Those accustomed to thinking of this booming city-state as a bastion of apolitical strivers and shopaholics might be stunned by the burst of civic activism sweeping this crowded flyspeck of an island.
On a recent weekend, hundreds clamored in a downtown park for a repeal of the country’s draconian anti-subversion law, while a dozen urbane Singaporeans made a quiet stand by photographing the banyan trees and historic tombstones that the government plans to bury under a highway. Across the city, gay-rights campaigners were finalizing plans for a rally that is expected to draw thousands.
While no one is predicting a new era of noisy, public agitation or the imminent end of Singapore’s single-party rule, social activists and political analysts point to the increasing number of people who are shedding a long nurtured reluctance to challenge the nation’s paternalistic leaders and their “autocratic light” style of governance.
“People are beginning to feel a bit more at ease, and the government is also loosening up,” said Vincent Cheng, 65, a former Roman Catholic social worker who was tortured and imprisoned for three years in the late 1980s after the government accused him of helping orchestrate a Marxist conspiracy.
The change is evident in a variety of forums. After a welcoming speech to incoming college students late last month, Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (張志賢) found himself dodging pointed questions about Singapore’s news media restrictions and its hamstrung democracy. Those in attendance said that Teo was taken aback by the boldness of the crowd, which in years past would have quietly absorbed his pep talk about hard work and self-sacrifice.
Not surprisingly, social media have helped propel the newfound audacity. Facebook and a number of homegrown Web sites are giving voice to the sort of government criticism and no-holds-barred debate that almost never appear in the straitjacketed mainstream news media. The country’s leaders, eager to lure foreign talent and investment by softening Singapore’s reputation as a gum-banning, rules-obsessed nation, have given wide berth to the online free-for-all.
Many of the most vocal activists are young, wired and cynical about the government’s argument that it alone can maintain the prosperity and social harmony that has transformed the island into one of the most advanced economies.
“In the past, we used to only talk quietly in coffee shops,” said Cheong Yaoming, 30, executive editor of The Online Citizen, an influential source for local news and acerbic commentary. “But now people are more willing to speak out in public.”
Activists say the changes took root in the late 1990s, but the local resurgence really began to shift last year, after the ruling People’s Action Party lost six seats in the 87-member parliament. Although the party has dominated electoral politics since 1959 — Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) is the son of Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), the founding father — its popular support during the election in May last year dropped to a historic low, with just 60 percent of the vote supporting the party’s candidates, down 6 percent from the previous election.
Terence Chong, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore said the results prompted Singapore’s leaders to reconsider their institutional animosity toward grassroots activism.