Cornerstone in Singapore's Democracy

After an initial furore, the publicity surrounding Speakers' Corner in Singapore seems to have been misplaced and misguided, and, starved of its necessary publicity, the little shoot of individual freedom, so promising initially, seems to have withered and died. Not necessarily so.

Singapore has long been a conundrum for the study of civil and economic liberties. Despite being hailed as one of the freest economies in the world (the Heritage Foundation's 2000 Index of Economic Freedom placed Singapore 2nd amongst 161 countries), free-speech advocates have often been critical of the limited civil and political freedom afforded by the government.

Yet, many Singaporeans - and, increasingly, many foreigners - view Singapore's model of democracy as a viable alternative to its more common form, as understood by the West, and are willing to call Singapore their home. Singapore's population has exceeded the four million mark, with about a quarter of the residents being foreign nationals.

It becomes necessary therefore to understand the context in which democracy is practised in the state. First, Asian culture tends to be one firmly based on Confucian values of family and society above self. This mindset enables the introduction of policies that might be regarded as infringements of individual rights in many Western nations, but go down more easily with the predominantly Asian populace.

Second, the government has performed an admirable job of leading a small, insignificant island devoid of natural resources towards economic prosperity - Singapore has one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world, more than developed nations such as the US and Germany - which has been enjoyed by most of the population. Singaporeans also enjoy the benefits of low unemployment, low inflation and an enviable standard of living. This is a strong motivator for not getting oneself involved in political issues - after all, those busy pursuing wealth hath not time for mundane, political issues.

Despite these successes, the left-conservative government has also been involved in the implementation of policies that have ranged from unpopular to ludicrous. The recent upward revision of ministerial wages has been accepted with resignation at best, whilst the absence of chewing gum in shops on the island is due to a ban on the sale of the sticky substance, deemed as a public nuisance.

Although setting aside a small park in a relatively quiet part of the country may not seem like much, it is in fact a huge leap forward for many Singaporeans who have grown accustomed to being unable to air their grievances against government policy openly, for fear of restitution. Now that a forum has been instituted, allowing the exposition of such views, Singaporeans no longer need to post anonymous messages on the Internet or speak in hushed tones; the medium for expression is now available.

Which is precisely why Speaker's Corner is a watershed event in the long run. As the democracy matures, the populace will have a greater sense of issues around them, and permitting the free sharing of these views will go a long way towards creating a society where the spectre of Big Brother will not haunt those who simply wish to contribute their two cents worth towards the betterment of life in the country.

This article first appeared in the forum section of Singapore Window.