What Has Become of Singapore?*
(*title is an add-on)
I was sued by the Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong in May last year. I was then fired from my job as a healthcare worker and when I spoke up at a protest, I was subsequently punished with two criminal charges.
I started writing on my blog, The Heart Truths, three years ago, to discuss sociopolitical issues in Singapore and another on gay issues, My Right to Love.
What started me writing was when the prime minister compared Singapore with the Nordic countries and claimed that Singapore was doing well because Singapore’s GDP per capita is as high as the Nordic countries.
However, I was not convinced and decided to research further. I was shocked when I found out that cleaners in Norway were earning S$5,470 but in Singapore, they were earning only S$800.
The post that I wrote went viral and that was when I realised that I was on to something. “Singaporeans are unhappy,” I had written. But little did I know the extent of this unhappiness.
In the next few months, no less than three surveys confirmed this. Gallup ranked Singaporeans as having the least positive emotions in the world. The Happy Planet Index 2012 ranked Singaporeans 90th and the World Happiness Report 2013 put Singaporeans at 126th under the ‘happiness’ indicator.
But what exactly has gone wrong for a country which has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world and should rightfully, have people who should be contended?
What went wrong?
When I first started writing, I made the decision to put my face up – one of the very few Singaporeans to do so. Many others who have set up blogs or Facebook pages have done so anonymously, to stay clear from the government’s sight. But I believed that if you have got something to say, then you must be willing to stand up for it.
Many people asked me, “Aren’t you scared? What if the government comes after you?” But at that time, I didn’t think too much about it. It was my right to speak up, isn’t it? I wanted to help the country improve. Is that wrong?
It was only later did I realise that I might perhaps have been a bit too naive. After I was sued, I was asked to take down several of my blog posts.
Like the typical Singaporean who grew up in an environment where the government heaps praises on itself a constant basis, you grow up believing that the Singapore government cannot do much wrong.
It was this infallible trust that I had towards the government when I started writing.
Of course, when the media outlets, the newspapers, TV and radio are all state-controlled and where the education system has been carefully crafted along the government’s objectives, it was hard to turn away from their propaganda.
When Aung San Suu Kyi visited Singapore in 2013, she described Singapore’s education system as “workforce oriented”.
She also said, “I want to learn a lot from the standards that Singapore has been able to achieve but I wonder whether we want something more for our country.”
“So I think perhaps Singapore could learn from us, a more relaxed way of life, perhaps warmer and closer relationships.”
The Singapore government was quietly embarrassed by Suu Kyi’s honest and tactful appraisal but many Singaporeans rejoiced at seeing someone dare to speak up against the government.
For would the Singapore government dare to admonish what Syu Kyi said when she is a Nobel Peace Laureate and one of the most respected figures in the world?
But this is how Singapore is where Singaporeans have grown weary of the rhetoric of the People’s Action Party (PAP) but are too fearful of speaking up against the regime.
The PAP has controlled Singapore for the past 55 years and have a tight grip not only of the government but of the system as a whole.
But isn’t Singapore a democracy where the citizens elect their government and where the people have a say in the matters?
Well, not really.
Not a democracy
When the PAP took control of government in the 1960s, it reduced the campaigning period for elections from 30 days to just 9 or 10 days. If the PAP decides to hold elections today, they can do so within a month and it would be over. (Afternote: The next general election is widely believed to be held in mid-September.) They also made it financially difficult for the other political parties to contest by making each candidate have to pay S$16,000 to run at the last general election, a figure that has been rising several times faster than inflation and which will keep rising. On top of that, the PAP changes the electoral boundaries at every election and has even clustered some of the constituencies together while making it difficult for the other parties to run as a team.
And where the PAP has sued opposition politicians and bankrupted them, as well as to threaten them and their supporters, some of whom have even lost their jobs, the PAP’s job has been made a lot easier.
No, Singapore is not a democracy.
In fact, Singapore is placed outside the top 100 countries in Freedom House’s democracy rankings, worse than Ukraine and Turkey and on par with Kenya and Bangladesh.
The ranking is justified when you observe how the PAP has been using the law to continuously persecute not only the politicians but ordinary Singaporeans for the past 50 years.
In 1963, to consolidate its power, the PAP arrested more than 100 opposition politicians, newspaper editors, labour unionists and student activists and imprisoned them without trial under the archaic Internal Security Act (ISA), in what is known as “Operation Coldstore”.
One man, Chia Thye Poh, was imprisoned for 23 years and then placed under house arrest for another nine years. In total, he was held for 32 years, even longer than Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment of 27 years. He was released only as recent as 1998.
When I asked an 80-year-old lady why no one spoke up at that time, she told me, “Everyone was scared. If you spoke up, you would disappear.”
The government was arresting innocent people in the 1960s and at a time where there were no mobile phones and the Internet, people could disappear for days on end and no one would know what had happened to them until the police came knocking on their doors.
And so, a wave of fear starting seeping through the people.
This continued for the next 20 years or so, where hundreds or even more than a thousand were arrested and imprisoned, and tortured, both physically and mentally. Only a lucky few managed to escape the PAP’s clutches and sought political asylum elsewhere.
It was only in 1987 where the PAP arrested more than 20 Singaporeans and accused them of being part of a “Marxist Conspiracy” (code name: Operation Spectrum) where an international uproar finally put an end to the PAP’s antics (on a large scale).
Over the last few years, those who were unfairly arrested are finally speaking up, and revealing how their charges were fabricated. Unclassified documents released by the British government also show how the PAP did not have evidence for the arrests for Operation Coldstore (which happened just before independence from the British colonials) but did so anyway. Even as I am writing this, the government is attempting to whitewash history with its denial of its past transgressions with its insistence on its right to use force against Singaporeans for “national security” reasons.
All these happened under the rule of the first prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew.
But the PAP wasn’t just about to stop. It had other things up its sleeves.
In 1987, the PAP started suing opposition politicians and the international media. If they could not arrest Singaporeans to prevent the word about the PAP’s transgressions from getting out, they were going to go after the big players to do so.
One by one, the international media learnt to play their cards right or close up shop.
Meanwhile, opposition politicians who would not play ball were sued and made bankrupt. Current head of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), Chee Soon Juan, was even sued by all three prime ministers.
When Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, was made prime minister in 2004, he proclaimed, “Our people should feel free to express diverse views… We should have the confidence to engage in robust debate,… and open up new spaces.”
But the PAP never changed its tactics.
In the years that follow, bloggers, cartoonists, filmmakers and online news websites which have sprung up were also subjected to threats from the government or even sued for defamation, contempt of court and sedition.
Last year, it was my turn, when I was sued for defamation.
Did not realise the gravity of things
To be honest, I did not think that I would be sued. When I started writing in 2012, I was oblivious to the history that has plagued Singapore. To me, I actually believed that we were living in a democratic country where you could speak up.
So I happily waded into a minefield without knowing what I was stepping into.
What gave me some protection initially was that in the first year or so, I was relatively “mild” in my writings. I had believed that the government was helping Singaporeans and wanted to advocate to the government for fairer policies.
But as I researched more, I realised that the government’s policies since the mid-1980s were decidedly against Singaporeans.
(Afternote: In 1981, Lee Kuan Yew got Rothschild in to advise on the GIC. Then, in 1982, the PAP changed its constitution and removed “abolishing inequalities” as one of its aims and replaced it with “self-reliance”. Thereafter, they embarked on the idea of “meritocracy” and got Singaporeans to compete with one another.)
From the mid-1980s, the government reduced health subsidies from 50 to 30 percent, and increased the prices of public housing and education (university fees) by several times over and made Singaporeans use their pension funds to pay for all of these.
Meanwhile, the government reduced the interest rates on the pension funds to become the lowest in the world and real wages for the poor became stagnant from the mid-1990s, from the past 20 years now.
With wages stagnant and interest rates on the pension funds falling, while prices for housing, healthcare and education increased, the pension funds went into trouble.
Singaporeans were actually paying the most of our wages into this social security in the world but according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Singaporeans actually have the least adequate pension funds, worse than even China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
So, I wrote an article about this and before I knew it, I was sued. The prime minister said that I had accused him of misappropriating our pension funds.
What came after took me completely by surprise. I was sued, fired and a campaign against me has been ongoing for several months now.
After I was sued, a state-controlled media carried an article, stating that I am a “homosexual” and online media affiliated to the government later ran a smear campaign, using my sexuality. I was called names, like “faggot”.
In fact, Singapore remains the only developed country in the world where sex between two men is illegal. When a constitutional challenge was launched against the law, the courts ruled last year that the constitution only protects Singaporeans when it comes to religion, race, descent or place of birth, but not for gender, sex and sexual orientation.
In September last year, after I spoke at a protest, I was charged with two crimes, for public nuisance (for things like waving flags, shouting slogans and carrying banners) and for organising a demonstration without a permit, under an act meant to look into the maintenance of plants and trees.
We had held the protest to advocate to the government to be transparent and accountable on its management of our pension funds.
Lesser known among Singaporeans is that the constitution caters for our rights to the freedom of speech and expression, and peaceful assembly. However, the government has overridden it with laws that prevent even five persons or more from gathering (unlawful assembly) and the Public Order Act which makes it illegal for one person to be protesting.
There is only one park in Singapore, Hong Lim Park which is about the size of a football field, where protests are allowed but even then, we have been banned from doing so after being charged, even as the ban is unconstitutional.
In September last year, I was ruled to have defamed the prime minister. I am awaiting trial for the damages that I have to pay him, which is expected to be in excess of S$250,000.
The Singapore Financial Centre
But what’s with the government’s obsession with prosecuting Singaporeans, you might ask? Surely, a country of such a developed status would not need to be so authoritarian in its rule?
Perhaps this is where the “Singapore Model” requires a deeper investigation.
Singapore’s reputation as one of the largest financial centres in the world with the highest economic freedoms have caused many governments to be taken in, but a sinister truth lie beneath.
Ask some Singaporeans and they would tell you that the country looks First World on the outside but the people are actually living Third World lives. A migrant worker from China also told me, “from the outside, Singapore looks like heaven but from the inside, it is hell.”
The first thing that many foreigners would also ask Singaporeans is, “why are so many of your elderly still working as cleaners?”
But the elderly in Singapore simply cannot save enough inside their pension funds to retire and have to keep working, some until their deaths.
Poverty is estimated to be at 30 percent, even as the government refuses to define a poverty line or implement a minimum wage, one of the very few countries not to do so.
Where The Economist has ranked Singapore and Oslo as the most expensive cities in the world, low-income Norwegians get to earn S$5,000 a month while low-income Singaporeans are forced to struggle on S$1,000 every month.
However, the Singapore prime minister would earn a reported S$2.2 million in a year whereas the Norwegian prime minister earns S$250,000. The Singapore ministers also earn the highest salaries among politicians in the world and the prime minister has said that this is “realistic and correct” so as to attract “morally upright people”.
Indeed, the rich in Singapore, where the PAP ministers have pegged their salaries to, earn the highest salaries and pay the lowest tax among the developed countries while the poor earn the lowest wages and pay the highest social security contributions.
Singaporeans thus have the lowest purchasing power among the developed countries and the rich-poor gap is also the highest.
On top of that, the Singapore government also spends the least on healthcare and education, as a percentage of GDP, among the developed countries and Singaporeans have to spend the highest out of their own pockets for healthcare.
But in an attempt to cover up for the persistent inequalities in Singapore, the government has fudged the statistics by artificially reducing the income inequality statistics and changing the methodology of wage reporting.
But studies have shown that the high inequality has social ramifications as well, and indeed because Singapore has the highest income inequality among the developed countries, it also has the lowest level of trusts, highest prisoner rate after America and one of the lowest social mobility among the developed countries. It is not a pretty picture.
If you think America is bad, Singapore is worse.
Why are all these important? When you understand how the political prosecution is used to silent dissent, then you can see how this will allow the government to siphon off the money to earn for itself.
When I attended the International Student Festival (ISFiT) in Trondheim earlier this year, I asked the head of an international organisation about his thoughts on Singapore. He did not want to address Singapore directly but he remarked that he did not think that any authoritarian regime in the world is not corrupt.
The Economist also ranks Singapore 5th on the crony capitalism index, which makes Singapore the 5th easiest country for the rich to get rich if they are affiliated to the government.
Some might attribute Singapore’s conservatism to how it is being run by Chinese chauvinists, which might explain the similarities between Singapore and Hong Kong.
Indeed, the first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, is well-connected to the Straits Chinese. His wife came from three generations of a banking family and her extended family is equally illustrious. Her brother married into a family which came from the same lineage as the current deputy prime minister, Teo Chee Hean. The current president, Tony Tan, who was also previously deputy prime minister, is also her nephew. Her father and grandfather belong to a close-knit network of the other local bankers, extending from the early 1900s, through their ties in the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
Indeed, the older Lee’s beliefs in Chinese supremacy is well-known.
Lee Kuan Yew once said, “Three women were brought to the Singapore General Hospital, each in the same condition and needing a blood transfusion. The first, a Southeast Asian was given the transfusion but died a few hours later. The second, a South Asian was also given a transfusion but died a few days later. The third, an East Asian, was given a transfusion and survived. That is the X factor in development.”
But the PAP’s beliefs in “meritocracy” is also well-known.
In 1982, the PAP removed “equality” from their party constitution and replaced it with “self-reliance” and thereby embarking on their path towards “merit-based” policies with more certainty.
It is perhaps in this slant that might explain how Lee Kuan Yew and his wife’s family as well as their extended family are also known to have held key positions in government and government-linked companies. By some estimates, the government controls as much as 60 percent of Singapore’s GDP.
The older Lee’s son is also quick to clarify.
Lee Hsien Loong had said, “And if anybody doubts that I as prime minister is here not because I am the best man for the job but because my father fixed it or my wife runs Temasek because I put her there and not because she’s the best woman for the job, then my entire credibility and moral authority is destroyed. I’m not fit to be where I am.
“And it’s a fundamental issue of fitness to govern. First you must have the moral right, then you can make the right decisions. It’s a basic Confusion precept,” he said.
Even so, things have become touchier.
Fear among the people
One reason why the CPF pension funds of Singaporeans have become inadequate is because of how the funds have been taken by the government to invest in two of its investment firms, Temasek Holdings, where the prime minister’s wife is the CEO and in the GIC, where the prime minister is the chairman. These two firms now rank as the top 11 sovereign wealth funds in the world and earn high returns but give lesser back to Singaporeans.
Even as the government claims that it does not interfere in the GIC’s investment decisions, other than the prime minister, the two deputy prime ministers, several ministers and ex-ministers also sit on the GIC’s board of directors.
There is thus a glaring conflict of interest which is finally forcing the PAP to confront these issues but they have instead sidestepped them.
Lee Hsien Loong had even told The Telegraph, “Our funds are accountable to the government. I would not believe that transparency is everything.”
Where Singapore’s socioeconomic inequalities is similar to Hong Kong and which have led to the largest protests in Hong Kong, the same could not be seen in Singapore. The people in Hong Kong would fight to protect their lives and to demand for democracy but in Singapore, the decades of oppression under the hands of the PAP has entrenched much fear among the people.
But Singapore is not a democracy. Even Reporters Without Borders has ranked Singapore 153rd on the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, worse than even Myanmar and Russia and just three places above Iraq.
Ironically, the people do not realise the amount of power that they wield that even in Singapore’s pseudo-democracy, that if the people were to unite in numbers, the PAP would buckle in their knees.
Two years ago, one PAP parliamentarian shared a quote on his Facebook, “Gang rape, after all, is democracy in action,” in an attempt to disparage democracy. He was roundly criticised for it.
But the irony is that the words might actually ring true. As one of the victims of the government’s prosecution, Vincent Cheng, said, “I still feel angry at the injustice of the whole incident, and that the perpetrators have not been brought to account. ‘Operation Spectrum’ was political rape.”
It is with this impunity that the PAP would prosecute its opponents and dissenters but where if its own were to commit the same “crime”, the PAP would turn a blind eye to their misdoings.
With the death of the first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew a few weeks ago, there were hopes that the government would turn around but such hopes were shattered when the PAP arrested and charged a 16-year-old boy, Amos Yee, and two editors from an online website, The Real Singapore, over a consecutive three-week period. It became clear that the PAP is fearful of losing its grip and is using force to clamp down on its citizens. It will only be clear at the coming election whether the outpouring of grieve for Lee Kuan Yew is a sign of the people’s respect to the man and if Singaporeans will be able to distinct that from the current PAP, whom many have been angry with over the past few years. It would be unfortunate if Singaporeans were to still vote for the PAP simply based on the last bits of good will left behind by Lee Kuan Yew. It is a pity, however, that where the government has the chance at the time of Lee Kuan Yew’s death to renew themselves and acknowledge the past misdeeds so that forgiveness can take place for the nation, this did not happened.
In sum, where Singaporeans work the longest hours in the world, earn one of the lowest wages among the developed countries and where a huge proportion of the population live on poverty wages in the most expensive country in the world, with one of the lowest fertility rates in the world (at one point, the lowest), Singapore is not what the PAP portrays it to be.
It is not an understatement to say that the local population is worried of being purged by an elite government which they have been enslaved to, which all the time presents itself as a shining example to the world but which cannot be further from the truth.
Yet where the government’s control in Singapore has not just extended into the media, but also to the civil service, labour unions, academia (academics who have lost their jobs for criticising the government), Singapore-linked companies as well as the other sectors of society such as the civil society and think tanks, not only has fear become an impediment for change in Singapore, the government has also created a calculated system of control through its networks of connections.
When I once explained the situation in Singapore to a European friend, he remarked almost immediately that Singapore appeared “Fascist” to him.
What then can Singaporeans do, if the world does not step in?
Please help us.