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Is Singapore really starting to change or am I being naïve? The question for me is no longer an academic one. I have, in a minor way, become an actor in this minor drama. During two visits in 2008 to the land of my birth I penned a blog in the Guardian setting out the arguments that I was preparing for my book Freedom For Sale. I talked of Singapore as a global model for a world in which prosperity and security were valued more highly than freedoms. I talked of consumerism as “the ultimate anaesthetic for the brain”. Within hours I had been ritually denounced. I received similar although more measured criticism after the book was published in the UK three months ago.
So it was with a mixture of delight, intrigue and a little trepidation that I accepted an invitation from the National University of Singapore (several of whose top figures I had interviewed for the book) to give a seminar there. I was very properly and well received, and the questioning was robust and well-informed. The biggest surprise was a one-page feature about me and the book in the Straits Times, the heavily-controlled newspaper. I bridled at only one line, the appellation that I was a “veteran” journalist, but the newspaper carried a relatively fair article about the book, including excerpts and advice to readers about where to buy it. (The Straits Times online is subscription only, so here is a different site that contains the original article, plus the ST’s “discussion board” that contains a standard official critique of my views and also several posts that support my thesis along with an article by ejected correspondent Ben Bland about the article ).
The response from my Singapore friends was guarded. Beware, they suggested, of becoming the official fig leaf. Each time a journalist is censored or sued in court, the authorities will cite my example to show that Singapore was open and democratic. That is a concern. In the three days I was there during my last trip a freelance journalist, Ben Bland, became the latest reporter to be barred. Yet I am more sanguine. Perhaps this is a sign, at the tail end of Lee Kuan Yew’s tenure of a certain willingness to embrace criticism. And even if it is not, then for one brief moment, the readers of the Straits Times had a chance to challenge some of Singapore’s assumptions.