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The spirit of the "Arab Spring" seems to have spread to Singapore, the world's most perfectly managed democracy, so well run that opposition parties have, in the past, not been a problem:
Singapore is known worldwide for censorship and corporal punishment. But in the runup to Saturday's parliamentary elections more people have started to speak out against the clan that has ruled Singapore for almost 50 years. Parallels with the Arab spring are striking, even if revolution is not just around the corner.
Rally attendance does not always translate to the polling booth. In 2006, despite large crowds at opposition speeches, the PAP won 67% of the vote. Many Singaporeans fear their ballots will be traced and their mortgages or jobs taken away if they vote for the opposition.As expected, the governing People's Action Party won the election by a handsome margin, though the opposition Singapore won an unprecedented 36.8% of the valid votes, and from now on, the government may have a harder time keeping a lid on things.
And here is a piece by Chee Soon Juan, a former opposition politician bankrupted (and thus disqualified) in a government lawsuit.
A British author has been found guilty of insulting the Singaporean judiciary for criticising Singapore's use of the death penalty, and alleging a lack of impartiality. Alan Shadrake, based in Malaysia, made the claims in a book titled Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock; he was arrested when he entered the city-state and "managed democracy" to promote his book. He is also being investigated for criminal defamation, and the police have seized his passport.
Justice Loh said Shadrake had written a "selective and dissembling account" of half-truths and falsehoods which could cause the unwary reader to doubt Singapore's rule of law.
News organisations covering Singapore critically have paid large fines or had their circulation in Singapore restricted. Human rights groups say the Singaporean authorities too often resort to the courts to silence their critics. But the government insists it has a right to quash inaccuracies, our correspondent says.I wonder whether, by this token, Singapore has an arrest warrant out for William Gibson.
Concerned about its young citizens being too busy working hard to find partners, the government of Singapore (perhaps one of the most efficiently managed societies in history) has begun offering lessons in seduction. Not that type of seduction, though, of course, but something altogether more wholesome and befitting of a place described as "Disneyland with the death penalty":
Students at two polytechnics can earn two credits towards their final degree by choosing the love elective. Activities include watching romantic films, holding hands and "love song analysis".(They need a course with credits for holding hands? Good grief. Has all spontaneity really been disciplined out of the Singaporean spirit to the point where they need to be directed on how to fall in love?)
But it is not so easy to put Singaporean youth in the mood for love. Another student who did the course, Kamal Prakash, said: "I'm not really looking for a girlfriend now as I want to concentrate on my studies."
And in other news, Singapore's dominant People's Action Party was reelected, again, with a landslide. The party has ruled Singapore, a model "managed democracy" untroubled by the disorder and strife that having plausible opposition parties with a chance of winning brings about, since independence in 1965. Opposition candidates do occasionally arise, but they stand little chance of winning: electorates are so small that the government can punish rebellious ones by withdrawing funding, and any opposition figure who persists in causing trouble can easily be sued into bankruptcy under Singapore's British-style libel laws. In the government's argument, this is a good thing, as not having to worry about the cut-and-thrust of party politics means that the leaders can concentrate more on wisely and efficiently steering the ship of state:
It is clear Mr Lee expects to lead the country for many years, and comments he made last week showed he does not want a pesky opposition getting in the way. "Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament," he said on May 3. "Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I'm going to spend all my time thinking what's the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters' votes."This state of affairs may not last forever, though, as an opposition party has now formed and contested more than half of all available seats.
The PAP has easily won the past three elections because opposition candidates stood for fewer than half the seats. It has won every election since independence in 1965. This time, 47 of the 84 seats were contested.The People's Action Party can, for the moment, still rest easily: it has won all but two seats in the country's parliament, and won't yet need to submit to the indignity of parliamentary debate of its legislative programme.
As of today, it is a crime in Australia to make any statement that inspires discontentment with the monarchy (there goes the Fenian wing of the republican movement), either house of parliament, or any of Australia's allies (looks like Brendan Nelson finally has a stick to use against the "anti-American" teachers he has been griping about). So you'd better lay off the unkind remarks about fat SUV drivers, Australians.
I wonder whether Australia's allies include Singapore, China or Saudi Arabia, and, if so, how much criticism of these states' human rights record or democratic credentials is allowable.
As for claims that the government won't use the sedition laws, the Scott Parkin incident suggests otherwise. A few months ago, they arrested and deported a US anti-globalisation activist who was about to give a workshop on non-violent demonstration. Back then, they would have been unable to act against him had he been an Australian citizen. Now the gloves are off, and all protest or dissent more vigorous than writing polite letters to a newspaper is essentially a crime. Australia is moving closer to being like Singapore, where activism is reserved for those with nothing left to lose, and there are severe disincentives to rocking the boat in any way (see also: "relaxed and comfortable").
The fact that Labor whipped its MPs to vote in favour of the sedition law, even with the Tories not needing their support, is depressing, and doesn't bode well for Australia becoming a liberal democratic society again within the next decade or so. Perhaps the period of liberalism and civil rights of the past 3 or so decades was an anomaly, and in the longer, historical sense, authoritarianism (from the penal-colony days to the first Menzies era of which Howard is so fond) is the Australian norm?
And in light of recent events, The Age looks at democracy, Singapore-style:
I was reminded powerfully of that one afternoon. Stepping out of Singapore's state-of-the-art subway system, I rode the escalator into a small park. There stood an unkempt old man with a small pile of books for sale. It was former opposition leader J. B. Jeyaretnam.
In 2001, JB was declared bankrupt after losing a series of libel cases to government figures from Lee Kuan Yew down. Now he was banned from Parliament and reduced to selling his own books to live.
It is a strategy routinely used by Singapore's ruling People's Action Party to shut up the opposition. The courts in Singapore are an arm of government. In this case, JB's final crime was to accuse the organisers of the Tamil Language Week of being "government stooges". He was penalised more than $A500,000 in damages and court costs. It ended his political career.
Lee and his successor, Goh Chok Tong, then sued another opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan. An American-trained neuropsychologist, Chee is already banned from the next election after suggesting that Malay schoolgirls should be allowed to wear headscarves to school. The courts ruled that that was speaking on religion, a forbidden topic.
One last example: in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made one of his occasional gestures of liberalisation, saying Singapore must become more "open" and "inclusive". Yet days later, the thought police ordered filmmaker Martyn See to hand over his video camera and his new documentary on Chee, Singapore Rebel for Singapore law bans films "directed towards any political end". See now faces a possible two-year jail term and an $A80,000 fine.One can imagine this happening in Australia after a decade or so of unchallenged Liberal-National rule. Between the sedition laws that the government's determined to push through despite growing opposition and Australia's severe defamation laws (which. as in Singapore, are derived from English defamation laws, designed primarily to protect the interests of the establishment from the rabble), suppressing troublesome opposition should not be too difficult, requiring only the political will and lack of concern for pluralism. Perhaps within a decade, we'll see a bankrupt Bob Brown or Buffy Stott-Despoja, recently released from a prison sentence, flogging their books or JJJ Hottest 100 compilations at a flea market somewhere. Meanwhile, the Labor Party will, by then, have morphed from the shadow government to the government's shadow: a "lite" version of the Tories, whose only difference from the government is a vaguely mumbled promise to "be nicer". So no difference there, then.
Melbourne's liberal-except-when-the-proprietors-pull-the-strings newspaper The Age is shocked and appalled that, on the day that convicted heroin trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van is hanged, the prime minister will be insensitive enough to attend a cricket match, rather than registering his outrage as a liberal Australian sickened by the very idea of the death penalty.
I'm not all that surprised. Could it be that one of the reasons that Howard did not protest too loudly is because, in his ideology, far from being a barbarically illiberal backwater, Singapore is a model for what a modern Australia could look like, reconciling the cherished authoritarian conformity of decades past with a dynamic economy and a place in the globalised world? Let's see: an extremely business-friendly regulatory environment, a work ethic that aggressively minimises threats to economic performance, strict censorship of the media and arts, criminalisation and marginalisation of political dissent, harsh penalties for conduct the leaders find inappropriate (such as chewing gum, for example) and the near-total power of the state over all aspects of public and private life. Add a good dose of Anglo-Saxon Christian moralism, suburban wowser ideas of propriety and traditional iconography to that and you have a perfect recipe for a "relaxed and comfortable" Australia John Howard could love.
A profile of Singapore's executioner, 73-year-old Darshan Singh, who learned the ropes (literally) in the last days of the British Empire and remains in the job because no-one else will do it:
"He tried to train two would-be hangmen to replace him, a Malaysian and a Chinese, both in the prison service," the colleague said. "But when it came to pulling the lever for the real thing, they both froze and could not do it. The Chinese guy, a prison officer, became so distraught he walked out immediately and resigned from the prison service altogether."
On the day before his execution, Mr Singh will lead him to a set of scales close to his death-row cell to weigh him. Mr Singh will use the Official Table of Drops, published by the British Home Office in 1913, to calculate the correct length of rope for the hanging.
Mr Singh joined the British colonial prison service in the mid-1950s after arriving from Malaysia. When the long-established British hangman Mr Seymour retired, Singh, then 27, volunteered for the job. He was attracted by the bonus payment for executions.Singh holds a world record for single-handedly hanging the most men in one day — 18, in 1963 — and was an accomplished cricketer in his youth, a skill which has, in the past, translated into caning prisoners. He is now retired, but executes convicted prisoners by special arrangement.
His next client is likely to be convicted Australian drug trafficker Van Tuong Nguyen, assuming the last-minute pleas for clemency don't succeed (which they are rather unlikely to). (Aside: why exactly are Amnesty International devoting their resources to campaigning for clemency for him? Aren't there political prisoners, civil-rights campaigners and such being imprisoned and tortured across the world? Everybody knows that Singapore automatically executes anyone caught in possession of more than a few grammes of heroin. Nguyen was caught several orders of magnitude over the limit; which means that he took the calculated risk of smuggling heroin through Singapore. Surely campaigning for clemency for short-sighted opportunists whose luck happened to run out (not to mention heroin traffickers) is not the best use of Amnesty members' dues.)
Australia has come in in 41st place in Reporters Without Borders' annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index; which is below all EU members, several other Eastern European countries, South Africa and Hong Kong; in contrast, New Zealand ranked ninth, only slightly below the 8 nations sharing first place. Australia's dismal showing has to do partly with restricted press access to refugees, though chances are that media ownership concentration, defamation laws and attempts to force journalists to reveal their sources have also contributed.
The bottom of the list is held, predictably, by North Korea (at #167), with Cuba just above it. Saudi Arabia is at #159, three places ahead of China, while Singapore is at #147. Brazil, a popular recent poster child of the Third Way, languishes at #66. The US's arrest of journalists at anti-Bush protests and restrictions on journalistic visas have knocked it down to #22. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Israel is at #36 (shared with Bulgaria), except in the occupied territories, where it is at #115 (shared with Gabon), though ahead of the Palestinian Authority (#127, slightly better than Egypt and Somalia).
First place is shared by Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia and Switzerland.
An interesting, if characteristically boosterist, WIRED article on Dubai, the United Arab Emirates' high-tech city and a sort of Singapore or Hong Kong of the Middle East:
Last year, only 17 percent of Dubai's gross domestic product came from oil revenue, behind services, transportation, tourism, and hospitality. In comparison, the petroleum sector accounts for 45 percent of Saudi Arabia's GDP.Dubai also stands in contrast to the Saudi kingdom in another Arab-world indicator, the role of women. Where Saudi women are still waiting for the right to drive, Dubai women play a pivotal role in society. "My success means success for other women here," says Sheikha Lubna al Qasimi, the CEO of Tejari, an Internet business-to-business procurement firm, noting that women form 65 percent of Internet City's workforce.
What Dubai is today, Baghdad was 1,200 years ago. "This island, between the Tigris in the east and the Euphrates in the west, is a marketplace for the world," wrote Al Mansur, the eighth-century founder of Baghdad. "It will surely be the most flourishing city in the world."
Dubai is also home to the region's two independent news channels: firstly Al-Jazeera, often touted as the "Arab CNN" (or perhaps the "Arab FOXNews"), and more recently, al-Arabiya, an even further refinement of the formula, without the emotive bluster al-Jazeera, for all its revolutionary changes, still shares with the region's state-run media:
Negm proposed an experiment: No Al Arabiya report could last longer than two and a half minutes. Gone was the long-windedness and speechifying. "You don't have to say that something's a crime against humanity," says Ismail. "If it is, people can see that for themselves. At times of crises people like emotionalism. If you don't respond to emotional needs, you're accused of being detached. But if you do respond to the hurt with emotionalism, it creates a vicious cycle. If we're going to get out of this cycle, we have to be rational, critical."
That rhetoric-wary approach has gotten Al Arabiya in plenty of trouble. Recently, the station clashed with the Palestinian Authority, which expects the Arab press to take up its cause unequivocally and refer to any Palestinians killed by the Israeli Defense Force as martyrs. When one of Al Arabiya's West Bank reporters used instead the politically and religiously neutral word dead, he was rifle-butted by members of Yasser Arafat's ruling Fatah party.
Meanwhile, here is the CIA World Factbook's entry for the UAE. For all its economic liberalism, it's interesting to note that the UAE is still an autocracy (albeit, arguably, one of the more enlightened ones). Mind you, one could levy similar charges against Singapore (where the ruling party has held power for decades; among other things, voting districts in Singapore are so small that it is easy for the bureaucracy to systematically penalise anyone who votes for the opposition).
Remember all those claims about how the internet was to render tyranny and authoritarianism unviable and usher in a global blossoming of democracy, pluralism and liberty? Well, according to this article, that's not happening, and if anything, the web is helping to reinforce authoritarian regimes and dissipate dissent:
Singaporean dissident Gomez says the Web empowers individual members of a political movement, rather than the movement as a whole. Opposition members can offer dissenting opinions at will, thus undermining the leadership and potentially splintering the organization. In combating an authoritarian regime, in other words, there's such a thing as too much democracy. Two of the most successful opposition movements of the last few decades--the South African opposition led by Nelson Mandela and the Burmese resistance led by Aung San Suu Kyi--relied upon charismatic, almost authoritarian leaders to set a message followed by the rest of the movement. The anti-globalization movement, by contrast, has been a prime example of the anarchy that can develop when groups utilize the Web to organize. Allowing nearly anyone to make a statement or call a meeting via the Web, the anti-globalizers have wound up with large but unorganized rallies in which everyone from serious critics of free trade to advocates of witches and self-anointed saviors of famed death-row convict Mumia Abu Jumal have their say. To take just one example, at the anti-globalization World Social Forum held in Mumbai in January, nuanced critics of globalization like former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz shared space with, as The New York Times reported, "a long list of regional causes," including anti-Microsoft and anti-Coca Cola activists.
In China, the Web has similarly empowered the authorities. In the past two decades, Beijing's system of monitoring the population by installing informers into businesses, neighborhoods, and other social institutions has broken down--in part because the Chinese population has become more transient and in part because the regime's embrace of capitalism has meant fewer devoted Communists willing to spy for the government. But Beijing has replaced these legions of informers with a smaller group of dedicated security agents who monitor the Internet traffic of millions of Chinese.
Though the article suggests more that the effects of the internet will be slower to take effect, and more long-term. While China has clamped down on anti-government dissent more or less effectively, Chinese environmental activists are organising in ways they would have been unable to before; meanwhile, a new generation of urban Chinese are used to more freedom of choice and cultural expression, and the Communist Party has been forced to enshrine private property and human rights in law (not that that necessarily changes much, but it will). Maybe if we check back in 20 years' time, the verdict on the liberating potential of the internet will be different.
Then again, with the intellectual-property interests which increasingly make up most of the West's economies pushing for "trusted computing" systems, which could just as easily be used to stop samizdat as MP3 sharing, and the increasing will (on the part of both the public and legislators) to accept mechanisms of surveillance and control unthinkable three years ago to defend against an asymmetric terrorist threat, perhaps the liberating potential of computers has peaked, and it can only go downhill from here?
And here are a few of the better or more interesting photos I took during my recent trip to the UK. These are just from the first part of the trip, mostly around London. (Click on the thumbnail excerpt to see the full image.)
Those quaintly Orwellian posters that are all over bus shelters and the Tube. It's funny how some terrorist bombs and the ravings of a few apocalyptic bampots can make the watchful gaze of Big Brother so much more comforting as an idea.
(All photos are (c) me. If you want to use any of them, email me.)
Could the Dutch experiment with liberalism be over? After winning power and ending the long reign of the left, the new Christian-right government of the Netherlands has outlined its conservative social agenda, which includes recriminalising marijuana, shutting down drug cafés, and laws against same-sex marriage and prostitution. Mind you, I wonder how much of the "failure of liberalism" spin of the article is due to it being from a paper in Singapore, a city-state that is the epitome of the philosophy of benign authoritarianism. (via rotten.com)
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