Report from Tomorrow - Vol 6

1USD = S$1.58 (S$1 = 0.63USD)

The State

Singapore has a rather brutal reputation among Americans, as so many of you admonshed us not to chew gum etc. when you heard we were going to Singapore. The episode some years back where a teenage American boy was cained for vandalizing cars is probably the most prominent thing Americans know about this place.

Singapore isn't a democracy in the American sense - it's more of a benevolent dictatorship where the people vote in the dictator. At the very least, it is a very strong-armed government - a pretty common form in Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Twaiwan come immediately to mind). When we announced we were coming here, one American described Singapore as "the nicest police state I've ever lived in" and proclaimed he'd return in a heartbeat.

The government's role here is not that easy to identify. It provides the usual services, schools, transportation (roads, buses, MRT etc) and the basic infrastructure you expect most anywhere. But it also owns all the land. You don't really OWN any land here - but just lease it for 99 years. Yes, the state does own your home. How easily can they kick you out is not clear.

In several conversations with people about rights, the response has come that the constitution and laws provide rights which sound much like what I'd expect in the US. Tenants have rights we'd expect and can't be easily thrown out. Banks are highly restricted in the information they can provide, even to the police with a court order. The few views I've had sound like rights as we expect them in the USA. There is a process for the state to intervene, but it requires a third party (the courts) to be involved.

The crime rate here is extremely low, but not non-existent. There are signs around town saying, "Low crime doesn't mean no crime". People are admonished to lock your doors and do the obvious security things. No question, it's a safe place. I've met no woman who's expressed any concern to go walking any place at any time of the day or night here - a sharp contrast to the attitude ANYPLACE in the USA.

There is censorship here - both for "moral purposes" as well as other less clear (to me) reasons. The most obvious censorship is seen on TV or at the movies where a word/phrase/joke is cut or dubbed out of what you are watching. Sometimes it's just a missing word and sometimes it is a disruptive break. There's a dirty joke in Titanic that was cut in Singapore and the disruption was was very noticeable.

There is also censorship of the news, but this is much more difficult to see. Sometimes you can find differences between stories reported in the local news and that found on the Web. BBC broadcasts, foreign magazines (e.g. Newsweek), etc are censored. You very seldom can see that this has been done. It's difficult to tell what you are missing.

So what gets censored? The ex-pat bias, certainly, is that "bad news" is filtered. Just how bad are things in Indonesia? Is a scathing report on Singapore published? or watered down? What is the real crime rate? Is crime rising because the economy is slowing? Are we being invaded by Indonesians fleeing from a country in collapse? How bad is the air quality from the Indonesian fires ?

At least in the case of Indonesia, we hear that things are getting bad there. It's not that we don't know about it, but maybe we don't know just how bad it is. The papers report theft or people being smuggled into the country, but often the story is about someone who is caught doing something wrong. How many are not caught? There's a story I've not seen yet.

We are hardly careful readers of news, even in the USA. We very seldom watch TV news (anywhere, even in the USA) and Mary will regale you with things I've missed after I've "read" the newspaper. We don't get the newspaper regularly. My news comes mostly from Newsweek and a cursory glance at Web and Email-delivered news. If the world ends, I'll probably hear about it in a day or so. I'm not sure we are very good judges of censorship here.

The police are not on every corner. There are local police stations in every neighborhood, but one hardly ever sees any officers. There are private, "rent a guards" all over. Every store has several (unarmed, just in a uniform). Our apartment complex has 6 or so, who just stand around. Yes, we have these in the USA, but far fewer than here where they are very visible.