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Singapore Isn’t The Next Hong Kong
Claims of political contagion are establishment fantasies.
On my last trip to Hong Kong, in May, I listened to a litany of anxieties shared by the city’s journalists. They spoke of the erosion of press freedom and a growing climate of fear. A friend from an independent media outlet observed that it was getting harder to get people to comment on particular issues, because Hong Kongers were now more wary of going on the record. Incidents such as the kidnapping of booksellers have sent a signal, and people—including journalists themselves—were beginning to self-censor.
“If we keep going like this, what’s the press going to be like in Hong Kong?” they lamented.
Well, I thought, it’s going to be like Singapore.
In Singapore, the mainstream, traditional media operates under the influence—if not outright control—of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government, and journalists exercise self-censorship to make sure that their work stays away from ambiguous “out of bounds” markers. These unwritten, shifting boundaries are so widely accepted as part of Singaporean journalism and discourse that the former chief editor of the Straits Times, Singapore’s paper of record, actually named his memoirs OB Markers: My Straits Times Story. It’s not the same choking censorship as in the Chinese mainland, but it’s certainly not a truly free press.
My prediction hasn’t aged well. A month after my visit, Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest a controversial extradition bill, and everything kicked off. Today, my social media feeds are full of livestreams and threads of tear gas, water cannons, targeted vandalism, and Molotov cocktails. There’s still much to fear, but Hong Kongers of all stripes—from black-clad teenagers to snazzily dressed bankers in Central—have decided that they aren’t going down without a fight. And with reporters braving rubber bullets and raining furious questions upon officials, Hong Kong’s press corps is far from neutered just yet.
These dramatic, even violent, scenes have captured attention in Singapore, a city often compared to Hong Kong because of its majority-Chinese population and position as a financial hub. In some aspects, the impact has been direct: Money is flowing out of Hong Kong and flooding into Singapore, to the tune of $4 billion. Hotel occupancy rates have also gone up as conferences and travelers swapped Victoria Harbor for Marina Bay.
But Singapore’s elite have other concerns. A senior official told the Financial Times that the PAP government “is terrified that something similar could happen in Singapore,” and that contingency plans are being crafted in case Singaporeans get ideas.
Contingency plans are fine, but it’s a bizarre fear. While some Singaporeans might be sympathetic to Hong Kongers’ aspirations for universal suffrage and civil and political rights, it’s highly unlikely that the heat of Hong Kong’s summer of dissent will spread to the city-state.
At the heart of Hong Kong’s struggle is the disenfranchisement of its people. The political process is explicitly rigged—a reality starkly demonstrated by the disqualification of both political candidates and elected pro-democracy legislators in this month’s local elections. Ultimately, the Hong Kong government answers not to Hong Kongers, but to the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Hong Kongers have even traced their economic woes back to this rot at the root.
Singapore isn’t mired in this same political crisis. While the fairness of the electoral system leaves much to be desired, there is still universal suffrage, and Singaporeans do still have the opportunity to make their feelings known at the ballot box. Unhappy citizens aren’t thinking of taking to the streets—they’re waiting for Polling Day. Critical comments on social media aren’t calling on Singaporeans to commit civil disobedience; they’re exhorting their compatriots to “Vote Them Out” (or the snappier “VTO”). And the ruling party does respond to voting patterns, making tweaks and adjustments to appease swing voters.
In any case, given the lack of regular opinion polling in the country, it’s not even clear how many such unhappy voters there are—the PAP secured 70 percent of the popular vote in the last election, a solid mandate. Many continue to credit the ruling party with Singapore’s stability and solid international reputation, and the provision of more social welfare schemes ahead of the 2015 election is likely to have calmed frustrations over cost of living.
There’s also a gulf between attitudes toward resistance and dissent in Hong Kong and Singapore. While the former has a history of protest and collective action, the latter has weeded out such traditions. Protests that took place in Singapore’s past against colonial rule have since been demonized as disruptive and dangerous.
Long-standing laws ostensibly to do with public order reinforce this framing of any protest action as a threat; even solo protests are banned unless one manages the almost-impossible feat of obtaining a police permit. A Hong Konger was recently investigated and later banned from Singapore merely for organizing a public event asking people to share their views of the protests.
Under the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act passed last year, the authorities are already allowed to use lethal weapons to disperse crowds and issue communications stop orders that would make the sort of on-the-ground reporting we see in Hong Kong illegal.
In fact, this law specifically includes illustrations of “serious incidents” during which these powers can be exercised. The description of one such illustration sounds remarkably similar to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, suggesting that the desire to preemptively curb such events isn’t new:
“A sit-down demonstration for a cause attracts a large group of sympathisers who voluntarily join the sit-in. For over a week, the group grows and the demonstrators start to occupy the publicly accessible paths and other open spaces in the central business district. Their presence starts to impede the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic and interfere with normal trade or business activities in the area.”
Despite all this, the specter of unrest spilling over into Singapore is extremely useful for a dominant party preparing the ground for an upcoming election (due to be called before April 2021, but widely expected sometime next year). And the more protest-averse Singaporeans are horrified by the escalation of violence in Hong Kong, the more these events can be used to discredit Singapore’s own pro-democracy activists.
“Imagine if the demonstrations and riots on the streets of Hong Kong, or the political confusion in the U.K., were to take place in Singapore. Our international reputation would be destroyed. … Our future would be in grave jeopardy,” said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in a parliamentary speech justifying the cancellation of a weeklong program on dissent and resistance at the liberal arts college Yale-NUS that would have catered to 16 students.
Former PAP Member of Parliament Goh Choon Kang had taken it even further in an op-ed published in both the English- and Chinese-language media. Boldly declaring, without evidence, that the protests in Hong Kong were the result of foreign funding and manipulation, Goh said that Singapore had no need for “colour revolution” and urged Singaporeans to beware people initiating such revolutions (including, apparently, yours truly).
Hong Kong’s political mess has also been used as an excuse to further entrench PAP narratives. Just this month, Singapore’s minister for trade and industry, Chan Chun Sing, held forth before journalists on “lessons” to be learned from Hong Kong’s strife. This included learning that “political systems that only promote contestations and debate without concrete and constructive actions cannot deliver or solve problems,” and that insisting “on maximal individual gains at the expense of the common and collective good cannot be the Singapore way.” Chan also took the opportunity to emphasize that the PAP government is committed to prioritizing the public interest and delivering on its promises.
Over the years, the Singaporean political discourse has been skewed to value stability above almost everything else. The Hong Kong protests offer the PAP the opportunity to again perpetuate a siege mentality, prompting anxiety about the country’s supposed fragility in the face of any political shake-up. Talk of fears of contagion is thus more about political mileage than any immediate danger.