Thu, Jul 17, 2008
The Nation, ANN
Singapore's economic success is its shield

>Singapore is one of the richest countries in Asia. It is small and has been run for the past six decades by the same People's Action Party elite which, under former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, has brought phenomenal economic growth and social benefits to its people. Lee's words still command news headlines. When he speaks, people listen. Sometimes, they just want to hear what he has to say. He has generated both love and hatred in the country.

Of course, it is difficult for the latter group to make much headway. Lee has no mercy for political opponents, never mind time to listen to them. He is still the 'Minister's Mentor', and has great influence over day-to-day affairs

So, when foreign countries and international organisations criticise the island nation, the Singaporean leaders just laugh. They could not care less what other people have said or will say. Nothing will affect Singapore's government.

Some countries are receptive to outside pressure, especially in Europe. But Singapore is an exception. The latest report by the London-based International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) is a case in point. The organisation attacked Singapore's government for its human rights record and the island republic's severe limitations on freedom of expression, assembly and the press, and of the independence of the judiciary. Moreover, the report said that Singapore courts are notorious for slapping huge penalties on those found guilty of defaming Singapore's leaders.

The report pointed out that a judiciary vulnerable to executive influence is largely to blame for these kind of problems, and the chilling effect it brings to Singaporean society in particular. But this is nothing new. IBAHRI should have known the situation inside the country because it held its annual meeting there last October - to widespread criticism.

It is ironic that Singapore has maintained its political and social system unchanged. It stands alone. Other countries in Southeast Asia often talk about the sway of neighbouring countries, such as Thailand's influence on democratic development in Cambodia, Burma, the Philippines or Indonesia. Singapore can be very international when it wants to be, when this attitude fits and benefits the country. The island's leaders can also isolate themselves if they believe that is the right thing to do. Just look back at the caning of American student Michael Fay in May 1994, an issue on which the island refused to budge, even under great US pressure. This is the kind of determination seen rarely in the international community. Still, bilateral relations between Singapore and the US have prospered. Now, Singapore is one of the most trusted allies of the US.

So, Singapore will change only when the PAP loses some of its grip on power and the country's economic condition alters. For example, the government's decision to go ahead with the construction of two huge casinos after years of opposition shows the utmost pragmatism. The Singaporean leaders are shrewd, looking only for a win-win outcome.

This explains why several countries, big and small, are studying the so-called 'Singapore model', which concentrates on economic growth and government control. Even superpowers like Russia and China are interested in the island's development model.

Whatever Singapore does, it has an advantage because it is small. So, foreign organisations, respectable as they might be, should be wary when commenting on Singapore. Let's face it, Singapore is successful and its people are economically prosperous. Say whatever one likes, most Singaporeans are content with their situation.

Lest we forget, many foreigners also love Singapore also because of its efficiency and cleanliness. Business people especially do not care about human rights or media freedom when they invest in and do business with the island. --The Nation/Asia News Network


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