2006: A Look Back

So another year has gone by and we’re gearing up for long nights of New Year’s partying and many broken resolutions. One of our other traditions here at I-S is to look back at what’s happened over the past 12 months and see if we can make any sense of the news, trends, happenings, events and non-events (there are always some) which washed up on our shores and graced our pages.

2006 was a good year for Singapore. The stock market boomed, and the economic prognosticators could hardly revise their calculations of GDP growth fast enough to keep up with reality. Combined with this was an explosion of nightlife, entertainment and lifestyle venues. 2006 saw us become a city that was hipper than ever with a slew of new places to chill, eat, drink and hang out. Our nightlife scene became cool enough to rival (dare we say top?) anywhere in the region with new venues like Ministry of Sound and giant St James Power Station joining the fold.

Lifestyle hubs opened up everywhere and we saw the return of destination neighborhoods such as Rochester Park, The Pier @ Robertson and the welcome revamping of Clarke Quay. The launch of VivoCity gave us much needed new retailers such as The Gap. Trendy new restaurants were everywhere: We couldn’t get ourselves into establishments like Il Lido and Graze fast enough (and sometimes we couldn’t get in at all). And the next few years promise to be even more interesting now that the integrated resorts are confirmed and ready to roll (well, the bulldozers at least, if not the dice).

But among all the up, up, up and boom, boom, boom, we did notice one thing that seemed to buck the trend. Our humble OB Index, which appears in I-S Magazine’s Upfront section each week and charts Singapore’s boundaries for openness, tolerance and freedom of expression, closed the year over 700 points below where it began—and spent several months this year in negative territory. Looking back at the news which led to the ups and downs of the OB Index, there were a few things that stood out as having had a particularly negative effect on the numbers: the controversies surrounding blogger Mr. Brown, and the licensing troubles of the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), just to name a couple.

Hmmm. Was it just coincidence that these things all occurred in the space of a few months, or did the drop in OB represent some kind of trend towards less openness and tolerance than before? To answer this question, we talked to academics, pundits and average joes to see what they thought of the news of 2006.

Openness Singapore Style

OK, so we all know the concept of openness in Singapore is not the same as in some other countries. The last time I-S Magazine looked at this issue was 2004, when the election of new Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised an environment where Singaporeans would feel free to “express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas or simply be different.”

Since then, it seems Singapore has been on a journey to define what that means—only a little over 12 months ago Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said “it has not been proven that having more press freedom would result in a clean and efficient government or economic freedom and prosperity.”

According to Dr. Kenneth Paul Tan from the Department of Political Science & University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore, openness here is about balance. “The government’s apparently schizophrenic attitudes to conservatism and openness can best be explained as a strategy of balancing a politics of fear and a politics of material success, in order to maximize political capital from both,” he says.

Sinipan Samydorai of Think Centre, an independent political research initiative, says that in Singapore openness applies more to some areas than others; it does not apply across the board to every aspect of life. “If [the Government] say such things like, ‘We want to be more open,’ we also have to look at what policies and limitations or restrictions would come along with the package. When Lee says you’re allowed to speak your mind freely, it doesn’t mean there won’t be a defamation suit. That is not guaranteed.”

Colin Goh of Talking Cock, whose website regularly posts comments on current issues in Singapore, describes this as being “two steps forward, three steps back…There has been more openness in terms of lifestyle options—we can dance on bar tops, ogle nude Crazy Horse dancers,” he says. “But on the other hand, the [Mr. Brown] incident was bizarrely regressive to me, and some of the proposed Penal Code amendments are also disquieting…Overall, I think there’s a genuine belief that some level of diversity is desirable, but the application has been conservative and patchy.”

Stuart Koe, the Chief Executive Officer of Fridae, the leading gay website in Asia, agrees that openness is a unique concept in Singapore, “The level of openness acceptable depends on the topic of discussion, or issue at hand.”

Speaking Up

To be sure, the relaxations to censorship and film ratings have seen an increased number of previously banned films screening in our cinemas. And the phenomenon of “citizen journalism” was at an all-time high during this year’s General Elections, according to Goh Kheng Wee, Managing Director of NexLabs, an intelligent communications technology firm that did an analysis on the role of blogs in the elections.

But when bloggers went into print, things got more complicated. Today newspaper suspended its column by Mr. Brown, the popular blogger who often takes a satirical approach to comment on local matters, after complaints from the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA). After the incident PM Lee commented that the column “hit out wildly at the Government in a very mocking and dismissive sort of tone.” The PM’s comments indicated that the Government might be prepared to discuss political issues via the newspapers, but only in a serious and constructive manner. He elaborated, “So we argue, sometimes we argue fiercely. But we should not take that as a sign that we are not open. Openness doesn’t mean just lovey-dovey. Openness means being prepared to be candid, to be direct, and to discuss very serious things very seriously.”

Goh of Talking Cock says he was surprised that MICA reacted as strongly as they did. “I had expected a stern point-by-point rebuttal on the merits or lack thereof of Mr. Brown’s criticisms, but was surprised to see it being turned into a whole thing about freedom of expression and what is acceptable or not in the mainstream press. Maybe the Government should change their spin doctors, because this certainly felt like a tactical error to me.”

With effect from September 11, 2006, FEER was required to put up a bond of $200,000 and appoint a local legal representative. FEER, which was already embroiled in a legal case over its coverage of opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, lost its Singapore license when it refused to pay the bond. FEER’s response at the time was to view this as evidence that Singapore hasn’t opened up. In a public statement, FEER commented, “We regret that this action infringes on the fundamental rights of our Singaporean subscribers and further restricts the already narrow scope of free expression in Singapore.”

Dr. Terence Chong of Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) agrees with Dr. Tan that openness in Singapore is applied more readily in some arenas than others. “[The FEER incident] certainly made the local press more sensitive to the difference between cultural liberalization and political openness,” he says.


The Other Team

To some commentators, politics is another area in which Singapore remained a conservative arena in 2006. During the April elections James Gomez of the Workers’ Party (WP) was criticized by People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders for lacking accountability when he failed to submit a minority report to the Elections Department. And in September PM Lee and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew successfully sued Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) member Chee Soon Juan for defamation.

Dr. Chong of ISEAS notes, “There was a discernable reaction from Singaporeans. Many were turned off by this mud-slinging. This may suggest that the ‘political openness’ that many Singaporeans want is not Western-style individual rights, but a more level playing field…. Singaporeans, especially the younger ones, are developing a greater sense of moral and ethical justice when it comes to local politics. This may pave the way for greater openness.”

Gomez agrees. While he had spoken to I-S Magazine two years ago about how fear of expressing alternative views could be seen as self-censorship, the whole controversy that surrounded him this year has taught him one thing—that fear isn’t paralyzing. “I learnt a lot about Singaporeans. Trusting in Singaporeans, or otherwise what I call ‘the wisdom of the ground,’ is an important thing during the election process."

On the World Stage

Openness in Singapore became international news during the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank meetings in September. When 22 Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) were initially banned, but then allowed, to enter Singapore during the meetings, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz was highly critical. “At this stage of success Singapore has reached they would do much better for themselves with a more visionary approach to the process,” he said at the time. Activist Jeff Powell also described the reversal of the decision as “a little too late.” Nevertheless the IMF and World Bank meetings were a resounding success, attracting 23,000 participants from 184 countries, an unprecedented attendance at these meetings. In response to negative criticism from the international media, PM Lee was quoted saying, “What is important is that we do thing right thing. If we do that, the negative publicity can do us no harm because the delegates who came saw how things worked—they know the truth.”

What’s in Store

Officially, the government has no comment on the issue of openness—at least none of the several departments and ministries we contacted for this story. But the general feeling among observers and pundits is that the path is towards ever-greater openness, even though there may be bumps along the way. The past 12 months have shown that in other areas our society is clearly opening up. And there was good news in the OB Index this year, too. Even as recently as a few weeks ago there have been discussions to revise the Penal Code to allow oral and anal sex (albeit only between heterosexual couples) and PM Lee has said the government should look towards new media to spread its message, including the use of podcasts (which were not allowed during this year’s election).

Dr. Chong from ISEAS points out that younger Singaporeans, in particular, are embracing change. “Younger Singaporeans seem to be more vocal and willing to be contrary… Secondly, the media is more willing to report and profile contrary and dissenting views only because there is a clear signal from PM Lee’s administration that these are to be permitted,” he says. But Dr. Chong footnotes this with a reminder that the government has made clear it “will not embrace a liberal democracy as practiced in the West.”

2007 begins with Singapore poised for growth and greatness. And even if both our air and our attitudes toward openness get a little hazy from time to time, just remember it could be worse. You could be breathing the air in Hong Kong.

Views on openness in 2006

Kelvin Victor, 35, fireman
“I’m actually quite happy with what we have in Singapore—we have a stable government and taxes are relatively low. On the whole, I think we have quite a comfortable life here, which I think comes from strong support from the government to the people, as well as a good structure. After all, they are bringing in the Integreated Resorts, which will be good for the economy.”

Aaron Kong, 26, senior public relations account executive
“There is still room for more expression of actions in Singapore, whether it is regarding art, culture or speech. There is a general sense of a more open culture taking root and shape, as seen in the peer media channels, through blogs, vlogs and community forums. I hope that this form of expression will continue to grow and that relevant policies [are] put in place to encourage such expressions.”

Sheryl Quek, 25, writer
“The government’s loosened up CONSIDERABLY over the years. Letting go little by little is definitely the way to go, and in this respect, the government is pretty much on the right track. We’ve got what the rest of the world wishes they had in their country: Low-crime rate, safe streets, an affordable standard of living, a super efficient transport system and trees everywhere you go.”

Favorite events that shoot up the OB Index in 2006