- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2000

SINGAPORE Long known as the "nanny state" for its schoolmarmish regime, Singapore is opening up as the government's drive to make it Asia's Internet hub has forced liberalization.

But this liberalization does not signify an opening in Singaporean politics, longtime residents of the city-state say.

For the past 40 years, Singapore has been ruled by the People's Action Party (PAP), which currently holds more than 90 percent of the seats in parliament.

Over the years, the PAP has enacted socio-political controls designed to produce a united, diligent and some would say complacent populace.

The government passed social engineering legislation mandating people to have fewer babies, act courteously and not chew gum. Harsh penalties, including the 1994 caning administered to an American teen-ager convicted of vandalism, were introduced to ensure order.

The Internal Security Act, a vestige of colonial rule, was used to detain political opponents without charging them.

But as the Internet has become pervasive, the government has realized it needs to loosen curbs on speech, press and the arts to foster the creative thinking vital to Internet firms, said sociology professor Chua Beng Huat.

"And, the government understands it has to increase freedoms in the arts and civil society … to create the cultured urban environment that knowledge economy workers want," he said.

"The PAP now allows the theater to openly criticize the sterile atmosphere that pervades Singapore," added another analyst.

In April, Singapore announced it would allow a "Speaker's Corner," where citizens could express dissenting views without a permit.

Previously, citizens had to apply for a permit for gatherings of more than five persons.

Reacting to new freedoms, some Singaporeans have begun expressing their views.

On www.sintercom.org, a leading on-line forum, Singaporeans debate whether the government is serious about free speech and whether their nation can develop intellectual discourse.

Even the Straits Times newspaper, owned by state-run Singapore Press Holdings and usually avidly loyal to the government, has criticized the PAP.

"A good many Singaporeans will choke … on revelations of million-dollar Cabinet ministers," the paper said in an editorial on the government's recent move to raise annual Cabinet pay as high as 1 million Singapore dollars ($568,000), the highest in the world.

But some experts doubt that the PAP will relax its grip on politics, or that most Singaporeans even want more political freedom.

"The recent changes are a familiar PAP tactic of slightly liberalizing the city-state but still retaining tight control," opposition politician Chee Soon-juan told a forum on human rights.

"Should I thank my government for only breaking down my door and not burning down my house?" he asked.

Singapore retains the right to invoke the Internal Security Act against political opponents.

Parliament recently passed the Political Donations Act, under which anyone who donates more than $3,300 to a party must be publicly identified.

"In a country where many people still fear to be openly identified with alternative political causes, this act will perpetuate self-restraint," wrote political scientist James Gomez.

Mr. Chua noted that most residents simply do not talk about politics. "There is not a culture of speaking out … and people stop talking when it comes to politics," he said.

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