As with most other Singaporeans, we followed closely last week’s event on both local and foreign media. Contrasted to local coverage, foreign media were more interested in serving backward compliments, praising Singapore for it’s very western commerce and markets but consistently criticised the draconian measures used to achieve this. Personally, I thought it reeks of a certain arrogance – but that’s a different discussion.
Sahana Singh’s reflection on Washington Post thus caught our eye. Defending her Singaporean experience, she stated “Critics call Singapore an autocracy But I never felt more free than when I lived there”.
A day later, Calvin Cheng’s article appeared on the Independent calling out “the west” for getting Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore wrong. Did the former NMP plagiarize Sahana Singh?
Fundamentally, Calvin and Sahana present similar arguments. The Western Media, in it’s enthusiasm of liberal democracy, has gotten Singapore wrong. Like Sahana, Calvin argued that instead of being suppressed of rights, Singapore’s form of governance allows for actual freedom.
Critics call Singapore an autocracy. But I never felt more free than when I lived there.
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew. Attack civil liberties? No, the Prime Minister made Singapore free.
But in the coverage that followed the death of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Monday, Western media has painted a very different picture. They describe a crushing autocrat that chained his people and stripped them of basic freedoms. My experience was quite the contrary. Outside of this tiny island utopia, I never felt more free.
The Western press has relentlessly trotted out the opinion that Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore’s undeniable economic success at the cost of fundamental civil liberties.
It’s not the media, it’s them too
Both Sahana and Calvin later claimed that it wasn’t just the media, but their non-Singaporean friends whom scorned the idea of living in a country as repressed as Singapore.
But not everyone shared my admiration. At the time, a friend of mine from the U.S. told me nothing could make her move to Singapore: “I would hate to live in a country where my freedoms are curtailed,” she declared loftily.
Some of my Western friends who have never lived here for any period of time have sometimes self-righteously proclaimed, no doubt after reading the clichés in the media, that they could never live under the ‘stifling and draconian’ laws that we have.
How free are we truly?
They both go on to list the examples of freedom that Singapore provides.
#1: Low crime and individual freedom that came with security
I could go see a movie with friends and return by myself late at night. I could fall asleep in a taxi, after reeling off my address, and the driver would safely take me home and gently wake me up. Singapore maintains an efficient – if strict – judicial system, fundamental to living in a low-crime society while practicing individual freedom. I had tasted the real freedom that came with security.
My answer to them is simple: are you the sort to urinate in public when a toilet isn’t available, the sort to vandalise public property, the sort that would leave a mess in a public toilet that you share with your others? Are you perhaps a drug smuggler? Because we execute those. Or maybe you molest women? Because we would whip you. Are you the sort that would get drunk and then get into fights and maybe beat up a stranger in the bar? Back home you may get away with it but if you are that sort, then maybe this place isn’t for you.
#2: Walking around town late at night
In my first days in Singapore, I worried about safely getting around town, especially with a baby. I had never used local trains and feared ending up in a dangerous neighborhood.
Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours in the morning, to be able to leave one’s door open and not fear that one would be burgled.
#3: Racial and Religious Harmony
As my daughter grew older, I could easily let her move around the city with no worries about her safety. Around the country, there are plenty of mosques, churches and temples in close proximity, along with Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist national holidays
Freedom is knowing our children can go to school without fear of drugs, or being mowed down by some insane person with a gun. Freedom is knowing that we are not bound by our class, our race, our religion, and we can excel for the individuals that we are – the freedom to accomplish.
At what political cost
Sahana finally argues that the Western media may have been mistaken by the political cost of ‘iron fisted’ governance. She believes that this was quite the opposite:
The national government is highly transparent and virtually incorruptible, functioning better than some chaotic, so-called democracies. And yet the world asked why average Singaporeans, who had good schooling, a job, affordable housing, healthcare, child-care and elder-care don’t protest from roof-tops?
The same was reiterated by Calvin:
The fact is that every single opposition politician successfully sued for libel engaged in the type of politics that we do not want, the kind founded on vicious lies being told in the name of political campaigning.
Did Calvin Cheng plagiarise? You tell us. We suppose that it was inevitable similar contrarian points of view must be made when defending Singapore. We just preferred that it came from an expat’s reflection than a die-hard.