Notes from a pilot's kid

Troubling things about Singapore

Singapore is rated the #1 country in the world for expats, according to HSBC’s Expat Explorer Survey. While high marks for wage growth, economic confidence, and entrepreneurship are obvious, I was confused and troubled by how Singapore ranks 11th in HSBC’s metric for tolerance. Singapore was also #6 on the New York Times’ 52 Places to Go in 2015.

Singapore gets a reputation in western media for being a miraculous city-state in Southeast Asia that is clean, efficient, pro-business, futuristic or future-ready, and a melting pot of various traditional cultures that is appealing and exciting to people from outside the region. Some of that reputation is warranted, but a lot is left out of these narratives about Singapore that I think expats and tourists would want to know:

Singapore’s press is not free

If Singapore decides that a newspaper or blog’s content “undermines public order and national harmony”, its Media Development Authority (MDA) can shut down the publication without due process. For example, this happened in May 2015 with a website called The Real Singapore.

Reporters without Borders ranks Singapore #153 in its Press Freedom Index. Freedomhouse.org labels Singapore’s press status as “Not Free”, beginning its review of the country’s press freedom with the following:

The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the Defamation Act, the Internal Security Act (ISA), and articles in the penal code allow the authorities to block the circulation of news deemed to incite violence, arouse racial or religious tensions, interfere in domestic politics, or threaten public order, the national interest, or national security. The Sedition Act, in effect since the colonial period, outlaws seditious speech, the distribution of seditious materials, and acts with “seditious tendency.”

Any law that can punish someone for undermining “national harmony” or “public order” is troubling both in how it can be subjectively interpreted and in the type of values it encourages (i.e. don’t voice your opinion if someone could view it as “unharmonious”).

The Singapore government’s control of the press both in silencing publications at its discretion and in simply owning nearly all print and broadcast media outlets (see final paragraph) is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the missing presence of many of the below issues in the typical international narrative about the country as a place for expats and tourists.

Singapore bans music that promotes “wrong moral values”

Just before her performance at Singapore’s Spring Wave Music and Art Festival in 2014, Taiwanese artist A-Mei was ordered by authorities to remove her song “Rainbow” (彩虹) from her setlist because the song - which is a tribute to the struggles of the homosexual community - was deemed unsuitable for the audience of an outdoor concert.

A similar story unfolded in 2015 for Taiwanese artist Jolin Tsai. Her song “We’re all Different, but the Same” 不一樣又怎樣, which in its lyrics and music video has more clear themes of same-sex marriage rights, was outright banned from Singapore radio and television.

Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA), the regulating body in Singapore responsible for these types of restrictions, take an intolerant, conservative, paternalistic approach in the guidelines for TV and radio that justify these bans:

Broadcasters must ensure that songs broadcast do not contain lyrics which are vulgar or may in any way promote wrong moral values and lifestyles. (General Principles, 3)

Films dealing with mature content (e.g. drug use, prostitution or homosexuality) would generally be classified as NC16, M18 or R21. (Major Content Concerns 11.a)

Music associated with drugs, alternative lifestyles (e.g. homosexuality) or the worship of the occult or the devil should not be broadcast. (Musical & Variety Programmes, 12.2)

The government’s attitude towards media is generally to caution broadcasters from exposing the public to themes in media that promote “wrong moral values and lifestyles.” What’s especially troubling about this to me is that it means a division of the Singapore government is deciding for it’s people what’s morally right and wrong without much (if any) ability for the people to have any input and without the possiblity for a plurality of opinions on moral values to exist freely.

Singapore is a net refugee exporter

More people are leaving Singapore as refugees than the country is taking in from other countries. As of June 2015, there are 0 people residing in Singapore that are classified as refugees by the UN, whereas 93 Singaporeans have left the country with refugee or political asylum status (link). While each country’s situation is more complicated than this single metric, it’s worth mentioning that even Qatar and the United Arab Emirates take in more refugees and ‘create’ equal or fewer of their own.

According to Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs, the country can’t take refugees because it is small and there is “limited land”. Hah. Meanwhile, Singapore is pushing to increase its population, as discussed in this commentary about Singapore’s relationship with refugees.

Singapore’s attitude toward refugees is especially troubling to me because of its economic influence in the greater region. Singapore is the wealthiest and most developed nation in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). While more than a few other members of ASEAN have comparably less stable political, cultural and economic conditions that create thousands of refugees each year, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s typical response regarding refugees has been to emphasize ASEAN’s economic goals and draw a distinction between member states cooperating for economic growth versus cooperating to share other responsibilities (like humanitarian crises).

There’s surely no international requirement for wealthier states to intervene and solve humanitarian crises in their greater region, but it troubles me that international narratives about Singapore as a popular place for foreigners to work typically do not mention the country’s protective and quasi-libertarian attitude towards foreigners entering the country.

Singapore reduces freedoms to quell unrest

Singapore’s riots in Little India in 2013 were complicated: a South Asian guest worker was hit and killed by a bus and then four hundred guest workers took to the streets. 27 people were arrested and alcohol was determined to be a key factor in the riots because four of the convicted rioters “had admitted consuming alcohol” that night.

Following the riots, the government quickly deemed alcohol - especially alcohol consumed by guest workers - as the main culprit. Two years later, public consumption of alcohol is still restricted at night throughout the country and Little India is a “Liquor Control Zone” with stricter oversight and penalties. These restrictions are far tighter (and recent increases in excise taxes on alcohol are far higher) than Singapore’s non-Muslim ASEAN and developed East Asian peers, and the main reason is to restrict guest workers from consuming alcohol, seemingly as a continued prevention measure related to the riots.

Treatment of guest workers is a separate issue, but what troubles me about this is Singapore’s swift decision to take away freedoms for all citizens to solve what it deems a societal problem caused by a specific group. This approach to governance shows a lack of trust in the population’s sense of civic responsibility (i.e. to be modest and under control) without fear of punishment for not doing so.

Singapore imports labor to support its wealth

There are about 1 Million unskilled or semi-skilled work permit holders in Singapore, making up one third of the labor force. Detailed information about guest workers is not available because the government considers this information highly sensitive (p. 222). These workers make less than S$1800 (US$1257.82) per month (the median household in Singapore is $8,290 by comparison), and since there’s no minimum wage in Singapore many workers make far less. For the most part, they can’t live in public housing units in which 80% of Singaporeans reside. As mentioned by the New York Times Editorial board,

[Migrant laborers] are paid as little as 2 Singapore dollars, or $1.60, per hour…They typically are at the mercy of employers, owe high debt to hiring agents and have few means of expressing grievances. link

Singapore also hides this major component of its economy from major economic statistics; it excludes work permit holders when calculating its already-high gini coefficient, for example.

It is troubling to me that Singapore uses its wealth and economic might to attract workers from nearby poorer countries only to exploit their situation with low pay and reduced rights (although this is hardly an issue unique to Singapore). Undoubtedly, Singapore would not be able to maintain its stable and high median household income and its fast-paced growth without the guest workers it exploits. It is even more troubling that while this is happening, Singapore has goals to significantly increase its population by 2030, but doesn’t seem to want to achieve that by improving the treatment of migrants who are already moving there for temporary work.

Singapore encourages moral standards for economic reasons

Although not everyone agrees, Singapore thinks it should increase its population. From its conservative point of view, the best way to do this is to encourage more of the population to marry and have children, raising a “traditional family.” Forms of encouragement include giving a cash “Baby Bonus” to qualifying parents who procreate and questionable advertisements promoting procreation as a patriotic duty:

This is troubling to me for a number of reasons:

  • it sends an implicit message that there is only one correct or “morally right” definition of a family unit to a well-educated and diverse population that may have different opinions about it

  • it suggests that actions between two consenting adults in private are a component of Singaporeans’ civic duty
    • it does not recognize matters of biological and cultural diversity that would make fulfilling this civic duty non-uniform across society
  • it makes these paternalistic, moralistic efforts not for the purpose of engineering a more morally satisfactory society (which would also be troubling), but in this case to protect the nation’s economic growth (which is worse)