28 Aug 2005
South China Morning Post
Headline: Adapt or die: a lesson for the Lion City
Byline: Singapore is freeing up its attitudes to sex and free speech
in a bid to reinvent itself. But critics say the changes are
cosmetic and real reform is needed, writes Peter Kammerer
Singapore's leaders have done amazing things with their tiny,
resource-poor country. In the 40 years since nationhood, they have
built an economic powerhouse with most of the trappings of a first-
From a manufacturing base, they evolved the city into a regional
financial hub and now a budding centre for biotechnology and other
21st century industries.
But with the thrusting economic expansion of China and India, the
island nation, variously called the Lion City or the Little Red Dot
and perceived by foreign observers as having a conservative, staid
image, has reached a crossroads. Put bluntly, it is a matter of
adapt or die, its leaders contend.
Such beliefs offer a spark of hope to critics of the governing
People's Action Party (PAP) which has ruled the island state since
its founding. Decades of agitation have made little impact on the
government's stranglehold on power or its control of the media and
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last Sunday gave the strongest
indication yet that change was on the way. Marking the 40th National
Day, the son of founding father and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew
said that a dramatic shift in approach was necessary to meet the
"It must be a totally different Singapore, because if it's the same
Singapore today, we're dead," he said. "We have to remake Singapore -
our economy, our education, our mindsets, our city."
As inspiration, Mr Lee pointed to the free-wheeling US city of Las
Vegas, referred to by Americans as "Sin City" for its casinos and
open policy on sex. The Singaporean leader was quick to qualify his
admiration: "Out of nothing in a desert they have built a city.
Forty million people visit it every year. We don't want to become
Las Vegas, but we should learn from their spirit."
In the past few months, the government has already given a foretaste
of a Las Vegas-style policy. In April, a ban on casinos was reversed
when approval was given for the construction of two gaming resorts
by 2009. The following month, Singapore was named as the first city
in Asia to host the Crazy Horse Paris cabaret, which features
scantily clad dancers. Last week, authorities gave approval in
principle to the island state's first sex expo, which media
reports said would include furniture "designed to enhance love-
making" and an erotic toy section when it opened in November.
The moves follow a gradual loosening of regulations on
entertainment, which officials have determined are necessary to
cater for a population increasingly exposed to international
But while cinemas can now show movies featuring nudity and internet
sites like Sarongpartygirl, the explicit blog of a sexually
uninhibited university arts student, are tolerated, social
restrictions abound. Homosexual and oral sex are considered crimes
while foreign publications and television programmes like Sex in the
City are frequently censored.
Singapore's best-known writer, Catherine Lim, last week called the
concessions remarkable and immense.
"When I go to a movie and nudity is shown or explicit sex, I
think, 'Oh my God, they're never going to have that for 100 years in
Malaysia or Indonesia," the novelist and political commentator
said. "It's amazing - there are changes in the arts scene and now
we're going to have a sex expo. When I read about that I wondered
whether I was reading right."
Lim believes the government sees Singapore's survival in changes in
the economy, education and arts and there is a genuine desire to
bring about positive change.
"There is frenetic activity to roll with the times and stay ahead.
Singapore's mantra is if you don't stay ahead, you not only slide
backwards, you go under." Nonetheless, Lim said the line would be
drawn on human and political rights.
Of the 84 elected members of parliament, 82 are from PAP. Political
activists claim that unfair electoral rules and the government's
total control of the media prevent opposition politicians from
having a fair chance of being elected. Laws such as the much-
criticised Internal Security Act have been used to silence
opponents, and opposition politicians have been sued into bankruptcy
and jailed for breaking rules on political gatherings.
The latest assessment of political and civil rights around the world
by the respected US-based Freedom House determined Singapore
was "partly free". It was ranked alongside Armenia, Congo-
Brazzaville, Jordan, Liberia and Morocco - nations far less
economically and socially developed.
Gay activist Alex Au shared Lim's assessment, determining that
Singapore's opening up was selective. "There is a bit more space for
pure entertainment, even of the slightly more erotic variety," Mr Au
said. "There is a call for political engagement by citizens, but it
is clearly on the PAP's own terms. Essentially, they want ideas and
suggestions from the people to help them govern better but without
in any way trimming or threatening their political monopoly."
Homosexuality was one area the government refused to discuss, he
said. While Hong Kong recently lowered the age for consensual gay
sex from 21 to 16, in Singapore homosexual relations remains
illegal. "The government has shown absolutely no willingness to
consider repealing that, nor have they demonstrated any real
willingness to remove censorship regarding discussion of such
subjects, which they consider sensitive," he said.
Yet Singapore has a thriving gay and lesbian scene, with eight
dedicated bars and pubs for the community and others that hold
regular "gay nights". An annual festival was recently banned for
unspecified reasons, but a month-long series of exhibitions and
workshops was permitted and is presently being held.
Mr Au said undercover police had attended each session, sometimes
filming the proceedings. Participants had responded by filming the
The government has answered calls for freer speech, though, most
notably with the introduction of a "Speaker's Corner" and last
October's decision to permit indoor meetings. But permits are
required, issues such as race and religion cannot be discussed and a
law banning unauthorised outdoor gatherings of five or more people
is still in place.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, official phone-tapping -
previously an open secret - has been announced as legal.
But change, however small, is still welcome, the president of the
non-government ThinkCentre, Sinapan Samydorai, said. There is a big
difference now to 10 years ago. His organisation - which aims
to "critically examine issues related to political development
democracy, rule of law, human rights and civil society" - is further
"But when it comes to political decision-making and governance,
that's where the caution is," Mr Samydorai suggested. "They don't
want to open up too fast ... they're opening up slowly, but not in a
very liberal way."
Observers have not seen any moves to relax government control of the
media. Internet sites considered inappropriate are blocked and
distribution of foreign publications is delayed until censors have
Veteran journalist and commentator Ravi Veloo does not find the
availability of articles and websites about sex unusual. "There is
freedom of the press in Singapore, but only for sex and violence,
not politics," Veloo said. "The boundaries are in the political
dimension- that is where the legitimacy of the government can be
A website giving legitimacy to an alternative point of view that the
government was uncomfortable with would be shut down. But Singapore
was changing and it had to, like any other country in the world, he
For the government, the biggest factor is the number of foreign
organisations in the country and how to deal with that from a
cultural, economic and political point of view.
But Lim also believes it has to contend with increasingly vocal
young Singaporeans. "We have a young group coming up who like to
call themselves Cosmopolitans rather than Singaporeans," she
said. "They are highly educated, sophisticated, globally exposed,
very savvy on the internet. They are becoming more vocal in debates."
There is no debate about whether Singapore is changing; there is,
however, uncertainty about which force will push the government to
make deeper, more far-reaching changes.
Singapore's government did not respond to efforts to get comment for