BRIA 10 1 b Singapore: Model Society or City of Fear?

Model Society

After landing at Changi International, you will be impressed with the efficiency of Singapore's airport, called the finest in the world by the travel industry. You will have little trouble getting to your hotel, since Singapore has plenty of taxis, modern expressways, and a sleek new subway. You will soon notice that auto traffic is carefully regulated with well-disciplined drivers.

As you make your way through the city, you will be pleased with the squeaky clean streets lined with trees and flower beds. High rise apartment and office buildings help pack 3 million people into 240 square miles (about 12,000 citizens per square mile). You will not see any slums, homeless people, or beggars.

By the time you arrive at your hotel, you will be aware that almost everyone speaks some English. English is taught as the "first" language in the schools, and has become the common language for everyday communication. You will also learn that eating is a joy in Singapore with its many five-star restaurants. Even the city tap water is safe to drink. At night, you will have little fear as you stroll through Singapore's safe streets.

Singapore is a city as well as a nation, located on a small island in Southeast Asia. A former British colony, Singapore became completely independent in 1965. Today, Singapore is truly a multicultural and multilingual society with four official languages: Mandarin Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English. Singaporeans of Chinese descent, speaking a variety of dialects as well as Mandarin, make up more than three-quarters of the population. The Chinese are also the driving force behind the country's highly successful business community. Malays, mostly Muslim, account for the bulk of Singapore's low income workers. Other Singaporeans are Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians from southern India. This great ethnic mix in Singapore heavily influences the way the government runs the country.

The people of Singapore today enjoy the highest standard of living in Asia, second only to the Japanese. The average annual income is about the same as in the United States. The unemployment rate is under 5%. Most people own their homes (mainly comfortable apartments). Workers pay into a social security system that provides health care benefits, allows them to borrow in order to purchase a home, and enables most to retire at 55.

The Government Knows Best

Less than 30 years ago, Singapore was a backwater, poverty-stricken, Third World port city with few natural resources. But soon after they gained independence, the founders of the struggling nation decided to transform their city-nation into a world-class commercial center. The founders accomplished this through careful planning and by attracting investment from foreign multinational corporations.

One of Singapore's most prominent founders, Lee Kuan Yew, flirted with socialism as a young man, but later became a fierce anti-communist and an advocate of free enterprise. Lee and a small group of like-minded leaders set out to plan a model society. He was the guiding force behind Singapore's economic miracle from its beginnings with the new republic in 1965 until he retired as prime minister in 1990.

Lee was convinced that an elite group of highly educated, dedicated, and honest leaders should run the government. Their goal was to assure a political stability that would attract foreign investors. Unlike other totalitarian regimes, Lee installed a system that allowed regular elections and competing political parties. Lee's popular political party, the People's Action Party (PAP), has won almost all the seats in the parliament for more than a quarter of a century.

Prime Minister Lee and the People's Action Party both believed that the government knows what is best for the people of Singapore. As a result, the government has little tolerance for political debate, special interest groups, or dissent. The government expects its citizens to be hardworking, disciplined, and obedient. Most Singaporeans seem to agree.

When Singapore became an independent nation in the mid-1960s, the Vietnam War was raging nearby and the threat of a communist takeover seemed real. Consequently, the government under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew passed a series of laws to suppress dissent. One of these laws, the Internal Security Act, allows the government to arrest and jail individuals without charge or trial.

Many of Singapore's laws are backed by stiff fines: failing to flush a public toilet ($100); spitting or smoking in public places ($300); eating or drinking on the subway ($300); littering ($600); selling chewing gum ($1600). The government came down against chewing gum after vandals began sticking wads on elevator buttons and subway car doors. Elevators in apartment buildings even have urine detectors that, when activated, take the violator's picture and lock the door until the police arrive. The fine is $1200.

For more serious crimes, Singapore resorts to imprisonment and caning (beating with a stick). The death penalty is used in cases of first degree murder, armed robbery, and drug trafficking. Over 30 persons have been hanged since 1975 for drug offenses.

Singapore's economic system has been described as "state capitalism." While private ownership and free enterprise are vigorously encouraged, the government still keeps a firm hand on most business activity and retains ownership of some industries. The government also controls wages and has weakened the labor unions so that strikes are rare.

The school system is patterned after the Japanese model. Periodic examinations weed out those who do not do well in academic subjects (especially English) and "stream" them into technical and vocational schools. The more academically successful youngsters go to "superschools" where they are prepared for the university and professional careers.

One of the most controversial government policies concerns population control. At first, the government launched a campaign to reduce the birth rate through tax incentives and easily available abortions ("Stop At Two"). However, after discovering that such a policy would cause Singapore's population to decrease after the year 2030, the government reversed itself. They offered tax rebates for a third child and made abortions more difficult to get ("Go For Three"). Then, when most three-child families turned out to have low incomes, the government became concerned. They enacted new laws that restricted valuable primary school registration to the children of mothers who were college graduates. This policy proved to be so unpopular that it was finally abandoned.

City of Fear

In recent years, some Singaporeans have begun to question the old belief that the government always knows what is best for the people. In 1987, 22 church social workers, professionals, and students publicly criticized certain government policies. They were accused of organizing a "Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political order." They were jailed without trial. Most of these "criminals" were released after confessing on television. However, several of them were rearrested after they issued a statement to the press retracting their confessions. They also charged that while they were held in jail they had been beaten, subjected to long interrogations, and otherwise mistreated.

Some of those who were rearrested appealed to the courts with habeas corpus petitions. These required the government to produce formal charges or release them. The courts ordered that they be let go, but as soon as they were free the government arrested them again. The last of the "Marxist conspirators" were not released from jail until June of 1990; they are restricted in their freedom of movement, speech, and association with others.

Government censorship is a fact of life in Singapore. The government screens books, magazines, movies, videos, music recordings, live performances, and the internet. Privately owned TV satellite dishes are illegal. All Singapore newspapers are controlled by a single holding company largely owned by the government.

Political gatherings of more than five persons in Singapore require a police permit. Therefore, public demonstrations are rarely allowed except in support of the government. When asked why university students were denied permission to protest against tuition increases, the current prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, replied:

If you allow students to do so, then workers will begin to do so over the slightest grievance. And if you have several demonstrations, right away the impression is created that government is not in control of the situation that the place may become unstable. That will have an impact on foreign investors.

In many ways, Singapore provides its inhabitants with an ideal existence. Singaporeans enjoy a clean, efficient, and attractive environment. Most citizens can expect full employment, a good education, and comprehensive healthcare. This seemingly secure, comfortable society depends on strictly enforced laws that were originally designed to combat communist subversion and prevent conflicts from breaking out among the country's ethnic groups. Singapore's rigid rules and numerous laws make sure that the tiny city state runs smoothly, but at what price to individual freedoms and human rights?

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What aspects of life in Singapore do you like the most? What do you dislike the most?
  2. Why are human rights like freedom of speech and press along with due process of law lacking in Singapore?
  3. What is more important to you: human rights or economic security? Why?


Should the United States Become More Like Singapore?

  1. Form cooperative learning groups. Each home team should consist of at least four students.
  2. Each student in every home team should choose to read one of the following article sections: "Model Society," "The Government Knows Best," or "City of Fear."
  3. Next, students should assemble in three expert groups based on the three sections of the article. The students in each of these groups should discuss the material they have read and make a list of what they believe to be the most important ideas and facts.
  4. The students should then reassemble in their teams where the reader-experts will, in turn, share what they have learned about Singapore with the other team members.
  5. At this point, the teacher may wish to administer a quiz to the class on the main ideas and facts discussed in the entire article.
  6. Finally, the fourth member of each home team should take responsibility for leading a discussion on the following question: "Should the United States become more like Singapore?" The discussion leader should take notes during the discussion, and then report his or her team's answer, with reasons, to the rest of the class.



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