Freedom of expression and Asian Values in Singapore

Ulrike Rebele


Since the early 1980s, international human rights standards embedded in the International Bill of Human Rights have been facing severe challenges from a new human rights' perspective: the concept of “cultural relativism” (Littmann, 2003: 1). The concept of cultural relativism has initiated a controversy about the applicability of human rights standards to non-western socio-cultural contexts. This controversial discussion received new impetus in the 1990s. Non-western governments mainly from the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia accused the international human rights discourse as being dominated by Western industrialised countries and as an instrument by the West to universalise and impose liberal conceptions of social and political order on non-western societies. The proponents of the cultural relativism demanded a philosophical and cultural re-discussion and re-definition of human rights, as human rights concepts and practices were interpreted as specific-historical products of civilisation and a matter of national jurisdiction (Uyangoda, 1997: 15f).

Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia were among the most vocal advocates of a culturally specific approach to human rights. They introduced the concept of “Asian Values” as the alleged core of a community-based set of cultural values of Asian societies and the moral basis for economic success in the East Asian region. The key elements of Asian Values include respect for and trust in public authorities, social security and public order, harmony on and between all levels of society, emphasis on collective commitments (Koh, 1993). Furthermore, individual rights are still seen as subordinated to economic development, since economic development is considered as a prerequisite to achieve benefits and prosperity for the whole society.

The international controversy about the universal validity of human rights forms the background to the debate on freedom of expression and Asian Values in Singapore. The notion of the freedom of speech belongs to a set of civil freedoms and to basic rights within a democratic order. Scholars of democratisation and human rights claim a strong linkage between the degree to which there is freedom of speech and an independent media and moves towards more democracy (Randall in McCargo, 2003: 19). But in recent years, the socio-cultural role and the responsibility of the media within a particular society have received more and more attention (Goonasekera and Chua, 2002). Governments and journalists from the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region even have worked on an “Asian model of journalism”, characterised by their close co-operation in national consensus-building conducive to respective national interests (Latif, 1998).

The Singapore government is a strong supporter of an “Asian Way” to freedom of expression and the media. It has established a tight relationship to the media while enacting tough laws on the freedom of expression. As the global proliferation of liberal values, democratic institutions and human rights moves forward the Singapore state-elite's idea of the freedom of speech and the media has not only been increasingly facing international criticism, but has also raised concerns domestically. The purpose of this article is to point out the tensions between state- and none-state-conceptions of Asian Values and the status of the freedom of speech in Singapore. The focus on academia and political activists on the side of the non-state-actors rests upon the common understanding that these actors occupy a strategic role in public opinion processes.

First, the paper identifies the status of the freedom of expression within the international discourse. The main section discusses the issue of free speech and an independent media in Singapore in relation to the Asian Values-debate. In the course of discussing the government's view on human rights and Asian Values, the paper illustrates the main domestic criticism in connection with the main line of explanations for the government's approach. The final part concludes the common features out of these intellectual views by confronting them with the Asian Values-concept of the PAP-led government. This paper aims to contribute some useful thoughts to the debate on (universal) democratic values and culture in the Singapore context.

The status of the right to freedom of expression in the international discussion on human rights

International human rights standards were for the first time concretised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), proclaimed in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. The basic human rights included in the UDHR were further developed and elaborated in internationally binding agreements. The two most important human rights treaties in this regard are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); both were adopted in 1966 and came into force in 1976. The UDHR, the ICCPR and the ICESCR form the International Bill of Rights, which constitutes the moral and legal foundation of all internationally recognised human rights (Riedel, 1999: 13f).

The ICCPR contains political and civil freedoms and includes among others the following entitlements: the inherent right to life (Art. 6), the right to liberty and security of person (Art. 9), the right to equal treatment before an independent and impartial court or tribunal (Art. 14), the right to protection from arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy (Art. 17), freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (Art. 18), the right to peaceful assembly (Art. 21), the right to freedom of association (Art. 22), and the right to vote and eligibility (Art. 25). The right to free speech and information (Art. 19) is an integral part of this set of liberal and political rights that places emphasis on the freedom of the individual from collective commitments and guarantees the individual's protection from the arbitrariness of states. It is regarded as the epitome of Western political thought and the rise of liberal democracy. Both, the UDHR and the ICCPR describe the freedom of expression as an important feature of a democratic environment and view the free flow of information as a prerequisite to form and express opinion. Art. 19 of the ICCPR includes the sense of Art. 19 of the UDHR and further states:

“1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. 2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. (…)”. The ICESCR encompasses a variety of individual rights related to economic welfare, social stability and cultural identity. They are also discussed in a broader conceptual framework of rights focusing on collective rights or group interests such as the rights of women, indigenous people, children and the broader society (Uyangoda, 1997: 15). These rights include among others the right to social security (Art. 9), protection and assistance to the family (Art. 10), the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living (adequate food, clothing and housing) (Art. 11), the right to education (Art. 13), and the right to take part in cultural life and enjoy its benefits (Art. 15). International human rights norms have been subject to controversies since they became a matter of international concern in 1945 with the adoption of the Charter of the United Nations and the foundation of the United Nations (UN) (Riedel, 1999; Bretherton, 1998). The process of working out the UDHR was mainly characterised by Western and Communist ideologies about the relations between the state and the society in times of the Cold War. Corresponding to their legal opinion, Western states emphasised civil and political rights, placing the individual's dignity and protection in the center of their human rights conception. On the other side, states of the Eastern Bloc – later supported by the newly independent states (often referred to as Third World countries) – advocated for economic, social and cultural rights, mainly viewed as collective entitlements, guaranteed within the state's discretion (Riedel, 1999: 14). These disagreements over the importance and scope of respective rights led to the adoption of two legally binding treaties, the ICCPR and the ICESR, instead of one comprehensive one which would have symbolised the indivisibility, that is the equal appreciation of all fundamental human rights codified in the UDHR (Bretherton, 1998: 259f). In this early stage, the discussion already showed the difficulty to reach a consensus on the equal treatment of human rights.

The controversy about the status of civil and political freedoms and economic, social and cultural rights continues until the present, but shifted to a new perspective. During the period of the Cold War the controversy on human rights was based on ideological stances of the West and the East. Since the 1980s the discussion turned to a cultural dimension. According to Littmann (2003:1), the factor of cultural relativism of human rights was brought onto the international political agenda in the context of the Islamic revolution in 1979 (Littmann 2001: 1). Cultural relativism regards culture either as the one or major basis for the mode of social organisation. Following the cultural relativism-line, all social and political settings of the respective society depend on the cultural context. Each culture is characterised by a specific system of values and beliefs which excludes being transferred to a different cultural background. However, single societies can share a common complex of cultural values and norms forming a comprehensive civilizational region (e.g. Western Europe and North America, the Middle East or East Asia).

The discussion of the cultural relativity of human rights had also preceded the II. UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in June 1993 and resulted in the signature of the so-called Bangkok-Declaration. This document, which was adopted by 40 representatives of Asian states at a regional meeting in Bangkok held from March 29 to April 2, 1993, aimed to articulate a common position for the Vienna Conference. By emphasising the right to self-determination of all peoples and the principal of sovereignty of all states, the Bangkok-Declaration does not rigidly object to the notion of universal rights, but calls for a culturally and socio-economically oriented interpretation and implementation of internationally accepted human rights standards. The Declaration rejects general international criticism and interference in domestic affairs, since criticism is considered as aiming to impose primarily Western ideas and values on non-western societies. Furthermore, human rights are first and foremost connected with the collective “Right to Development”, as this right is regarded as the dignified basis for realising further fundamental human rights standards. In this sense, international co-operation is advocated with reference to undertaking efforts in order to work out standards towards a just international economic order (see Bangkok-Declaration in Tang, 1995: 204-207). Although vital differences between major cultural regions visible in the Bangkok Declaration , the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights re-confirmed the universality and indivisibility of human rights (Art. 5). In this document the highest normative majority on universal and indivisible human rights ever since has been reached. All 171 participating states signed the declaration including the proponents of cultural relativism. The Vienna Declaration further acknowledges the Right to Development as an integral and fundamental human right in Art. 10 (1), but recognises the individual person as the bearer of this human rights entitlement in Art. 10 (2). However, the Vienna Declaration assumes Art. 1 of both the ICCPR and the ICESR and reconfirms the collective right to self-determination. Art. 2 of the Vienna Declaration states:

“All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status, and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development..”

This controversy about the universality and the socio-cultural self-determination of human rights builds the background of the discussion about the status of the freedom of expression and the media in Singapore. Along with other Asian elites, the Singapore government perceives the media globalization as a threat to cultural autonomy and stresses the equal treatment of the right to freedom of expression on the international stage. The Singapore government's claim for a culturally specific approach to the freedom of expression and the media can be seen as part of a widely discussed topic in Asia. Journalists and scientists on media and communication develop new approaches on how to challenge the cultural domination of Western media influence and the imposition of the Western perspective on the freedom of expression (Goonasekera and Hamelink and Iyer, 2003; Goonasekera and Chua, 2002). The main subject of this claim is a socially well-balanced and politically responsible expression in public fields irrespective whether individuals or media.

This matter of media and individual responsibility concerning the freedom of speech is a legitimate issue which is also subject to international discussion. The responsibility of free speech is anchored in Art. 29 of the UDHR. Art. 19 (3) of the ICCPR seconds this intention and moves into the following position with regard to the right to freedom of expression and the media:

“The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.”

Additionally, the draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, proposed by the InterAction Council in 1997, claims that all human interactions must be founded on a balance between rights and responsibilities. The InterAction Council states that: “[t]he basic premise should be to aim at the greatest amount of freedom possible, but also to develop the fullest sense of responsibility that will allow that freedom itself to grow.” (Küng and Schmidt, 1998: 4). In Art. 14 the declaration refers to the responsibility of the press but confirms its independent and objective-critical reporting about civil society and government as a constitute pillar of a “just” society (Küng and Schmidt, 1998: 24).

In sum, the right to free speech is internationally recognised as a universal individual right irrespective of national and cultural boundaries. However, as far as individual and media expression restrict the freedom of other individuals legal interferences by the state are legitimate. This does not imply restrictions on the practice of rights per se. But the debate leaves open a crucial issue: Does the state-favoured concept of the freedom of expression with its legal restrictions accord with the approval of the respective society or are the restrictions by the state oppressive to the peoples' seminal aspirations? This has long been a matter of discussion in Singapore.

The Singapore government's stance on Asian Values and the freedom of expression

The government's stance on human rights seems twofold. On the one side, the state elite adheres to the universal ideas of democracy and human rights. On the other side, the government and its supporters are strong proponents of the concept of Asian Values. They deny a one-to-one application of universal norms at any time to different Asian political and social systems. Elites stress the pluralism of rules of order and the national implementation of human rights, based on the political, economic and socio-cultural background of a specific society (Wong, 1993; Lee in Zakaria 1994; Mahbubani, 1998: 57-80). Tommy Koh, the prominent scholar on Asian studies and at present Ambassador-At-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Director of the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore, states that the supporters of the Asian values concept “believe that in spite of Asia's heterogeneity, Asians who live in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, do share particular personal and social values. … there are specifically Asian values and ideals, just as there are American values and ideals and European values and ideals” (Koh, 2000: 131). For instance, the relationship between the individual and the community representing either the family, the group, the society or the state marks one of the basic aspects of Asian Values. Given this Asian perspective, the community ranks higher as does the individual. In 1993, Koh elaborated the term “Asian Values” by outlining the following 10 concrete items: 1. The absence of the extreme form of individualism; a moderate balance between the individual and state, community and family interests. 2. family as the building block of society; 3. education for all levels of society; 4. saving and frugality; 5. a hard disciplined working ethos; 6. co-operation of all social groups meaning co-operation between government, employers, and unions to forge national consensus; 7. an Asian version of a social contract which implies a fair and human government maintaining social stability and providing occupation, housing, education and health care on the one side; respect-obeying, law-abiding, hard working and self-reliant people on the other side; 8. a communitarian concept of societies that means that the citizen is a stakeholder in the country in terms of house-owing, shares and performance-oriented bonus for private and public employees; 9. the existence of a morally whole-some environment; 10. a free and responsible press, not considered as an absolute right.

Although Northeast- and Southeast Asians can rely on a common cultural background, the interpretation of Asian Values differs. Bilahari Kausikan for instance argues that the core of the Asian Values-debate does not deal with the dichotomy of Asian and Western values or the superiority of one set of values over the other, but with the issue “about which values, in what degree and in what proportion, are necessary for sustained development, the maintenance of social cohesion, and the avoidance of serious problems” (Kausikan, 1998: 25). In Singapore, some enduring Asian Values, unique to the relationship between the individual and the collective (nation, community, family), were put in concrete terms in the “White Paper on Shared Values” presented to the Parliament in January 1991. Given the multicultural setting of the city-state the aim of the paper was to contribute and strengthen a sense for a national identity. For that reason, the following five “key values”, allegedly constitutive for the prevailing living cultures in Singapore – the Chinese, the Indian, and the Malay traditions - were elaborated: “Nation before community and society above self; Family as the basic unit of society; Regard and community support for the individual; Consensus instead of contention; Racial and religious harmony”. All five Shared Values are directly intertwined. Nation before community implies the claim that no ethnic community enjoys preferential treatment; instead, all communities are subordinated to the nation as a whole. The individual is perceived to be genuinely educated in the family, but the family has to be viewed in the broader context of a community, representing a respective religion and culture. The communities are also to be expected to continue their traditional self-help-structure of social welfare services to provide for their community members who cannot catch up with the mechanisms of a free market system. Racial and religious harmony, a prerequisite to social stability in a multicultural society, on the other side could only be practised under strictly consideration of tolerance and the continuous search for consensus (White paper on Shared Values in Quah 1999: 106-116).

As specified by the White Paper on Shared Values, the superior status of community-based values to sustain economic prosperity along with social harmony also effects the status of the right to freedom of expression. In contrast to Western societies, the Singapore government does not regard the media as a key actor in providing critical information and in checking on public affairs and politics. The media's role is strongly defined as non-partisan on political issues and in supporting the long-term policies on nation-building. In this perspective, an important task of the media is to inform the public on government policies and to help educating people in national values, conducive to racial harmony between the heterogeneous and multicultural communities in the city-state. This approach to the media is heavily rooted in experiences of racial riots in the 1950s and 1960s that occurred because of various perceptions of religious prejudice by the Malay-Muslim population. It was further fostered by experiences of communist threats either as a result of spillovers from China, the homeland to the majority of the Singapore population, or because of influences by Chinese-Communist news-reporting. Social unrest, however, is considered as one of the main threats to national stability in such a young nation and small nation like Singapore, not only heterogeneous domestically, but also embedded in a multicultural region (Basskaran, 1993).

Taking into account these peculiarities and alleged necessities in the city-state, several preventive laws to undermine incidents of prejudice among ethnic communities have been enacted by the PAP-dominated parliament to restrain freedom of speech and the press. For instance, the Newspaper and Printing Act (NPPA) of 1974 is a successor of the Printing Presses Ordinance that resulted from the former Emergency Regulations implemented in 1948. The latest amendments to the Act require the media companies to be Singapore public entities issuing ordinary and management shares. Management shares can only be held by Singaporean citizens and corporations and have to be approved by the government. The government has the power to revoke the ownership of management shares and the yearly renewable licenses. All national newspapers are owned by the Singapore Press Holding. The same holds with regard to the television sector, in which all but the cable channels and a television station of Singapore Press Holding is owned by the state ( Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) , a statutory board) (Chua, 2004: 81f; Quah, 1999: 58ff). Furthermore, the Minister for Communications and Information is entitled to limit the distribution and sale of foreign print media, on the basis of interfering in domestic politics. On the other side, the increasing economic and communicational interactions and the fact that English is the language in politics and administration as well as the language of instruction, Singaporeans have become more and more exposed to Western ideas and values regarded as incompatible with the historical and present circumstances of the city-state. To mention one example, the media reporting has to be sensitive to the Malay-Muslim dominated regional setting of Singapore. Chinese-dominated news could be misinterpreted and evoke sentiments among the Malay-Muslim community in Singapore as well as in Malaysia. Further, since both countries have different approaches on how to deal with the difficulties of multiculturalism, media reporting on this issue either by Malaysia or other foreign media may destabilise the national order (Lee, 1993).

The right to freedom of public speech is also subject to the regulations of the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act (PEMA). PEMA defines public speech as a kind of public entertainment. Performance of any kind of public entertainment requires a license issued by the Public Licensing Unit (PELU) , which is an agency within the Police Department in the Ministry of Home Affairs. In accordance with the Act, the Licensing Officer can deny the license by assessing the intended speech as a threat to public order. Although final decision about denials can be appealed to the Minister of Home Affairs, it is clear that such a regulation is an impediment to free speech in Singapore (Chua, 2004: 83f; Thio, 2004: 73f).

All these restrictions concerning the right to freedom of expression and a free press have a peculiar legitimatory basis. They are in line with the ideological pillar of a model which is called “pragmatic democracy” (Goh Chok Tong in Kausikan, 1998: 21). The model of “pragmatic democracy” is meant to adjust politics and polities to concrete circumstances with regard to the collective good; it would lead to the real enjoyment of rights. According to the state elite, this pragmatic concept is completed by another legitimatory formula supporting the Singaporean communitarian ideal: the “trustee model of democracy”. In this model, the elected government acts as a trustee of the people, but not explicitly as a representative. In this way, the trustee model of democracy enables the government to independently decide on long-term national interests and fulfil them through appropriate long-term policies (Goh Chok Tong in Kausikan, 1998: 20f). Both models form the ideological pillars and the order to deal with liberal rights in quite a restrictive way.

Critical domestic voices on Asian Values and the freedom of expression in Singapore

The government's restrictive policy on the freedom of speech and the media based on self-administered ideological visions of social organisation have come under national criticism. Surveys conducted on issues of media freedom and politics show that Singaporeans relish for more participation in politics and an independent press to express their views on political matters (Chiew, 1999; Ng Ling Ling 1996 / 1997). If we look at some historical cases of democratisation (South Korea, Uruguay, Poland) we can realise that especially scientists and political activists have played a crucial role at inducing and guiding political processes. Singapore too might move toward more democracy guided by critical voices launched from different areas of the society. The purpose of the following section is to summarise the main lines of criticism in academia and oppositional grounds. What follows does not claim to represent and include all voices and stances that have recently been articulated in the matter of free speech and Asian Values.

Domestic criticism generally targets the communitarian ideology of the government since the conceptual meaning of communitarianism – consensus-building structures on a broader understanding of participation and collective partnership – find its limits in actual politics and government practices. In Singapore the national interest has been almost solely dictated by an “absolutist parliamentary power” of the PAP (Chua, 2004: 78) or by a “soft authoritarian government” (Thio, 2004: 42). Taking this criticism as point of departure, scientific and political observers often conclude (serious) tensions between the government's concept of communitarian “Asian Values” and the possibility to practice internationally recognised individual human rights on several levels.

Criticism questions the function of the media in Singapore as a transmitter of government information and as a social instrument to educate people in the interest of the nation defined by the government. The government's definition of the role of the press and the journalists would contradict the democratic claim that the press must be an independent institution (Jeyaretnam, 2000: 77-89; Chua, 1995: 198ff). Indeed, restrictions on the freedom of the media have been proved as a serious obstacle to form a platform on which opinions can be openly expressed and people can make their mind on a variety of information and discourses. A non-partisan media would allow to formulate a definition of the national interest on a balance of state and social forces, still missing in the city-state; it fosters the chances to make government practices more transparent and accountable (Chee, 2001:166-193).

The media in Singapore is in fact far from being independent as stated in previous descriptions of the political reality. The constraints on the right to freedom of speech and a free media brought about by the PEMA and the NPPA are complemented and compounded by the International Security Act (ISA), effective since colonial times. The ISA allows the Minister of Home Affairs to detain people that he considers as menacing to national security without judicial evidence for up to two years. The preventive detention without trial and / or proven evidence under the ISA has been evaluated as a violation of natural justice as detainees are refused judicial protection and denied the right to a fair trial (Tan, 1999: 270f). The ISA as a permanent institution therefore contradicts Art. 149 to 151 of part XII of the Singapore constitution, which only allows the government to permanently detain people without trial in cases of severe threat to the nation (Jeyaretnam, 2000: 64 ).

Critics admit that the ISA was invoked only twice since 1987 to detain a group of Catholics on grounds of alleged ‘Marxist' conspiracy and in 2001 to arrest a group of Muslims convinced for being affiliated with Al-Queda (Chua, 2004: 84). However, the psychological implication of these judicial means have to be taken into account when people apt to express their minds. Following the argumentation of Gomez (2000), the fear to publicly express political opinions that might be considered as an offence against the national status quo and the prevailing social norms leads to censorship, which is a characteristic feature of the political culture in Singapore. The means of censorship operates in three different reciprocal ways: Direct or indirect censorship by the dominant one party apparatus, which for instance is assumed to include the fear of invisible surveillance by the Internal Security Department (ISD) in the form of telephone- or email-monitoring. Private self-censorship in the sense that people consider their intentions before they articulate critical political viewpoints. The person is either intimidated to be persecuted by the law or excluded by the social environment. However, the social pressure or ostracisation in family, workplace or civil society often begins even before a person decides to speak on a politically sensitive issue.

Furthermore, the tensions between the communitarian claim of the government and the constrains on the right to freely express opinion would become obvious in the Societies Act. With regard to securing public security, the Societies Act empowers the Registrar of Society to deny or withdraw a requested registration when he considers a civil society organisation as a danger to public order. Additionally, the fact that civil society organisations are strictly advised to act within their scope of activities and are not allowed to be affiliated with political parties and other organisations with deviating constituencies delimit the possibility for civil society to enter inter-group activities in order to develop a collective consensus on problems facing the society (Chua, 2004: 82f; Chua and Kwok, 2001: 17). Under these restrictions, processes of collective consensus-building based on the aspirations of the people cannot work.

Recent criticism has stipulated ambitions to develop alternative practices and approaches on how to guarantee the right to free speech. To name just a few, Chee (2001: 191f) for instance urges for a “Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)” to ensure the free flow of information and to dissolve the lack of transparency and accountability by the government. J B Jeyretnam (2000: 56-65) stresses the importance to take efforts encouraging people of respective communities to engage in open socio-political debates. According to him, restrictive laws are not appropriate to secure social harmony as they do not leave space for the people's voices and genuine aspirations. A democratic order considering the cultural setting could be fostered by the establishment of an independent “Board of Equal Rights” on which people regardless of their race, language and belief could complain against any perceived discrimination (Jeyaretnam, 2000: 54). Last but not least, Gomez (2000) suggests an approach that focuses on people from all levels of society who are willing and ambitious to take the risk to create a platform for alternative viewpoints. He further argues that fear and censorship were the product of a punitive environment that does not make it meaningful to pursue political reform in Singapore by focusing on the society as a whole.

The examples referred to underline the mainstream of criticism launched by academics and political voices with regard to freedom of expression in Singapore. National critical voices do not ascribe the restrictive political framework and the low rank of the freedom of speech to the inherent cultural traditions and religions represented in Singapore. They do not generally share the government's view that “Asian Values” were partly incompatible with Western elements of democracy. Critical voices foster their argument by referring to Asian cases that can well be termed democracies in a Western sense such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea. In general, domestic critics pay high respect to the economic development of the city-state from an underdeveloped country in colonial times to one of the most successful economies in the Asian region. However, they partly assess the forces behind the huge economic process differently as does the government. In the end, particularly within academia criticism does not only illuminate the making of government's strategies on the right to freedom of speech and nation-building, but also seeks for explanations.

Explanations of the state-concept of human development and racial harmony

Academics often refer to the domestic and geopolitical circumstances and the difficulty of underdevelopment confronting the PAP-led government in its efforts to build up a nation after independence. Singapore has been a multicultural society with a demographic Chinese majority and mainly two ethnic minorities – the Malays and the Indians – while being embedded in a Malay-Muslim dominated regional environment. The bad economic situation, the increasing popularity of the Malayan Communist Party after independence and the anxiety about ethnic tensions domestically and regionally led to a concept of nation-building primarily guided by two national principals – racial harmony and economic development (Chua and Kwok, 2001: 90ff; Tan, 1999: 266). Though these academics refer to different approaches on how to explain the state-concept of (human) development in Singapore that ultimately leads to the undermining of individual rights.

Chua Beng-Huat (2004: 85-97) for instance argues that the restrictions of freedom of speech and other individual rights are not wholly the product of a restrictive policy, aimed to enforce responsibility for the nation, nor are they a product of alleged culturally specified “Asian Values”. The constraints on political and civil rights would rather rest to a main part on the logic of the PAP-Administration to govern “socially identifiable” or “natural bounded groups” (family, ethnic communities). Policies derived from this “logic of groups” have been favouring the family and racial communities as the basic unit to be governed instead the individual. The intention behind this logic was to found and to tighten a multicultural nation based on the principle of ethnic equality. The equal treatment of ethnic communities was considered to be the social fundament of national and regional harmony which on the other side was regarded as a necessary prerequisite for economic development. As a result, the principles of the logic of groups and ethnic equality placed a high burden on the practice of individual rights as individuals have been administratively assigned to one of the these groups to facilitate governing.

In order to build up a dynamic and prosperous economy, the government has created and instrumentalised specific social values as described above. During the post-colonial era, these values have functioned as an ideological tool to culturally underpin the transformation from a pre-industrial to a capitalist society. The social order erected on these collectively oriented values, however, was going to be transformed in a weak mass loyalty and a lower appreciation of pragmatism with the increasing economic prosperity. The principle of meritocracy propagated by the PAP-led government after it had taken over power in 1965 to direct the country to a modern highly developed economic nation made its contribution that liberal values began to emerge. Whereas the competitive capitalist structure had to be preserved, the excessively practised individualism in Western industrialised countries was aimed to be avoided. Though a “selective reinvention of some tenets of Confucianism and other ‘Asian' belief systems, as the ‘Asian Values' discourse in general and reformulated, in Singapore particularly, as the national ideology, known as Shared Values”, seemed to be a logically appropriate consequence (Chua, 2004: 14). To quote Chua (2004), Asian Values can be seen as an ideological concept that has been introduced and termed by the government retrospectively to domestically and internationally legitimise its policies of the logic of groups which have been practised since post-colonial days.

The ideological manifest of “Shared Values” placing firmly identifiable collectives (family, ethnic-religious communities) over individuals is rather seen as an attempt to contain the overall prevailing social pluralism in the city-state. Since the individual became exposed to outside cultural influences, nowadays there is no ethnic grouping living in complete isolation. Economic change and higher education has brought about individual and intra-communal social stratification and pluralism; this inevitably led to the formation of “new collectivities” spanning across ethnic and gender lines such as voluntary welfare organisations, arts and civil society activist groups. As far as this process is moving ahead, the government is increasingly engaging in a policy of contradiction (Chua and Kwok 2001).

This communitarian ideology can also be explained with regard to the PAP-led government's former intention to create an alternative model of development on the background of colonial experience. The perception of an enduring cultural imposition of Western values stipulated the search for an indigenous way to organise state-society relations predominantly based on responsibilities of the government and the people. Wee (1999) argues that, in retrospective, the Asian Values-debate can be seen as a terminological specification of the search for an Asian model of modernisation ongoing since post-colonial days, but raised in the international discussion as a result of the demise and devaluation of socialism in the 1990s. The author assesses the mode of the Singaporean state elites to find a balance between the tensions of Western liberal and Asian collective values as a “Third Way”, that has been guided by a pragmatic adaptation to the global economy and the efficient organisation of the society. The concept of nation-building based on economic, social and political survival strategies thus cannot be attributed to culture; it was guided by the ideal of pragmatism on all levels of political life, leading to a “non-individualistic modernity” (Wee, 1999: 332) in Singapore.

Tan (1999), a former professor for constitutional law at the National University of Singapore, stresses the argument that the anxiety of political and economic instability by the government led to the establishment of a “predictable” legal system empowering the government to promote international trade and investment as well as to guarantee its hold on power. As a result of the almost exclusive focus on economic, social and cultural rights, political and civil freedoms would be still underdeveloped in Singapore. The success of the social policies able to prosper within this legal framework (subsidised housing policy, health care, education) fostered the recognition of economic prosperity as a predominant cultural value. In Tan's opinion the thesis of Seymour Martin Lipset, that economic development most likely would induce further democratisation in politics, holds partly in the case of Singapore in present as well as in the near future. According to Tan, the increasing desire for political rights and civil freedoms will not cause a significant transformation of the “deferential legal culture” among the people, as high respect for authorities is still very common among the people. Social change will not have much influence on the arena of politics, as socio-political stability and material wealth could be regarded as the main pillars for the respect people attribute to government decisions and actions. They could be considered as the Singaporean equivalent to a liberal ethos in Western societies (Tan, 1999: 282f).

Conclusion - Do Asian Values matter for the freedom of expression in Singapore?

Freedom of speech and the press are made subordinate to consensus-building and responsibility for collective interests – such as economic development as well as national and regional socio-political stability. Instead of functioning as a forth estate, the media in Singapore has a legitimatory, disciplinary and stabilising function fostering the alleged communitarian ideology propagated by the state elite. The media can be understood as a government-supportive institution as far as journalists act as partners and co-operatives of the government. Traditional “Asian Values” such as respect for authorities and law-abiding have been reinforced by the PAP-led government's purpose to maintain national and regional order in line with the amenities of modern social life. Singaporeans do enjoy one of the highest standards of living in terms of employment, education and housing world-wide.

The restrictive practices of freedom of expression though can not be attributed to the genuine cultural values inherent in respective traditions and belief systems coexisting in Singapore. Also the censorship-culture can rather be seen as a product of a state-constructed political culture of a one-party system. Visible and invisible surveillance, intimidation and persecution of political dissident is perceived to be some part of daily social life. Most Singaporeans have accepted constraints on individual freedoms as a concession to the realisation of social and national security. In this sense, however, the Asian version of a social contract promulgated by the government has become reality in so far as people subordinate to government policies for their material well-being and security.

Critical domestic voices within civil society might best be described as representing a coterie of intellectuals that calls for a liberalised Singapore while largely being committed to the institutional structures of a modified, anti-authoritarian model of communitarian democracy. The criticism is mainly aimed at illuminating the ambiguities of the communitarian ideology pursued by the government. Critics advocate for the abolition of undemocratic laws and censorship since preventive legislation and practices are not appropriate to experience a collective consensus based on the people. Liberals in Singapore do not seem to think in terms of “Asian” or “Shared Values”. Instead, they claim for more opportunities to politically overcome the contradiction between economic liberalisation and political non-freedom.

In sum it can be stated that neither “Asian Values” nor their partial Singaporean reproduction “the Shared Values” can be considered as a main obstacle to the low rank of the right to freedom of expression in Singapore. Rather the restrictions on this universal individual human entitlement through politics, polities and policies in the city-state combined with a unique culture of (self-)censorship and an economically-oriented pragmatism of Singaporeans attribute to the political reality in Singapore. Taking into account what has been said before, critical actors in the city-state implicitly regard the internationally recognised right to freedom of expression as a prerequisite to exert the collective right to self-determination. The combination of the individual and the collective right to self-determination might pave the way to a contextualised Singapore approach to human rights as most forcefully propagated by the state.


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The literature research and the personal discussions conducted during the author's research trip in Singapore from mid January to mid February 2005 also revealed that critical voices can be foremost heard within these two non-state-actor groups.

The documents, however, differ with regard to their legal status. Whereas both covenants are legally binding instruments for their member states, the UDHR has been considered as the morally binding political declaration only, but is more and more seen as customary international law (Riedel, 1999: 15ff).

See Robert Dahl (1971: 1f) who included the right to free speech in a set of political and civil liberties of his widely discussed democracy model termed “polyarchy”.

Jack Donnelly, one of the most prominent Western scholars on international human rights, has recently elaborated the concept of cultural relativism by distinguishing between “strong cultural relativism” or “weak cultural relativism” by referring to three qualitative dimensions on human rights – substance, interpretation and forms of implementation (Donnelly, 2003: Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, Ithaca and London, especially chapter 6).

However, it has to be mentioned that the consensus was reached by a compromise and did not meet full approval by all participating delegates. For instance, the Japanese representative made reservations on some key points of the declaration by confirming the Japanese government's commitment to the international co-operation in the field of human rights (Arase, 1993: 940f; Takagi, 1995: 108).

The concept of cultural relativism was also confirmed at the official regional pre-conferences of the Latin American and Caribbean States in San José and of African States in Tunis. A further example with regard to cultural relativism demonstrates the Banjul Charter, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights of 1981.

In historical records, the “Right to Development” belongs to the so-called “third generation” on human rights (political and civil rights form the first generation; economic, social and cultural rights constitute the second generation). The third generation of human rights also include among others the right to peace, protection of the environment and self-determination. These rights are generally viewed as “Rights of the People”. However, a controversy as to whether the third generation of rights are collective or individual rights exists in the international community. For a historical overview of the Right to Development and for a more detailed discussion of the conceptual disagreements see Nuscheler (1998), Riedel (1999: 26ff).

Members of the InterAction Council were elder statesmen from all five continents including former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew. Important input to the draft was also given by prominent scientists, religious leaders, journalists, politicians and UN-representatives. In the light of the increasing globalization and predictions of a clash of civilizations, this document should be an attempt to establish common ethical values on the ground of the main religions, philosophies and cultures of human mankind aimed at finding approval as an UN-Declaration on Human Responsibilities, complementary to the UDHR (Küng and Schmidt 1998).

Chua Beng Huat (2004: 78f), a renowned sociologist at the National University of Singapore, states that undemocratic institutions and processes may not necessarily mean, that Singaporeans do not substantially support the government's approach. However, the government's claim to be a “communitarian democracy” is not tenable since a collective consensus based on the aspirations of the people cannot be realised in the city-state, as long as some undemocratic legislation and administrative practices undermine dissident voices.

The ISA traces back to colonial times, but had functioned as a temporary tool in instances of emergency only; it was checked and balanced by institutional mechanisms (Jeyaretnam, 2000: 63f).

The Singapore Constitution does not include the right to judicial remedies as originally proposed by the 1966 Constitutional Commission (Thio 2004: 44).

J B Jeyaretnam, former Secretary-General of the Workers' Party, and Dr. Chee Soon Juan, present Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party were subject to the undemocratic legislation of the city state. J B Jeyaretnam, a member of Parliament twice, in 1981 being the first and only opposition member of Parliament since the PAP came in power in 1965, was convicted of libel and defamation (Jeyretnam, 2003: Dr. Chee was found also guilty of speaking without licence, for which he was imprisoned twice (Chee, 2001:

The government has recently made concessions to partly open the political discussion by introducing the concept of informal “OB markers” (Out of Bounds' markers) to allow respectful and legitimate criticism to elected people only first (Thio, 2004: 71f). However, in literary circles, academia and the media people increasingly test on how far OB markers can be shifted (Tan, 1999: 282f).

One exception to the Societies Act marks the National Trade Union (NTUC) as it associates 65 labour unions under its organisation. However, Members of the Cabinet of Ministers hold high positions and members of respective unions are restricted to the party-affiliation of the PAP only. In this way, the NTUC does not foster, but severely restrict the right to speak up for better working conditions. The establishment of the NTUC could rather be seen as a successful attempt of the government to constrain controversial stances that were voiced in pre-independence days by the Singapore Trade Union Congress, the predecessor of the NTUC (Thio, 2004: 48f; Chua, 2004: 82f).

This idea meets with the argumentation of the interviewees who did not fade out the sensitive religious context of the city-state and admitted that the racial mix would indeed require a source of authority to maintain the “intra-cohesion” and to maintain interregional security and peaceful relations, but need to be grounded on democratic principles.

This notion can also be concluded from personal interviews with Singaporeans. The main stream line is that although human rights are of Western origin, they support a universal understanding of human rights.

From the education and housing policies the ambiguity of the social policies can be exemplified. Apart from learning English as the first language of instruction, Singaporean children have to acquire the “mother tongue” – either Mandarin, Malay or Tamil – as a second language. Children of multiethnic marriages, however, have been deprived of their cultural right to freely choose their language of choice, as “mother tongue” has been equated with the language of the father (Chua and Kwok, 2001: 90f; Chua, 2004: 88f). With the objectives of racial harmony and racial integration every housing estate has been resided according to the respective races' proportion to the population as a whole (about 75% Chinese, 17% Malays, 8% Indians). This regulation has also been chargeable to individual freedoms, since it makes it difficult to live in the same house estate as friends and families when the ethnic proportion has already been met (Chua, 2004: 90f). Jeyaretnam (2000: 53ff) argues, that the treatment of Singaporeans as Chinese, Malays or Indians and the value of self-help does emphasise, but not reduce the difference of cultures in the city-state. It leads to “a growing compartimentalisation of the different communities” since every ethnic group undertakes efforts to satisfy their own economic and socio-cultural needs. This tendency of institutionalising racial communities, is an obstacle for a cultural Singapore identity propagated by the government. Jeyaretnam instead pleas to encourage the term “Human” to work towards “one people, not four different peoples” in the city-state.

For a in-depth analysis of the evolution of the communitarian ideology, resulting policies and the cultural implications see Chua, 1995.

This position meets with the arguments of non-governmentally affiliated academics and party members spoken to in Singapore. Since Singaporeans would have been heavily influenced by Western Values and modern lifestyles, the inherent teachings of respective cultures can not be seen as main obstacles for demanding individual human rights. Rather, the various ethnic communities have been home to a broad variety of languages, religions and classes and therefore can not be regarded as homogenous entities. See for a more detailed discussion (Chua and Kwok 2001), where the Malay-Muslim community is examined as an exception in case.




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