Singapore loosens reins with Speakers Corner

The government's plan of a forum for free speech is intended to encourage creativity.

It may be only a little patch of green in a public park, but the proposal for a Speakers Corner here marks a deep departure from the tightly controlled environment that has dominated this small Southeast Asian country.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's announcement last month that the government would designate a free-speech venue comes as a surprise just one year after opposition figure Chee Soon Juan was imprisoned for speaking without a permit in the crowded business district.

But Singaporeans today are becoming used to government programs aimed at teaching them how to think for themselves. Such programs include school curricula based less on rote learning, promotion of the arts, and government money set aside to help fledgling start-ups. All share a common goal: to inject ingenuity into a society robbed of its creativity after years of government micromanagement, observers say.

Located at the southern tip of Malaysia and straddling the Indonesian archipelago, Singapore is roughly half the size of Los Angeles and home to about 3.5 million people, 77 percent of whom are ethnic Chinese in a region dominated by ethnic-Malay Muslims. Known for its trademark toughness, the People's Action Party (PAP) has ruled Singapore since it was still under colonial control in 1959.

So why now is the old guard relaxing its paternalistic grip?

The PAP feels it must teach Singaporeans to take the initiative so it can compete in a global marketplace. "We need to get our people to be more willing to undertake risk," said the country's founding father Lee Kuan Yew at a recent conference. "It requires a completely different mindset. For us, the change means the abandonment of rules which have served us well for 30-plus years."

Mr. Chee and other critics, however, don't see the Speakers Corner plan in such rosy terms. Unlike their counterparts in London, a person here will need a permit to speak, and speech deemed offensive will continue to be curbed. Detractors slam suggestions that the site is anything but a cosmetic attempt by the PAP to co-opt the powerful symbol of free speech.

"There's a Chinese expression that if you give peanuts, you'll get monkeys. The Speakers Corner is peanuts," says James Gomez, a political activist who wrote and published the book "Self-Censorship: Singapore's Shame."

Gomez continues, "The people want more than a piece of space. They want a vibrant and real political opposition."

The limits imposed on the Speakers Corner mirror previous government attempts to inject creativity. In 1997, in a move to legalize street performances, artists were required to audition and donate any money collected to charity, while audience participation was banned.

The PAP's aim is to wean people off the state's nurturing, but at the same time keep them in line. "This is the kind of dilemma which we are in," Prime Minister Goh told the Far Eastern Economic Review. "How paternalistic should we be, and how much room can we give to the people?"

To allow Singaporeans to stray too far means the PAP may lose the control they covet. But by not loosening its hold enough, the government could also stunt the creativity it's trying to cultivate. "Singaporeans have never been known to be risk takers," says 21-year-old entrepreneur Jerel Kwek, who heads an Internet consultancy business. "They have been taught to stick to the status quo and never to challenge. In the New Economy, that is a recipe for disaster."

The New Economy Kwek speaks of is centered on knowledge-based industries like information technology, and has become the cornerstone in the city-state's blueprint to transform itself into a high-tech regional hub. Singapore is being forced to shift out of its low-value manufacturing base as companies gravitate toward cheaper labor in Indonesia and Malaysia. This means fewer jobs - unless the city-state can attract a more educated, creative workforce.

"Singapore's survival will depend on being able to establish a highly dense intellectual pool of talent," says Zulkifli Baharudin, a businessman and nominated member of Parliament. "With our small size and slow population rate, we'll need to import [it]," he explains. "Executives don't want ... to come to a hardship post."

Singapore Inc., once a backwater and now a modern metropolis, boasts the busiest port in the world. Its per capita income is over $20,000 a year, on par with most Western democracies.

However, success hasn't come without a price. Most Americans became familiar with the city-state's brand of justice through the Michael Fay case of the early 1990s, when the teenager was arrested for vandalism and caned for the offense. Dissent has generally not been tolerated. Surveillance cameras to ensure orderly behavior are found in most public areas.

Yet as the creativity campaign is rolled out, enforcement of restrictions on things like chewing-gum purchases and jaywalking have eased. The upshot has been a more lively nightlife, particularly for expatriates looking for pubs, theater, and less- censored cinema after working hours.

Critics scoff at the attempts to teach creativity from the top down, and say that only when Singaporeans crave the liberties symbolized by a Speakers Corner will they find the missing ingredient the PAP is trying to promote.

Mr. Goh remains optimistic: "It's in a sense an irony that we should talk about building a new society. We are aware of the irony ... but we will give it a try."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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