Singapore Does Its Own Thing


This city must have one of the world's most pleasing entrances: the airport road to the center, manicured tropical park all the way. Downtown the bustling traffic is orderly, everything looks new, prosperous, and squeaky clean. It is Disneyland - but with teeth.

Singapore seems to have taken a leaf out of China's book. Here also the motto is: Enrich yourselves. And the politics is hardball. The People's Action Party (PAP), in power since independence in 1965, intends to stay there. In January's election Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong addressed the 85 percent of Singapore's 3 million people who live in state-subsidized housing. He made it clear that districts that failed to vote for the PAP would not get state money to renovate or improve their properties.

Opposition leaders faced more than losing the election. The Workers' Party's Tang Liang Hong has fled the country. He had the temerity to call the prime minister a liar. In Singapore, laws against defamation are the government's friend. Mr. Tang was hit with a dozen lawsuits. The court ordered him to put $11 million in escrow against a possible adverse ruling. His wife is forbidden to leave the country "pending a tax investigation."

ONE official told us, "Anyone can call the leaders liars, but he must prove it in court." The government, he went on, would respond furiously against libel, accusations of nepotism, allegations of bias in the courts, and charges of official corruption. All news organs, including big foreign newspapers seeking distribution in Singapore, do well to take notice.

To an outsider the logic seems clear. Singapore, an island city-state one-sixth the size of Rhode Island, has no natural resources. Its wealth depends not on political freedom but on the freedom to do business, and it has been spectacularly successful. It's one of the world's largest container ports, the biggest financial center in southeast Asia. Where its neighbors are shot through with corruption, Singapore - like Hong Kong - offers entrepreneurs a level playing field with a clear framework of law.

Unlike China, Singapore lacks even the pretense of an ideology. It fosters elitism but with opportunity and excellent universities accessible to all who qualify. Nearly 80 percent of its people are Chinese, and the Confucian values of respect for learning, authority, and family are deeply ingrained.

But there is no trace of xenophobia. Sizable Indian and Arab communities have flourished for generations. The largest expatriate colony is Japanese. Children and grandchildren of the soldiers who overran the island in 1942 are welcome here on business. Religious freedom permits Hindu temples, Buddhist pagodas, mosques, synagogues, and Christian churches cheek by jowl. Excepted are Jehovah's Witnesses, not on religious grounds but because they do not accept the symbols or legitimacy of states.

An active cultural life embraces music, theater, and art. The Singapore Art Museum has among its abstract paintings a striking call for individual expression, which is seen, incidentally - and not to best advantage - in the continuing building boom that has produced some world-class hideosities.

Restrictions on behavior, smoking, jaywalking, and littering are enforced. But this is not a clockwork society or a police state. Caning, to be sure, is Draconian punishment, as a young American accused of painting graffiti on an automobile a few years ago will testify. However, the notice in bold red letters on every immigration card, "Warning - Death for Drug Traffickers Under Singapore Law," does not seem inappropriate in a region that provides most of the world's heroin.

Gambling is against the law, but the state runs a lottery. Begging is forbidden and invisible. As for homeless, one longtime foreign resident assured us they really do not exist. Health services are good. Life expectancy is up, infant mortality down.

The island is lush, green, respectful of nature. A vast open zoo, where endangered species can breed, must be unique. So is Singapore. It does its own thing, take it or leave it.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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