Freedom’s just another word when nothing’s left to lose

Indians now make up almost  a quarter of the 1.79 million foreigners in Singapore, reported The Straits Times recently. The number of Indian nationals on the island has doubled from 200,000 to 400,000 in the last two years, it said.

It was an unusual report on two counts. It got the number of Indian nationals from the Indian High Commission. The Singapore government, while reporting the number of foreigners admitted and granted citizenship, does not say which countries they came from.  And the newspaper included the 533,000 Singapore permanent residents among the foreigners. The government counts them, together with Singapore citizens, as part of the 3.73 million resident population.

Newspapers seldom depart from official practice in Singapore.  The constitution explicitly says that while every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression, parliament may impose restrictions necessary to protect national security and public order and prevent contempt of court and defamation.  The government is firm on law and order and racial harmony with the resident population broadly divided into three ethnic groups:  Chinese (74.2 per cent), Malay (13.4 per cent ) and Indian (9.2 per cent), with others making up the rest (3.2 per cent).

The system has worked well for Singapore, ensuring peace and prosperity, but odd things do happen now and then.  It’s all right to take pictures if there’s a flood, said a minister in parliament recently. His statement, reported on The Straits Times’ front page, followed an incident initially ignored by the newspaper.  A  newspaper photographer was handcuffed by a policeman while trying to take a picture of a car stranded in floodwaters after heavy rain. The police said he had been obstructing them in their duties. The incident was reported in the Chinese newspaper employing the photographer, but The Straits Times, a sister newspaper owned by the same group (Singapore Press Holdings), did not report it until a day later, after it unleashed a storm on the internet.

No one can accuse the government of turning a deaf ear to the people. There are ministers who blog, MPs who reach out to their constituents on Facebook. People are encouraged to use the internet for everything from banking to information-gathering, but they had better be careful  in what they say. Baseless criticism is met with a heavy hand.

A 75-year-old British freelance journalist is feeling “pretty shaken”  as he awaits trial for criminal defamation and contempt of court. Alan Shadrake is in the dock for his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock. The authorities have not taken kindly to his outpourings on the Singapore  legal system and its use of the death penalty. The book was removed from bookshops and, then when the author came from Malaysia to launch it, he was arrested in his hotel room. He has been released on bail but faces up to two years in prison and a heavy fine if found guilty.  But the book has not been banned. It was still in Singapore’s National Library when I checked the online catalogue last week.

Shadrake caused an uproar five years ago when he interviewed the Singapore executioner, Darshan Singh, who is reported to have conducted 850 hangings in his 50-year career. “Mr Singh is credited with being the only executioner in the world to single-handedly hang 18 men in one day — three at a time,” Shadrake wrote. “ He also hanged seven condemned men within 90 minutes a few years later.”  Singh, who was then 73 years old and about to hang a Vietnamese-born Australian drug trafficker, later claimed he was tricked into giving the interview, which appeared in The Australian.

The Shadrake case broke only days after Singapore banned a video showing a former political activist who was detained for nearly 20 years. Dr Lim Hock Siew, who was arrested under the Internal Security Act in 1963, spoke about his life in captivity in November last year. His speech was filmed by a local filmmaker, who posted it on YouTube. The government ordered him to take it down this month. He removed it, but others have uploaded it again, he said.

Singapore, in some ways, is like the Mughal emperor Akbar’s court as described in Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence: rich, rewarding talent, welcoming new ideas, but firm in maintaining its authority. Isn’t that what governments always try to do? There is censorship in India too.  Google says it has received more requests from the governments of India and Brazil to remove online content than from any other government in the world. India has a free press. But how many newspapers dared defy Indira Gandhi during the Emergency?

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” sang Janis Joplin in Me and Bobby McGhee.  There’s too much to lose in rich, peaceful Singapore to jeopardize the status quo.

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