The World Today for August 15, 2023


Squeaky No More


There’s a tacit agreement between Singapore’s rulers and the population: We the People will settle for less freedom in exchange for safety and prosperity, all overseen by a squeaky-clean government with unquestionable moral rectitude.

That pact means that Singaporeans can be fined up to $1,000, jailed or even caned for chewing gum (illegal), spitting on sidewalks or failing to flush a toilet. That also means, according to analysts, that democracy is all but a sham – the authoritarian ruling party has been in power since 1959, six years before the independence of the city-state – and the son of the first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, has run the country since 2004.

In Singapore, often called “the Fine City,” press freedoms are low, monitoring is high and political dissent is vigorously squashed, often through the courts.

Still, the country has virtually no unemployment or poverty, with one of the highest standards of living in the world. Streets are pristine, crime is very low, and the city-state tops the charts for its low corruption rates because its public officials are the highest paid in the world. All of this has propelled it to become Asia’s leading financial hub, noted Fortune.

This pact has worked for much of Singapore’s independent existence. Now, by all accounts, it is unraveling because of the most serious crisis in the country’s history due to a series of political scandals undermining the government’s reputation for probity, NBC News said.

“It’s a perfect storm for the (People’s Action Party) PAP,” Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, told the Wall Street Journal. “The party is facing its severest political crisis – one where the public trust and confidence is at real risk of eroding.”

That unraveling started earlier this summer when Singapore’s anticorruption agency arrested the transport minister S. Iswaran and hotelier and billionaire Ong Beng Seng in the country’s most high-profile graft investigation in nearly four decades – and the only one in that period involving a public official.

That was followed by another scandal involving an extramarital affair between two PAP lawmakers – one was the speaker of parliament. Both resigned after ignoring warnings by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to break it off.

Meanwhile, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) announced it had cleared two cabinet members – home and law minister K. Shanmugam and the foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, of misconduct regarding their rentals of government-owned colonial bungalows that Shanmugam oversees. A review by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean also exonerated them.

The public outcry against the housing scandal was swift and unusual in the country. That’s because “finding affordable housing is a big worry for cramped Singaporeans…Shanmugam has a house and grounds the size of a shopping mall,” wrote the Economist.

The government’s response has also been problematic, the magazine added, violating the credo of the country and its leaders: “Ownself check ownself.” That’s because the public understands that the CPIB can’t be independent when it is appointed by, and reports to, the prime minister. The review by Teo, a friend and colleague of the home and law minister, also lacked credibility.

The government, however, believes and is sticking to its mantra that it is living up to its part of the deal by addressing these issues promptly.

“High standards of propriety and personal conduct, together with staying clean and incorrupt, are the fundamental reasons Singaporeans trust and respect the PAP, and give us their mandate to form the government,” said the prime minister in July. “No system can be completely infallible, sometimes things go wrong, you have to find out and you have to put it right.”

But the public is angry, expressing fury over the scandals and the government’s response online in spite of crackdowns on criticism. This, Time noted, shows that the PAP hasn’t really learned how to be responsive even though, unlike most autocrats, it cares about public opinion,

Still, Singapore is about to elect its next ceremonial head of state this fall. If the PAP’s candidate, former senior minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, loses, that might send a message to Singapore’s tone-deaf rulers that they can understand.

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