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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 (, 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.

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