Singapore’s sudden liberalism

“Nightlife in Singapore is like having a party with your parents in the house,” says an expat interviewed in an excellent article that a commenter pointed me to.

Everyone knows that Singapore is a “nanny state,” where the government is always watching its citizens’ behaviour. Now the government is working hard to reverse this notion and show the world just how hip it is.

Look at how much Singapore has changed in only 8 weeks or so:

Bar dancing was legalized last week
Censorship guidelines are being liberalized (slowly but surely)
The government dropped its ban on hiring gays

So what’s the motivation for this sudden about-face? I have to say that I don’t know for sure, but my common sense says it is not derived from some new-found faith in its citizens’ ability to make their own decisions, or some out-of-the-blue enlightenment. My common sense says it’s all about money.

The government didn’t hide the fact that one of its reasons for changing the policy on hiring gays was that it might be a turn-off to Western companies considering setting up shop here. So I’m guessing that similar reasoning is behind the other decisions.

The article I quote above also sees the phenomenon as a direct reaction to Singapore’s faltering economy:

One foreign correspondent said: “Singapore’s link between raucous nightlife and international competitiveness may puzzle students of classical economics, but it is part of a wide-ranging effort to find a new niche for itself in the global economy.

“Central to that drive is to transform Singapore from a tranquil nation of compliant factory workers into a throbbing metropolis of innovators and entrepreneurs.”

“If we want our people to make more decisions for themselves, and if we are to encourage a derring-do society, we must allow some risk-taking, and a little excitement,” Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said.

As it has grown more prosperous, Singapore has watched its competitive edge in manufacturing slip away to neighbours such as Malaysia, India and China.

I met a colleague for lunch yesterday, an Australian expat who’s lived here with his wife for many years, and he gave me a somewhat grimmer assessment of why the government is loosening the reigns on censorship.

“When Singaporeans meet in coffee houses and bars nowadays, all they talk about is how terrible the economy is and how they might lose their jobs,” he said. “I think the government is allowing racier things on TV because they are hoping these people stay home and watch TV instead of going out and complaining. You have no idea how serious Singapore’s economic crisis is, and I don’t see any possible solution.”

That’s even worse than grim — fatalistic. I don’t think I can buy his reasoning. After all, along with racier cable TV, they’re also allowing bar dancing, which won’t help keep people cooped up at home. Could he be on to something? Could the sitiuation here be so ominous?

Whatever the reasons behind it, the shift toward a freer society with more choices can only be a good thing. Let’s hope it continues, and that Singapore can finally shed its reputation as the great nanny city-state. Let’ also hope that these freedoms don’t portend to a darker, meaner economic future.

The Discussion: One Comment

It’s always about money in Singapore, Inc.

September 12, 2003 @ 9:00 am | Comment

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