Singapore: A Great Economy But No Free Speech

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Does Singapore’s lack of civil liberties have a relationship to its economic success?

The American Declaration of Independence asserts that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are fundamental, unalienable rights of all human beings — endowed to us by our Creator. According to the Declaration, the primary purpose of government is to establish conditions in which citizens can realize these goals. The definition of civil liberties is the freedom of a citizen to exercise customary rights like those of speech or assembly, without unwarranted or arbitrary interference by the government.

It is clear that Singapore’s system of governance falls short on many conventional criteria for “good government.” Since most theories of governance hold that good performance requires a good Western-style democracy, Singapore’s record over five decades presents a challenge. Since Independence, only one political party has been in power. Although opposition parties have gained ground in recent years, their campaigns and activities are constrained by a ban on political films and television programs, the threat of defamation suits, and strict regulations on political associations. Singapore ranks 151th in the world on Reporters without Borders’ freedom of press index. FreedomHouse ranks the country as only ‘Partially free’ on their freedom index.

Often, the trend is that countries with a low freedom index are also the ones that are the least developed. Sub-Saharan countries such as Chad, Sierra Leone, and Niger have the lowest HDI (human development index) indexes in the world. Unsurprisingly, they also rank as the lowest in terms of Civil liberties, seen from their bottom rankings on various freedom indexes.

51 years since its independence, Singapore is a marvel to behold and applaud. It is a clear anomaly when looking at the freedom-development trend. But its success also poses uncomfortable questions of whether democracy is truly the best form of government. When one studies the numbers or asks its citizens, there can be no doubt that Singapore’s government is delivering the results people want. Its GDP per capita is 3rd in the world, citizens’ life expectancy is 4th in the world, and its education system, for the past decade, has consistently been one of the best in the world.

So, what is happening with Singapore? Do its citizens really have little civil liberties? And if so, how is it still such a success story?

Compared to other first world countries, Singapore does lag behind on the freedom index. That being said, Singapore is still a relatively free country- ranking 43rd in the world on CATO Institute’s Human Freedom Index. While not up there with the likes of the UK (9th), U.S (20th), and Japan (28th), it does much better than many rising economies, such as India (75) and China (132). In terms of Economic Freedom, it actually ranks as 2nd best in the world, falling short only to Hong Kong.

So, with a freedom ranking of 43rd in the world, how is it that Singapore is still able to be so successful, having a higher HDI (Human Development Index) than many countries that are higher on the freedom index?

The answer lies in the curtailment of freedom itself.

What must be understood is that while Singaporeans do not have as much freedom as their first world counterparts, much of that has led to them being better off.

A good example would be Singapore’s strict stance on weapons and drugs. Guns are fully banned in Singapore, and the death penalty is meted out to anyone in possession of over 14g of heroin in its pure form. While this may seem harsh, it is for good reason. Singapore is particularly vulnerable to the drug menace due to its small size and location near the Golden Triangle (a major opium and drug-producing region, between Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar). This has helped stop any drug related activities or violence that has plagued many countries (Colombia comes to mind).

Strict gun and drug controls have also left Singapore a relatively safe place. It is, in fact, the 2nd safest country in Asia, just behind Japan. Singapore also enforces conscription into the Singapore Armed Forces, for a national service period of 2 years. While criticized and disliked by many Singaporeans, it has played an integral part in the country’s defense for the past 50 years.

Another famous instance would be Singapore’s Sedition Act, which has brought about much criticism by the Western world. The Sedition Act of the Statutes of Singapore aims to retain political stability as well as racial and ethnic harmony. Any acts, tendencies, or statements which can be construed as a threat to the government, such as inciting criticism, rioting, or an affront against the multiracial and multi-ethnic Singaporean population, are punishable under this Act.

With its history of race riots and political turbulence, it is easy to see why such an act could be considered necessary. Since the racial riots of the 1960s, there have been no major race-related incidents in Singapore, a surprising fact given the diversity of cultures co-existing in Singapore. The sedition act helped keep Singapore in political stability, at a time when stability was stable to Singapore’s growth.

Of course, since the 1960s and 70s, the freedoms Singaporeans have been entitled to certainly have increased, with only a handful of policies in place currently that truly restrict freedom (the biggest being the lack of freedom of speech, as seen from the sedition act).

However, there have been some limitations to this curtailment. The Sedition Act effectively bans the public discussion of most matters of race, religion, or sexuality, as well as direct and vocal criticism of the government. This is seen as a restriction of free speech, and it has also come up as one of the reasons for the racial tensions the Act aims to prevent.

In short, Singapore is able to thrive through good governance. The government curtails certain freedoms for the good of its citizens. This, of course, asks questions about the whole idea of democracy. Is democracy really the best political system then? It certainly cannot be autocracy- we have seen, time and time again throughout history, that absolute power given to the government can cause utter devastation (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and others come to mind).

Democracy, while arguably being the best existing political system currently, is definitely not without its flaws. Democracy has been seen to cause political gridlock and inefficiency. At times government intervention is needed and that, I feel, is Singapore’s trump card. It has been able to, for the past 5 decades, thrive through good governance. Whether it be providing cheap housing in the form of HDB flats, or creating a good economy to provide Singaporeans stable jobs, the government has more or less delivered. By cutting back on certain freedoms, Singapore’s government has been able to efficiently create policies to provide what their citizens have needed.

The question is, can Singapore keep this up? When citizens freedoms are curtailed for the betterment of the country, the government is expected to deliver. It is simple- if the public attains fewer freedoms from their government, the government itself is expected to play a bigger role in delivering what their citizens need. Singapore has been able to do that for the past 50 years to a fairly large extent. Can they keep it going?

It is somewhat good to see that Singapore is slowly shedding its image as being rather authoritarian- it is opening up in terms of free speech (seen from events such as pinkdot.sg, which supports the LGBT community), and opposition parties are as strong as they ever have been for a long time. Checks and balances are always key to any political system, and that is what Singapore would need more of in the future. Singapore’s political system is heavily dependent on good governance, and for the country to continue doing well, they need just that.

Yes, Singapore does cut down slightly on civil liberties and general freedoms, but in doing so, they have been able to become almost a first world nation in just a few decades.

Avneesh Moghe writes about business, particularly as it pertains to Hong Kong and Singapore.

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