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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Is Singapore an Orwellian State?

Gabriel Seah's answer to Singapore: Is Singapore an Orwellian State? - Quora

"Let us examine the characteristics of an Orwellian State.

Wikipedia sums it up well (Orwellian). I have numbered each point for easy reference:

The adjective Orwellian refers to these behaviours of The Party, especially when the Party is the State (1):
  • Invasion of personal privacy, either directly physically or indirectly by surveillance. (2)
  • State control of its citizens' daily life, as in a "Big Brother" society. (3)
  • Official encouragement of policies contributing to the socio-economic disintegration of the family. (4)
  • The adoration of state leaders and their Party. (5)
  • The encouragement of "doublethink",  whereby the population must learn to embrace inconsistent concepts  without dissent, e.g. giving up liberty for freedom. Similar terms used  are "doublespeak", and "newspeak". (6)
  • The revision of history in the favour of the State's interpretation of it. (7)
  • A (generally) dystopian future. (8)
  • The use of euphemism to describe an agency, program or other concept, especially when the  name denotes the opposite of what is actually occurring. E.g. a  department that wages war is called the "Ministry of Peace" (9)

To some extent, all countries practise some of these, but Singapore qualifies more than most liberal democracies (of which Singapore is not one). Be that as it may, it still isn't a real Orwellian State.

1. In Singapore, the Party is the State, that is sure.

The People's Action Party (PAP) has controlled Singapore since 1959, which makes 54 years as of 2013. As far as I can recall, the longest ruling party ever was the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico which ruled for 71 years.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the Civil Service and the PAP, with the latter recruiting many Members of Parliament from the former and some writers arguing that it is actually the former which has co-opted the latter.

Since this is a question about Singapore politics, let's have the obligatory quote from LKY:

“I make no apologies that the PAP is the Government and the Government is the PAP.” - Lee Kuan Yew

2. There is certainly an invasion of personal privacy in Singapore.

For one, there is no right to privacy in Singapore (The Singapore Law Review).

However, the place with the most CCTVs in the world is not Singapore but London (Report: London no safer for all its CCTV cameras).

The state does not (or at least does not seem to) spy on individuals. Some might consider that a national identity card (and number) and centralised records constitute an invasion of privacy but I don't - information is not shared willy-nilly, but it is certainly in your interests most of the time to consent to share it (for example, to qualify for medical subsidies for hospitalisation you need to consent to have your income records shared with the Ministry of Health since there is means-testing).

3. The state certainly influences its citizens' lives, but this is more soft paternalism than hard control.

There are many campaigns (e.g. to stop littering, to speak Mandarin, to be courteous) but these do not force people to do things (unless you think advertising is in and of itself coercive).

At a more significant level, there are policies to influence citizens into doing various things. For example to qualify for less-exorbitant public housing, you generally need to be married to a fellow citizen (Buying A New Flat). If you are a single mother, you also get less statutory maternity leave than if you are lawfully married to the parent of the child (Maternity Leave). These policies are meant to strongly encourage marriage.

There're also various laws which restrict behavior. There is only one place you can protest without being arrested (Speakers' Corner, and even then you can't talk about possibly controversial racial or religious topics), you cannot gather in public (Police issue warning against possible public gathering), all media is licensed and censored (One Rule to Rule Them All: a Study of Singapore Censorship), newspapers need to be licensed (Newspaper Permit) and the dominant media companies are government-controlled (Page on Article19) and the Internet has token censorship with 100 sites being blocked (Singapore: What are the banned websites in Singapore?).

Technically there is the danger of perpetual detention without a trial, but in practice this isn't used often enough to be a real issue (Law allowing detention without trial extended) (in brutal dictatorships, people do get detained without a trial but this is widely known both domestically and internationally).

4. Instead of the socio-economic disintegration of the family, policies encourage and strengthen the family.

Some might argue that Singapore promotes only one model - the heterosexual nuclear family, but even if this is the case at least official policy doesn't contribute to its disintegration. In any event, the definition of "family" is nebulous (is a single person a family?).

5. There is certainly a cult of personality of One Man.

Take this extract from a letter published in the National Broadsheet:

Why is such a  great man like you called just Mr Lee Kuan Yew - so ordinary? Just like  anyone on the street? From today onwards, we should call you "Your  Excellency, Founding Father Lee Kuan Yew". But this is still not good  enough, so I hope everyone can pitch in to help to find a salutation  before your name to acknowledge everything you have done for Singapore.  We should have a contest to choose a special salutation for you, as a  special birthday present because Singapore owes you so much.

(Lee Kuan Yew turns 90: We owe you so much)

We are also told that his "unwavering and total dedication to Singapore" is something "we can, and need to, aspire towards" (Page on Todayonline). This from the mouth of the Education Minister at at a conference marking his 90th birthday

I remember in many years, the National Day Parade (the official parade-celebration) would feature a clip of The Man crying as he announced Singapore's independence (we were kicked out from Malaysia). This clip was also repeatedly played to us when we were in school.

It is telling that Lee's memoirs are called "The Singapore Story" - in other words, Singapore is One Man's story.

6., 9. I cannot think of examples of doublethink. Some might say that this is a sign of how effective the doublethink is.

Doublespeak and newspeak are present, but really this is no different from in other countries. There is a "Media Development Authority" which is in charge of censorship.

But then, in most countries (as in Singapore) there is no Ministry of War - only a Ministry of Defence. Of course, if everyone were just defending themselves there wouldn't be any need for anyone to defend themselves, but so there.

7. Singapore does control history to favour its interpretation, at least in the formal education system. In Singapore's first 3 decades, the State was first actively hostile and then ambivalent about history (Page on Nzasia). However since then it has been actively managed.

All states seek to imbue students with a national myth and narrative, and history textbooks are a common point of contention in many countries. Yet, it is significant that "National Education" is a state-mandated part of the national curriculum which has to be integrated into all subjects, and "Social Studies" is a compulsory subject.

As mentioned in point 5, the role of The Great Man is emphasised in the state version of history, with His History being equated to that of The Nation. Indeed, his autobiographies are part of the national education curriculum. Beyond that, rather uniquely for an ex-colony, British colonialism is portrayed quite benignly, and arguably even glorified.

Probably the most significant way in which a State view of history is promulgated is the perpetually-invoked spectre of racial-religious tensions. Despite the last racial riots occurring in 1969 (44 years ago, as of the time of writing), various racial riots are always cited to back the claim that racial-religious tensions can tear the country apart.

This is an astounding rewriting of history given how minor and few in number the riots were. On searching both Wikipedia and The National Library Board's Infopedia, I found a total of 3 racial riots in living memory (since the start of the 20th century): the Maria Hertogh Riots (1950, 18 deaths), the 1964 communal riots (22 deaths) and the 1969 race riots (the only one since Independence, with 4 dead). That's 44 deaths in total - over 3 separate riots. In 1970 total population was 2.1 million (The Population of Singapore / Saw Swee-Hock) so that accounts for a stunning 0.0021% of the population. Again, this was over 3 riots.

In contrast, the 1992 Los Angeles Race Riots resulted in 53 deaths (LA Riot Deaths) which amounts to 0.00058% of the population of LA County in the year (General Population by City 1990-1994). If three of these riots had occured, the death toll would've been 0.0017% of the population - comparable to the death toll in Singapore's racial riots. Yet in the National Narrative Singapore's race riots are given wildly disproportionate importance.

Given that the causes of the riots were complicated rather than simply being racial/religious in nature (e.g. the Maria Hertogh riots were anti-colonial), their portrayal by the State as simply being "race riots" is a distortion. Again, all states do this, but in Singapore it is especially tied into political ideology (for example, the controversial 2001 Japanese textbooks which glossed over World War II were used by only 0.03% of junior high students [Examining the Japanese History Textbook Controversies]).

8. This point is too broad to properly evaluate, but generally Singapore is quite successful and well-regarded internationally. If there is any dystopia, it is one of success, indulgence and excess, layered over inequality and parochialism."
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