Singapore: a model for China?

The city-state is slowly relaxing tight social controls as its wealthier citizens push for freedoms.

A prosperous city-state famous for micromanaging both its economy and its people is beginning to relax the reins.

Last month, Singapore promised to revise a raft of rules and practices in response to public calls for greater freedom. Singaporeans are no longer expected to fly the national flag, and citizenship restrictions have been relaxed. Other changes include workplace rights for the disabled and the creation of an arts school and a philanthropy award.

As the government tweaks its social policy, civil society groups are sprouting here, airing views on gay rights, artistic freedom, and the environment. Their mild dissent has resonated among youth raised on a global diet of pop culture and consumerism.

For observers trying to gauge the spread of democracy in Asia, Singapore's cautious steps show how a maturing economy can embrace social and political change. While there's no exact correlation between prosperity and freedom, social scientists posit that democracy usually blooms after economic development creates a stable middle class that demands a greater say.

No where does this idea matter more than in China, where the Communist Party has unleashed an economic dynamo that threatens to undercut its long-term grip. Free-traders argue that bolstering China's middle class is more likely to bring political change than bashing Beijing's repressive rule, citing the Party's growing emphasis on its legitimacy as a provider of economic growth. Some China-watchers say members of the Communist hierarchy are taking note of Singapore's model of tightly controlled democracy and economic efficiency.

"Singapore is an ideal scenario in the eyes of the [Communist] Party elite who realize they have to be more responsive to the public," said Joseph Chang, professor of political science at Hong Kong's City University.

However, Chang and others caution against applying a formula used in a city-state of 4 million people to China, where sheer size and provincial disparities weigh against a neat solution. In recent months, China has shown its displeasure with Hong Kong's democracy push.

In Singapore, those hoping for a political transformation say the latest moves amount to little more than tinkering. Proposals to relax restrictions on free speech in public forums and arts venues were rejected, along with changes to an electoral system that gives opposition parties almost no chance of taking power. Local media are overwhelmingly pro-government and are shielded from foreign takeovers.

"We need political party competition, and this is something that no govern ment committee can give us," said James Gomez, an activist and co-founder of the opposition Workers Party.

Members of the Remaking Singapore Committee, which spent over a year drawing up recommendations and holding public hearings, say the steps adopted are broadly in line with local wishes. Many Singaporeans don't crave radical change, says Warren Fernandez, foreign editor of the Straits Times newspaper and a committee member.

Singapore censors arts and culture, banning foreign imports with sexual or political content.

But public spending on the arts has risen steadily - two new arts centers have opened since 2002 - and local arts groups have been allowed slightly more latitude to probe social taboos. Plays like "Bent," an award-winning British portrayal of gay oppression under Nazi rule, have been staged to local acclaim. While the government outlaws homosexual acts and gay and lesbian associations, it has begun hiring openly gay people and a small gay sommunity has taken root.

Issues of race and politics are more sensitive and will often raise the hackles of government censors, say performers.

"For every production that seems to be making headway in pushing forward the boundaries, there's another that gets its wrists slapped or funding pulled," says Beatrice Chia, artistic director of Toy Factory, a theater group. "It feels like we are still on negotiating ground."

Some observers reckon that Singapore's gradual easing of social controls will eventually spur political reforms, even if the government seems reluctant to let go for now. Fernandez says the public is more willing now to criticize government policy - particularly if it hurts their pockets. His paper was flooded last year with letters bemoaning a fare hike on city buses, forcing flustered bureaucrats to defend their actions. Fares have held steady this year, he notes.

"Our politicians realize that politics in Singapore will change and they have to adapt to a new generation," he says. "People are more educated, they travel more, and they are exposed to the world."

This idea of a slow political evolution guided from above strikes a chord with many Asian leaders, who argue that Western models of democracy don't always work well. Economic prosperity doesn't necessarily mean that people will agitate for US-style electoral politics, provided leaders earn legitimacy by performing well in office.

However, analysts point out that the spread of democracy in Asia hasn't followed this evolutionary trend. Authoritarian governments have fallen after popular pressure forced the pace of change, often fueled by bloody revolts. In the Philippines, dictator Ferdinand Marcos stepped down in 1986 amid massive demonstrations, and Indonesia's Suharto made a similar exit in 1998.

"Countries like Taiwan and South Korea have moved in the direction of multiparty politics and dynamic democracy, and we're still left with one-party dominance," says Russell Heng, a senior fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asia Studies.

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