ad info


Asiaweek TIMEASIA.com CNN.com
 > magazine
 home
 intelligence
 web features
 magazine archive
 technology
 newsmap
 customer service
 subscribe
 TIMEASIA.COM
 CNN.COM
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia
  australasia
 BUSINESS
 SPORTS
 SHOWBIZ
 ASIA WEATHER
 ASIA TRAVEL

Other News
TIME.com
TIME Europe
FORTUNE.com
FORTUNE China
MONEY.com
Asiaweek Services
Contact Asiaweek
About Asiaweek
Media Kit
Get up to 3 months of Asiaweek free when you subscribe online!


MAY 12, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 18 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Book: Mental Block
Two critics reflect on Singapore's invisible restraints

Sometimes a book comes along whose mere publication makes news. That is the case with Self-Censorship: Singapore's Shame by James Gomez (Think Center, Singapore, 98 pages, $11.20). The title says it all. Gomez, a former student activist, argues that Singaporeans are so used to living in a restrictive society that they are afraid to speak out, to engage in political debate or to express themselves openly - even if the government hasn't done anything to squelch them. "The strength of the censorial sentiment is so pervasive that it is crippling," writes the 35-year-old whose late father was a prominent union leader. "It prevents citizens from raising questions, voicing opinions and acting on matters that affect their polity . . . there is a climate of fear."

Strong stuff. But not all that new a proposition. Gomez also argues that the ruling People's Action Party utilizes self-censorship as a means to stay in power. This has the benefit, he notes, of not requiring direct intervention. Again, not a striking revelation. But his book, which contains a generous foreward by lawyer and novelist Philip Jeyaretnam, was probably meant more to provoke than to inform. Taken with Gomez's other activities as a self-proclaimed "political entrepreneur" and proprietor of Think Center (www.thinkcentre.org), an online discussion network he set up, this slim volume is obviously just part of the message.

Take a look at Think Center's website, specifically its reports on Gomez's overseas tour to publicize his book, and you may conclude that he is something of a self-promoter. That may be so. But it's hard to fault that given what Gomez is campaigning against. Dotcom brashness may be just the antidote to Lion City self-restraint. That's the whole point, isn't it? Gomez clearly wants to lead by example. He has picked up on the fact that the Internet allows, even fosters, a more fast-and-loose approach. Why not take advantage? He does. Gomez relishes recounting the trouble he had getting his book published and distributed. He commissioned a National University of Singapore student to investigate why Shame was pulled off the shelves of the NUS bookshop and posted the report on his website. And in a move that many in Singapore would consider daring, he has posted online an account of a meeting he had in Australia with self-exiled dissident Tang Liang Hong.

Gomez, who works as a researcher in the Singapore office of a foundation affiliated with Germany's Social Democratic Party, has used Think Center to launch a series of public forums on such touchy topics as human rights and political involvement. The Singapore government has called for wider participation and pushed the line that "every Singaporean matters." Gomez takes the authorities at their literal word and aims to test it with a range of "political products" such as his book, website and discussions. "Product innovation is critical for a political dotcom company," he says. "You always have to be on the edge. If you aren't, then people won't buy." Expect a political dotcom party to emerge in Singapore in future, he predicts.

In the Internet age, Gomez reckons, self-censorship is a black mark that just doesn't wash. The city's 35 years of tight, centralized control and discipline have taken their toll. It has to change. "Singapore is suffering from bad marketing in the New Economy," Gomez argues. "More people should take advantage of the opportunities and not suffer from the state's legacy of censorship. Otherwise, we are in danger of losing another generation, another opportunity." In the global economy, the restrictive code represented by Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew "is irrelevant," he concludes. "It will only be a psychological problem for those with a mental block." No one would accuse Gomez of being among that number.
-- By Alejandro Reyes

Throughout last year, Singaporeans were bombarded with rhetoric about the need for "active citizenship." The idea, which arises from the government's Singapore 21 vision statement, is to mobilize the people in consensus building. It is, in effect, an alternative to a civil society that embraces political competition. For Michael Haas, editor of The Singapore Puzzle (Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, 216 pages, $57.95), this drive might be regarded as the latest attempt by the People's Action Party to refine the governance of "mass society." This exists where there is a vast gulf between the rulers and the ruled. The PAP's aim, argues Haas in an essay, is to exert control by systematically obliterating independent forms of social organization. But this only intensifies problems, "because the masses are buffeted around without a voice, they become alienated from the regime and fearful of linking up with one another," he writes. His argument is brought to bear on the book's central "puzzle" - the apparent incongruence between Singapore's market sophistication and political authoritarianism. Haas's six contributors address other puzzles, some of which relate especially closely to this main theme.

For instance, libertarians Christopher Lingle and Kurt Wickman ask why Singapore's elite-led economic experiment has succeeded where so many others have failed. They concede little to government, and emphasize instead the economic imperatives of a city-state in a global economy and a flexible labor market. On the former, they note that the free movement of capital obliges governments to compete through subsidies, tax policies and labor-market education. On the latter, the absence of income-distribution policies and free trade unions has been as important as high job mobility. Yet this argument misconstrues markets. They are politically constructed and sustained. Indeed, dismantling independent unions in Singapore was a step toward extinguishing an important part of civil society. Pressure groups, which help ameliorate the unequal effects of markets, are absent for the same reason.

In another chapter, Richard Deck tries to explain why a small state should adopt aggressive diplomacy. He links this to the government's Total Defense Doctrine, which encompasses military, economic, psychological and social measures. Strident international postures on "Asian values" are one element of this.

The unstated assumption behind this collection of essays is that the marriage of capitalism and authoritarianism in Singapore is unsustainable. Puzzle is one of the more interesting explorations of this theme. The contributors identify the strains and costs associated with maintaining this system. Indeed, the chapters on the institutions of the judiciary and the press represent major advances on previously under-researched attempts. None, however, identify an Achilles heel. Ironically, the World Bank's new agenda could enhance the respectability of this system. Its promotion of civil society bears remarkable similarity to the PAP's "active citizenship." In this sanitized version, the norms and institutions of a community are less about an autonomous sphere through which conflict is mediated, and more about co-opting social forces to institutionalize market systems.
-- By Garry Rodan

Garry Rodan is Associate Professor of Politics at Murdoch University, Australia.


Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek.com Home

AsiaNow


Quick Scroll: More stories from Asiaweek, TIME and CNN

   LATEST HEADLINES:

WASHINGTON
U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

MANILA
Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

ALLAHABAD
Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

COLOMBO
Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

TOKYO
Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

BANGKOK
Thai party announces first coalition partner



TIME:

COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state



ASIAWEEK:

COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness


Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN
 Search
  ASIAWEEK'S LATEST
Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?


  THIS EDITION
COVER: Wired Schools
Information technology can change Asia's classrooms for the better - but there are dangers too
• PLUS: How schools in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan are handling the computer revolution

THE NATIONS
Thailand: An ex-coup leader and a political "revolution"
Interview: Anticorruption boss Opas Arunin on cleaning up

Malaysia: The political situation ahead of the UMNO assembly
Profiles: A look at the main contenders for vice-president

India: Two years on, disillusionment with Sonia Gandhi grows

North Korea: Crackdown intensifies on those who flee to China

Terrorism: Three hostage dramas in the Philippines

Viewpoint: UMNO can expect tough words from Mahathir

ARTS & SCIENCES
People: Kim Jong Il's favorite princess-illusionist

Books: Critics reflect on the Lion City's invisible restraints

Health: Why giving blood may be good for your heart

Newsmakers: Nurul Izzah - an emerging leader

TECHNOLOGY
E-vesting: Hikari Tsushin's fall from grace

The Net: WAP players ready for China debut

Cutting Edge: A videogame for creeps

BUSINESS
Strait Flights: Taiwan's Evergreen group looks to the mainland

High Seas: Singapore's Neptune Orient Lines embraces high tech

PAL: Why Lucio Tan is selling Philippine Airlines

Reform: Indonesia's courts may be slowing recovery

Lessons: What Jakarta can learn from Bangkok

Investing: What now after Asia's tech correction?

Business Buzz: The nationalist card again

EDITORIALS
Indonesia: Wahid must find a way to work better with rivals

Landmark: A court ruling hits corruption in Thai schools

LETTERS
Rabble-rouser Ishihara

NEWSMAP
This week's news round-up by country

STATISTICS
The Bottom Line: Asiaweek's ranking of world economies, now online

Monitor: Asia is back, says the ADB


Back to the top   © 2000 Asiaweek. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.