counter Is Singapore a police state?

What characterizes Singapore's political system is the constant query, worry and anxiety among the majority of the citizens, foreigners and observers that individuals and groups will get into trouble with the police and the political authorities for challenging the political status quo. Such anxiety is based on repeated examples of political challengers consistently being found guilty of contravening the system of tight and restrictive laws that govern people in the city-state.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

SINGAPORE'S POLICE STATE STRENGTHENS AFTER 911

The ‘War on Terrorism’ and Regime Implications

Following the end of the Cold War, the lack of an obvious security imperative had directed US foreign policy in ways that had emphasised economic policy and placed a limited but important emphasis on particular liberal political values. This was especially the case during the Clinton presidency (Nye 2004). After September 11, however, the ‘war on terrorism’ raised questions about the continued prospects for the development of economic and political liberalism in East and Southeast Asia, and the contexts within which the respective struggles to advance them across the region are likely to take place.

The elevation of security concerns within US foreign policy in the ‘war on terror’ heralds new challenges for the development of neo-liberal globalization, which may see a return to the kinds of political concerns that motivated Cold War thinking return to centre stage. Whereas the post-Cold War period witnessed an unprecedented privileging of the neo-liberal economic reform agenda, now this is to be balanced by considerations of how to contain terrorism.

A number of questions arise regarding the security agenda and neo-liberal globalization in the region: How are the conflicts over the nature of neo-liberal globalization affected? Which interests are best able to exploit this security dimension in the struggles over neo-liberal reform? What will be the impact on the nature of political regimes? Will authoritarian regimes be more or less difficult to reproduce? Will political authoritarianism be more sustainable in the new climate?

As has been widely acknowledged, the changed context has empowered neo-conservatives within the US administration, whose perspectives about markets has long been tempered by more traditional foreign policy emphases – or at least a different appreciation of the nexus between US economic and political power – than had been reflected in the earlier reliance on multilateral arrangements (see Higgott, 2004 forthcoming). The point here is not that this new arrangement is necessarily hostile to the global neo-liberal economic agenda, but that it has the potential to moderate the momentum for reform and for permitting differential responses among countries to
pressures for economic reform. In the Asian region, an excellent example of this changed perspective lies in recent moves towards bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), some of which have been specifically negotiated in the new security context.

The (re)newed relationship between security and economics was most clearly displayed at the October 2003 Bangkok Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. The US unambiguously tied security to its trade agenda. Washington insisted that Asian states meet its security demands, and was clear that those that did actively support the ‘war on terror’ would have preferential access to the US market. Singapore was one of the first beneficiaries of an FTA with the US, and Thailand, following its capture of terrorist leader Hambali, was next. As US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick explained, the US was ready to extend free-trade initiatives to ‘can-do’ Asian countries (Far Eastern Economic Review, 30 October 2003). Majority Muslim nations Indonesia and Malaysia expressed serious reservations, as did domestic business groups in the
region, fearing that security would be an excuse for trade barriers. The point is that security concerns are, as in the Cold War period, structuring economic and political relations in the region, revealing deep divisions across the region over (see Beeson, 2003). While security had been an issue since 9/11, it was this meeting of APEC – a quintessentially economic forum – that indicated the unequivocal linking of security with trade in US policy for the region.

In addition to its impact on the way that neo-liberal reform agenda has progressed in Asia, the ‘war on terror’ has been no less significant for the trajectories of political regimes. In the war on terrorism, the US has found itself requiring the co-operation of assorted authoritarian regimes. Reminiscent of the Cold War period, the US-sponsored ‘fight for freedom’ meant that political democracy could wait while the ‘war on terrorism’ was fought. Indeed, this has already seen a strengthening of anti-democratic forces in the region.
Not only did authoritarian regimes in Malaysia and Singapore become strategic sites in opposing terrorism, but the exercise of official powers of detention and surveillance expanded considerably in the region (and beyond).

In the case of Indonesia, the Megawati government was widely criticised for not moving as decisively against suspected terrorists as authorities in Singapore and Malaysia where ISA’s were quickly exercised. Having repealed the much-abused equivalent legislation the Anti-Subversion Law after Soeharto’s demise, Indonesia’s authorities were now under pressure to enhance powers for the military and security forces that had been discredited since the fall of Soeharto (Acharya 2002: 200). A number of governments, including China’s implemented repressive laws and decrees said to be aimed at terrorism, but which expanded the state’s capacity to repress
domestic dissent through a strengthening of domestic security agencies (see BBC, 2003).

Singapore: Strengthening the trade-security nexus

A close examination of the Singapore case further bears out the point about a more acute nexus between trade and security in the context of the ‘war on terror’. The city-state had not been entirely shielded from the heightened neo-liberal pressures on developmental state economies following the advent of the Asian crisis. The Singapore government also became a strong supporter of FTAs in this period, taking the view that ASEAN and APEC had failed and there was a need to push ahead, even if only bilaterally, towards further trade liberalisation. Indeed, since 1998, there has been unprecedented critical attention on Singapore’s government-linked-companies (GLCs) – which dominate the commanding heights of the domestic economy – by assorted interests in the financial sector, other elements of international capital and ideological champions of free markets,
including within IFIs and the international media. Calls for various forms of privatisation and liberalisation to reduce the power of GLCs and usher in a more level playing field for private –especially international – capital gathered noticeable momentum from 2001 when Singapore experienced its worst economic recession since Independence. The ensuing FTA negotiations between Singapore and the US embodied some of this contention over GLCs.

The US viewed Singapore as an economic hub for many of its interests in the region. However, it also saw the value in using an FTA agreement with Singapore to set down some principles of domestic economic governance for subsequent agreements with other countries. Consequently, negotiations towards the USSFTA – first projected in late 20000 – dragged on for two years and were not concluded until late 2002 and formally approved early the next year. This was in no small part because FTA negotiations brought a significant degree of scrutiny to bear on the GLCs and the institutional mechanisms through which their interests have been protected and advanced. The Singapore government’s steadfast refusal to give ground on its right to impose capital controls in the event of an economic crisis was also a stumbling block.

Although there were matters on which the Singaporeans were forced to shift ground in the course of the USSFTA, it was clear that the dynamics of the deliberations altered after 11 September 2001. From this point on, the willingness in Washington and Canberra to conclude deals intensified and took just a few months to be concluded. It became the first such accord by the U.S. with any Asian country.

Historically, Singapore has been a strong US defence and security ally throughout the Cold War and beyond – including at times when others in the region were becoming more wary about too close an alliance. When US forces were withdrawn in the early 1990s from the Clark Air Base and the Subic Naval Base in the Philippines, for example, the Singapore government offered US forces access to military facilities in the city-state.

More recently, Singapore developed the largest dock in the region, designed specifically to accommodate and support US aircraft carriers. However, in the wake of 11 September, the actions of Singapore’s authorities quickly impressed the US that – in a region described as ‘the frontline in the war on terror’ – for the unqualified preparedness to root out suspected terrorists from within and to support the US in international fora on security issues.

The Singaporeans arrested 15 suspected terrorists in December 2001, averting an alleged plot to bomb embassies and commercial interests of the US and other Western countries. This was at a time when the US was having difficulty getting other governments in the region to fully co-operate in combating terrorism. Subsequently, the Singapore government took measures to curb the capacity for money laundering and financial transactions facilitative of terrorism. It also arrested a further 21 suspected terrorists in August 2002.

In October 2003, a Framework Agreement for the Promotion of Strategic Cooperation Partnership in Defense and Security was jointly announced by President Bush and Prime Minister Goh. This would expand bilateral cooperation in counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, joint military exercises and training, policy dialogues and defence technology (Acharya 2004: 4).

The closeness of Singapore’s co-operation with the US in the fight on terror was further reflected in the opening in the city-state of a legal attaché office of the F.B.I. Moreover, the Singapore government provided strong support for the passage of United Nations Resolution 1441 and, eventually, the invasion of Iraq. Foreign Affairs Minister S. Jayakumar explained: ‘We must take a strong stand posed by weapons of mass destruction particularly after 9/11 because the danger of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists, terrorist organizations or extremist groups is not a hypothetical risk’ (quoted in Lee 2003), adding that while no one liked war, the facts clearly showed ‘that it is Iraq, not the US and not the UN, not the international community, which is in the dock’ (quoted in Lee 2003).

As a member of the ‘coalition of the willing’, Singapore made available transport and equipment support in Iraq as well as police and health care workers to assist with reconstruction. It also allowed US aircraft to fly over Singapore air space and to use Singapore’s military bases during the war. Thus, leading up to and beyond the signing of the USSFTA in early 2003, the alignment between the respective governments on security matters went from strength to strength.

Crucially, the security context meant that the major sticking point in negotiations towards USSFTA – the Singapore government’s insistence on the right to impose capital controls in the event of a crisis – was one that the US was prepared to concede new ground on. The US Treasury had consistently taken a hard line on the need for provisions to ‘ensure that US investors have the right to transfer funds into and out of the host country using a market rate of exchange’ (quoted in US Chamber of Commerce 2003).

However, after 11 September the Americans settled for an agreement under which both countries guaranteed investors free transfer into and out of both countries, but which also gave Singapore the right to restrict capital flows via the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

Emphasis on the security dimension of US-Singapore relations was a feature of the lobbying in the US by business interests associated with investment and trade between the two countries as well as by assorted political groups who also sought to expedite The US had previously not accepted any exceptions to the free flow of capital in its investment chapters of FTAs or in Bilateral Investment Treaties.

The agreement doesn’t prevent a country from imposing controls, but it does require compensation for US investors where restrictions that ‘substantially impede transfers’ incur damages. This provision is based on the framework used in the US-Chile FTA

USSFTA’s conclusion after 11 September. Singapore is host to over 1,300 US companies which account for more than half the city-state’s exports to the US. In March 2002, the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement Business Coalition was formed to muster the requisite political support for the deal. It was chaired by executives representing Boeing, ExxonMobil and United Parcel Services (UPS) and enjoyed institutional endorsement and support from the US-ASEAN Business Council and the US Chamber of Commerce.

The steering committee of the Business Coalition also included representatives from other powerful corporations such as General Electric, Federal Express, APL and Lockheed-Martin.

Another lobby group emerged in October 2002, the Singapore Congressional Caucus, which was to work closely with the Business Coalition. This was the Singapore Caucus, a joint initiative of US House of Representatives Republican Curt Weldon and US Congress member, Democrat Solomon Ortiz. Both were senior members of the House armed services committee. The Caucus, boasting over 50 members, advocated stronger ties with Singapore for security and economic reasons. Singapore Foreign Minister, S. Jayakumar, wasted no time in encouraging the new group, writing to Weldon and Ortiz reinforcing the security focus of the Caucus and championing a strong US presence in Asia: ‘We recognise that such a presence is vital to the preservation of
regional security and stability’, wrote Jayakumar, adding that Singapore was ‘firmly committed to cooperating with the United states in the global war on terrorism’ (quoted in Hadar 2002).

Jayakumar’s colleague, second Minister for Foreign Affairs, Lee Yock Suan, was beating a similar drum in late October 2002 when he told an audience at the Asia Society in Texas that ‘the real significance of the USSFTA goes beyond economic benefits’ (Lee 2002), contending that in view of strategic trends concerning terrorism in Southeast Asia, ‘concluding the USSFTA sends an important signal that the US intends to remain a dominant player in East Asia’ (Lee 2002).

ExxonMobil, which built one of Asia’s largest refineries in Asia in the city-state, is among the largest investors in Singapore. Apart from Singapore Airlines being a significant customer of Boeing commercial aircraft, the Singapore Air Force also buys fighter jets from Boeing’s defence arm. The UPS interest in the USSFTA was slightly different, seeking to contain the ability of the Singapore postal service to cross-subsidise express-mail competing with it.

Just the month before, Singapore became the first port in Asia to participate in the Container Security Initiative, allowing U.S. inspectors to check U.S.-bound cargo for possible explosives (Acharya 2004: 3).

Political support for the USSFTA within the US included that of the right-wing Heritage Foundation (Lee 2002), which had long been effusive in praise of the Singapore government. It also turned a blind eye to the various impediments to free market practices in Singapore to consistently rank it among the ‘most free’ of the world’s market economies. Capital’s freedom from organised, collective challenges to its power – a feature of the authoritarian regime in Singapore – apparently more than compensates for the incursions of the developmental state on free market principles.

The link between the USSFTA’s speedy conclusion after 11 September and rapid and uncontroversial passage through the Congress was not a matter of dispute. When asked whether the expeditious conclusion amounted to a reward for Singapore’s support for the US war in Iraq, Congress Republican Representative Pete Sessions responded: ‘Singapore supported us not only on the day of the terrorist attacks, but has since been very involved in our war on terror’. He added: ‘Countries which are our friends are those who will continue to reap the rewards of a closer relationship’ (quoted in Lienin 2003). President Bush, whose visit to Singapore in October 2003 was only the second (after his father’s in 1992) to the city-state by a US President, maintained that ‘the cooperation in the war on terror has been excellent with Singapore’ (quoted in Fernandez 2003).

The security-conscious mood in the US during the negotiations of the USSFTA meant that attempts by the Singapore government’s human rights critics to influence debate were ineffectual. Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) secretary-general, Chee Soon Juan’s efforts in particular to raise such issues aroused little interest among US politicians (Chee 2003a). The considerable resources and networks of the Business Coalition and other supporters of a rapid conclusion to the agreement also helped ensure such questions were marginalised.

The capacity of existing authoritarian regimes to exploit the new geopolitical context for their consolidation is evident in Singapore.
Among other things, the war on terror has helped legitimise the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA) which enables indefinite detention without trial and which has in the past been used to silence the government’s political adversaries, although in recent years this techniques has given way to the use of defamation and libel suits through the courts (Seow 2004 forthcoming).

(In the case of Chia Thye Poh, he spent 22 years and six months in prison and another nine-and-half years under various forms of incarceration without ever having been taken to court. Prior to the 2001 arrests, though, no Singaporean had been jailed under the ISA since 1989.)


Some opposition groups in Singapore had, prior to 11 September, sought to make the repeal of the ISA a major public issue. Now the government was to demonstrate how swiftly it was able to tackle terrorism to deflect calls for reform or repeal of the ISA.

No less significantly, the emergence of the terrorist threat resonates powerfully with the long-fostered official notion of the city-state as exceptionally vulnerable to sudden and unexpected adverse forces. This spectre has been deployed over recent decades to rationalise highly concentrated elite power. Its first manifestation was the ideology of ‘survivalism’ expounded by Lee Kuan Yew and colleagues in the immediate aftermath of separation from the Federation of Malaysia in the mid-1960s (Chan 1971). Subsequently, the need to be constantly alert to pre-empt and/or address unforeseen threats has become a pervasive and more generalised aspect of official ideology.

Meanwhile, security concerns were used to justify amendments in November 2003 to the Computer Misuse Act which empower authorities to take pre-emptive action against ‘cyberterrorism’ through computer hacking.

The amendment, carrying sentences of up to three years’ jail and a maximum fine of S$10,000, gives authorities extensive powers to scan the Internet and make arrests in anticipation of possible security threats. The likeness to the ISA prompted criticisms from opposition groups, with the SDP’s Chee describing the law as ‘another disguised attempt by the ruling party to control the use of the Internet by Singaporeans and to curtail the spread of discussion and dissent in Singapore’s cyberspace’ (Chee 2003b).

The immediate background to this accusation by Chee included a directive in January 2002 by the Singapore Broadcasting Authority to a group calling itself ‘Voice of the Singapore Muslim Community’ to register as a political organisation to continue its seven-month old web site, Fateha.com. The site contained a press release by Zulfikar Muhamad Shariff criticising the Singapore government’s alignment with the US and for having ‘trivialised the concerns of the Muslim community for too long’ (Zulfikar 2002). He also called for the detainees under the ISA to be brought to trial (Associated Press 2002). Zulfikar subsequently found himself under police investigations for postings on

(Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs, Ho Peng Kee, explained that: ‘Instead of a backpack of explosives, a terrorist can create just as much devastation by sending a carefully engineered packet of data into computer systems which control the network of essential services, for example power stations’ (quoted in Reuters 2003). )

the web site relating to the appointment of Ho Ching to Temasek, the banning of Muslim headscarves in schools and the performance of the minister-in-charge of Muslim affairs (Tan 2003: 244-6). With the spectre of charges for criminal defamation – carrying the prospect of up to two years’ jail – Zulfikar fled Singapore to reside in Australia, claiming he had no confidence in the independence of Singapore’s courts (Rodan 2004: 104). Arguably it was Zulfikar’s challenge to the PAP’s policies and preparedness to question the system of governance rather than his threat to the peace and security of Singapore that accounted for the authorities’ actions against him.

The preparedness of the Singapore government to use the new security context as a rationale for limiting dissent, at times, even embarrassed US officials. US Ambassador to Singapore, Franklin Lavin, explained, for example, that the removal of peaceful protesters from outside the US Embassy in early 2003 who were demonstrating against US policy in Iraq, was unnecessary: ‘I don’t see why a group of people who want to stand in front of my Embassy and tell me they don’t agree with a policy of my country should not be able to do so. The right of peaceful expression of opinion is an important element of a successful society’ (Lavin 2003). However, such sentiments were overshadowed by strong endorsements from the US government of the regime’s effectiveness in co-operating in the war on terror.

To be sure, support for the U.S.-led war on terror is not without its problems for the Singapore government. Its relations with domestic Muslim constituencies and with Muslim-dominated neighbouring countries have necessitated care in how the support for U.S. foreign policy is expressed. Prime Minister Goh thus took the opportunity during the visit to Singapore of U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in June 2004 to make the point that, in relation to global terrorism: ‘The US is essential to the solution but is also part of the problem’ (quoted in DAWN.com 2004). Goh argued that ‘the discomfort mainstream Muslims feel around the world with America’s Middle East policies limits their ability to fight the ideological battles’ (quoted in
channelnewsasia.com 2004). Yet Rumsfeld’s appeal to Asian countries to ‘work together’ in the war on terror also presents an opportunity for governments in the region
to demonstrate their utility and commitment to U.S. foreign policy. If Prime Minister Goh’s expectation that the war on terror will last at least as many decades as the Cold War (Low 2004), then this may represent a considerable opportunity for leaders of authoritarian regimes to exploit.


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