A good opening up

Posted by Seah Chiang Nee. under Human Rights Watch on 10 September 2008

Government loosens the gag that prevents freer public expressions days after Lee Kuan Yew lashes out at multi-party democracy.

Faced with a host of new problems, the younger set of leaders have surprised Singaporeans by announcing moves to ease controls on politics and the Internet.

The surprise is even greater when measured against the strong criticism levelled only five days earlier by Lee Kuan Yew at the younger generation's enchantment with "multi-party democracy."

The Minister Mentor had said: "They (the young generation) say, oh, let's have multi-party politics. Let's have different parties change and be in charge of the government."

"Is it that simple? You vote in a Division Three government, not a Division One government, and the whole economy will just subside within three, four years. Finished!"

Now his 56-year-old son has announced moves that could - if properly implemented - lead to more active multi-party politics or even loosen the ruling People's Action Party's hold on power.

Much depends on a parallel move to define how the new media will be managed.

But the intention to open up, however slow it may be, is apparent.

The influential older Lee's recent allegations against Western democracy and a foreign conspiracy by liberals "to do Singapore in" had raised concerns that a crackdown on dissent might be ahead.

It also comes as the government is facing increasing public disquiet over super-inflation, unpopular policies and the decline of billions of dollars in value through poor investment.

The Internet has been a leading voice of discontent concerning these issues, particularly the government's press and political controls.

These expressions have grown so loud that they had led people to expect a political backlash from the authorities, including cracking down on the Internet.

Instead, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appears to have done the opposite.

In his National Day TV address to the nation, a confident-looking Hsien Loong, who was rumoured to be weakened from recent illness, announced the following steps:

1. Allowing outdoor demonstrations under conditions. "We have to move away from this total ban and find ways for people to let off steam a little bit more, but safely," Lee said. Dissidents will be allowed to protest at The Speakers' Corner after registering.

2. By around the next general election (due in 2011), Singaporeans will be allowed to post political videos and campaign materials on the Internet, currently banned during the campaigning period.

3. Party political films, banned 10 years ago, may likely be relaxed; an advisory panel may be set up to review them, in the same way that normal films are now classified.

"Our worry is because films are an emotive medium, passions can get stirred up and people can get carried away," Hsien Loong explained.

"I think this is a valid concern, but I don¡¯t think an outright ban is still sensible because this is how people communicate on the Web in daily life."

Although Hsien Loong's liberalisation intention had been announced two years ago, his move to allow public protests came as a pleasant surprise, given his father's presence.

The Web community is generally pleased with it, although it is far short of what it wants. The consensus view has been: "It is a good start."

However, a few are reserving judgment pending follow-up action.

"Things can turn out differently. The bureaucrats can still work in various subtle controls to manage the Web," one said.

Despite the contradiction, few observers see any significant political or generational division between Lee Senior and PM Lee and his younger ministers.

The ruling PAP isn't the sort where such a split can happen - at least not when Kuan Yew is still around.

However, it is likely that the senior Lee - given his mindset - isn't too pleased with it.

Any move towards more public debate or a freer new media would go against the grain of Lee Senior's ideology, and likely to have been lengthily debated within the Cabinet.

That the prime minister has got his way augurs well for Singapore in preparation for a post-Lee Kuan Yew future. The senior Lee will be 85 next month.

Some critics see the reasons as coming from outside, rather than inside the PAP, which retains a tight control in the republic.

One is the flourishing Internet and the other is the emergence of a new generation of Singaporeans who clamour for an end to Kuan Yew¡¯s soft authoritarianism.

The shocking outcome of Malaysia¡¯s March election, with the big role played by the online community, is believed to be exerting a strong influence here.

Singapore's digital plunge is greater than Malaysia's. More than three quarters of the population have Internet access.

Two-thirds of Singaporeans in their 20s either blog or participate in online forums; blogging is also common among the 30s and 40s set.

This has thrown into question the effectiveness of the government's control on the mainstream media.

More Singaporeans are turning to online sources for information and opinions.

With the new move, it is clear that the government now wants to use the Internet to win the hearts and minds of disaffected youths.

The outcome will be uncertain.

The Internet - with its webcam and podcasts - is just a channel of communication, albeit an effective one. It is still the message that will decide who will win or lose.

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Little Speck A good opening up 23 August 2008

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