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A Wave of Scandals Is Testing the Singaporean Government’s Ability to Take Criticism

9 minute read

Rough waves, politically speaking, have swept the shores of sunny Singapore over the last month, and sweating in the eye of the storm is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Lee, the 71-year-old son of the country’s late founding father Lee Kuan Yew whose People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled Singapore since even before its independence in 1965, spoke before parliament on Wednesday to address a slew of scandals that have rocked the city-state in recent weeks—and that have threatened to dent public confidence in a government that has cultivated a reputation for ethical and effective leadership.

Speaking before the country’s lawmakers, the Prime Minister reflected on the controversies, from a clandestine affair between the former Speaker of the Parliament and a fellow MP—which coincided with the surfacing of a past affair between two opposition politicians—to a corruption probe against the country’s transport minister to the conspicuous state-owned bungalows that house two other top ministers. 

Lee acknowledged that the PAP has “taken a hit” from the scandals and clarified that he should have acted sooner in certain instances, such as addressing the affair among his own party’s members, which he had known about for two years. Still, as public concerns mount, Lee’s main message remained the same: that the PAP would be fully transparent and hold itself accountable for any wrongdoing in its ranks.

“Systems are composed of human beings. In any system, however comprehensive the safeguards, sometimes something will still go wrong,” he said. “But we will show Singaporeans that we will uphold standards and do the right thing, so trust is maintained and the Singapore system continues to work well.”

However, as the PAP works to regain trust, some observers point out that the government continues to struggle with handling public criticism in any other way than blanket refutation or legal retaliation.

Last week, after an Economist article questioned the independence of anti-graft probes by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, Singapore’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Lim Thuan Kuan furiously rebutted the magazine’s claims in a public letter to its editor.

“If indeed the CPIB is so lacking in independence as The Economist makes out, how could it be possible that Singapore has consistently ranked high in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI)?” Lim wrote. “In the latest 2022 CPI, Singapore was ranked fifth … The UK was ranked 18.”

In a place that already has little room for political dissent, this characteristically “thin-skinned” approach may serve to suppress unflattering discourse in the short run. But, experts warn, it may also amplify discontent simmering below the surface, which may one day actually threaten the PAP’s grip on power.

“Instead of persuading people, what it does is it makes people feel that their sense of injustice, their sense of unfairness, is not taken seriously,” Donald Low, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies Singaporean governance, tells TIME. “Dissent doesn’t go away. Dissent just gets channeled into voices or parties that are more populist.”

A touchiness that goes back decades

“I think the PAP are finding themselves in rather uncharted territory,” Terence Lee, a professor at Australia’s Sheridan Institute who researches media and politics in Singapore, tells TIME about the recent wave of scandals. “Right now the strategy is to stop [the scandals] from being a topic in the news. I think they want it to go away. They want the media [and] they want people to stop talking about it.” But the government is starting to see the limits, he says, of “their tried and tested methods” of achieving that.

In Singapore, authorities have long made clear that when it comes to dealing with critics, there is no such thing as overkill. Bloggers have been sued for sharing unproven allegations on social media and activists arrested for quiet lone protests. But sometimes, experts say, such hamfisted attempts at controlling the narrative can ultimately backfire, drawing even more attention to the criticism or questions raised in the first place. 

“The Singapore government has always been thin-skinned,” Terence Lee says. 

For decades, foreign publications have had their circulation in Singapore restricted—or what’s locally known as “gazetted”—for unfavorable coverage. (This included TIME in 1986, after it rejected authorities’ requests to publish a “correction” to an article on fraud charges against the leading opposition politician.) In 1993, the Economist was gazetted after authorities claimed that the magazine had denied them the right of reply by refusing to publish letters from Singapore’s High Commissioner in London in full. 

Read More: Singapore’s Prime Minister Threatens Website Editor With Libel

In 1971, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told the International Press Association in Helsinki: “Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.”

Media have also been penalized through other means. In 2006, the now-defunct magazine Far Eastern Economic Review published an article referencing Singapore’s propensity for using libel threats against its critics, only to be promptly sued for defamation by Lee Hsien Loong and his father Lee Kuan Yew. And in 2010, the New York Times was seemingly pressured to publicly apologize for breaching an agreement a writer had made with Singaporean leaders more than a decade earlier. He had promised authorities in 1994 to not suggest that Lee Hsien Loong had attained his position through nepotism, but he included the Lees in a 2010 list of Asian political dynasties. 

The government’s reactivity to bad press—which many times, experts say, merely echoes speculations and sentiments on the ground—has given rise to a culture where self-censorship looms over public discourse, where few dare to say what most may be thinking. 

“Every government wants to be in control of information,” says Terence Lee. “But the PAP government’s weakness is that they attempt to close down on alternative information far too much.”

Modern-day cracking down on criticism—and its costs

“Attempting to monopolize the ‘truth’ is a longstanding PAP government strategy of maintaining political dominance and control,” says Kenneth Paul Tan, a politics professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “In the past, it was more common to propagandize through the mainstream media, demand right of reply in foreign media, censor or ban inconvenient claims, and sue for libel. These days, with social media fracturing this monopoly, a new addition to this arsenal of thought control is POFMA.”

Initially touted as a fake news law for preventing misinformation during COVID, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) has come under fire from critics who have noted how it has been used against the ruling party’s political opponents.

Read More: Singapore Is the Latest Country to Propose Tough Legislation Against Fake News

Most recently, Lee Hsien Yang, the Prime Minister’s estranged younger brother, has found himself battling legal threats from Singaporean authorities over a Facebook post on July 23 that outlined a list of alleged abuses of power and betrayals of public trust. In the post, he referenced Ridout Road—the prime housing district where Law Minister K. Shanmugam and Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan live, which has now become metonymic with the political saga that centered on the exorbitant state-owned bungalows they rent. An investigation by anti-graft authorities ultimately cleared the ministers of wrongdoing, but their spacious estates, which have been thrust into the public spotlight, continue to dominate public chatter in Singapore, where ministers are among the world’s most well-paid government officials and where housing has at the same time become increasingly unaffordable.

Lee Hsien Yang was quickly POFMA’d: Authorities asked him to put up a correction notice on Facebook saying that several of his claims were untrue. He complied, but added that he stood by his words. He was also slapped with lawyer letters from the two ministers demanding an apology, the retraction of his allegations, and damages (which the ministers said would be donated to charity).

Lee Hsien Yang isn’t alone. Last month, local online magazine Jom had to issue correction notices under POFMA on an article about Ridout Road that authorities said failed to include important details of the senior minister’s speech in parliament. Jom disagreed with the POFMA order in a statement and encouraged readers to come to their own decision on the fairness of their claims.  

According to Tan, these types of nitpicking reactions to public discourse could fan the flames of distrust and resentment. “As Singaporeans become increasingly skeptical of the ruling elite, the selective use of POFMA and other censorious instruments against politically inconvenient claims can lead to an unintended consequence,” says Tan. “People may come to see any efforts to achieve factual accuracy as desperate attempts to cover up or modify a basic truth.” 

The issuance of POFMA orders and rebuttals have also, ironically, given scandals more airtime and the government’s critics more publicity. “When you POFMA someone, it draws attention to what the person said in the first place,” says Terence Lee.

It also reinforces the image of the PAP as a delicate bunch, says Low, the Hong Kong-based academic. 

“They may protect their own reputation, but the externality that is created is that the party comes across as irascible,” says Low, who himself was rebuked in 2017 for a Facebook post that a minister claimed “seriously misconstrued” his statements. In an article that he co-wrote in 2020, Low argued that “a more mean-spirited society led by a more irritable and irascible PAP may become a long-term feature of politics in Singapore.” 

“I think what we’ve seen in the last few weeks,” he says now, “is ample demonstration of that.”

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