media rights group Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 147th in its press freedom index. North Korea and Cuba rank 156 and 157.

Analyst Ho says the government's call for "responsible media ... is a code word for media to support government policy."

State-linked broadcaster MediaCorp controls all free TV channels here, and Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. -- which rarely deviates from the administration line -- runs most newspapers.

The new challenge is the Internet, which puts the government in a quandary. It knows the future depends on an Internet-savvy public, but also recognizes the Web's power to bypass state-controlled media and foment its own kind of people power.

The Internet effect was evident in June, when an online petition became a driving force behind the ouster of the head of the largest government-backed charity, the National Kidney Foundation, for allegedly misusing funds.

"Rarely have Singaporeans showed such unanimous purpose in demanding change, and it worked -- an undeniable plus for democracy," said political commentator Seah Chiang Nee.

Officials say they have eased up on social policies to satisfy a generation more exposed to overseas influences. But they also insist Singapore's generally conservative citizenry cherishes order and wants censorship and government involvement in social affairs to preserve it.

Prime Minister Lee spelled it out in clear language recently: "Social mores must not be corrupted and Singapore must remain a safe and wholesome society."

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