Does freedom of expression matter?

Speakers Corner in Hong Lim Park. The only place where Singaporean Citizens can freely gather and protest without the necessary permit from the government except during the election period.
Speakers Corner in Hong Lim Park. The only place where Singaporean Citizens can freely gather and protest without the necessary permit from the government except during the election period.
 

In his National Day Rally speech on August 18 this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spelt out major plans to make Singaporeans contented and happy. During his two-hour speech at the Ang Mo Kio campus of ITE College Central, the prime minister announced major reforms in housing, education and healthcare and more state support for the poorest citizens.

[This is the sidebar story to the main article, Constricting the space for online expression of opinion]

Healthcare was a focus of his speech. The head of government announced an increase in state contribution to health insurance which, moreover, will now be extended beyond 90 years of age to life. Healthcare costs have become a major concern for Singaporeans with the working age population having to bear the double burden of healthcare for children and elderly parents. This is one of the reasons why a growing number of elder citizens, neglected by their offspring who are finding it hard to bring up their own children, can be seen working at the service counters of fast food outlets like McDonalds or as waiters at shopping mall food courts in Singapore.

The prime minister also promised that every Singaporean would now be able to afford a home. Households with a monthly income of S$1,000 would be able to buy a two-room Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat, while those with total monthly earnings of S$2,000 and S$4,000 would find it easy to own a three-room and four-room HDB flat, respectively. The government would also provide additional subsidies, including a housing grant of up to S$20,000. The grant was till now only given to low-income households, but would now also be extended to middle-income families.

Unlike other Asian countries, Singapore is very generous when it comes to taking care of its people. An Indonesian citizen needs a US$1,300-monthly income to qualify for a bank loan in order to buy a US$40,000 house, while a Singapore citizen with same monthly income is eligible to buy a US$80,000 HDB flat. In Malaysia or the Philippines, citizens have to pay themselves for their health insurance, while the Singapore government’s Medishield covers a citizen for life with the government subsidizing up to 80% of the costs for the lowest income groups.

Such comprehensive state support is hardly surprising in one of the world’s richest nations. The former British colonial outpost and now a hi-tech city of glittering skyscrapers with 5.3 million people and a GDP of over US$270 billion in 2012, is often referred to as one of Asia’s economic ‘tigers’.

The country is also known for the conservatism of its leaders and its strict social controls with a system of punishments for acts considered anti-social. The government controls almost every aspect of the people’s life, including even daily conversation, hosting an online dialogue with the people through the website Our SG Conversation.

Critics say government support in helping meet people’s basic needs has been an effective tool in winning acceptance for the state’s control of the citizen’s life. “Singapore is a very materialistic nation. If you listen to PM Lee’s speech at the National Day Rally, all that he said is about material things, like healthcare and housing, he didn’t mention anything about the freedom of expression,” says Choo Zheng Xi, Co-founder of The Online Citizen, prominent socio-political blog in Singapore.

“Singaporeans don’t think about politics. They are more interested in material belongings… they are just too greedy. The only time they talk about politics is only when it concerns their bottom line,” he adds.

Mr. Xi may be right. During her stay in the country and spending time in public places – food courts, coffee shops and restaurants – the writer rarely hear anyone talking of politics or government policies, unlike in her home city of Jakarta.

Unlike in most other countries, the majority of Singaporeans are not interested in freedom of expression for themselves, says well-known media freedom advocate, Professor Cherian George. “Most material needs of the people are taken care of by the government. We almost don’t have (a) corrupt government, (the) jobless level is very low. So what is the need of freedom of expression?”

Champions of free speech in Singapore feel encouraged by gradually changing public attitudes on the issue. In February 2013, after many years, Singaporeans staged a public protest demanding a tightening of the immigration policy. Some 3,000 people gathered at Singapore’s Hong Lim Park to join the protest triggered by growing public perception that middle-aged Singaporeans were losing out to foreigners in the jobs market.

“Now it is slowly changing. More and more Singaporean who are not so happy because they feel housing is become un-affordable, the transportation system which is not going to be better, and the living cost that is getting too high recently,” says Prof. George.

“It is easier to persuade Singaporeans now that they need this freedom. Because they realize there is a direct relation between freedom of expression and social-economic welfare, which they didn’t see 10-20 years back,” he says.

However, it will be a struggle to spread awareness among people in Singapore that freedom of expression is a human right, he says.

[Photo credit: Marlon Alexander S. Luistro]

[This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Ulisari Eslita, a senior writer for the Jakarta-based Forbes Indonesia, is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia.]