The litmus tests of a more open society


Friday, November 19, 2004

Some call them the MIW (Men In White). Writer Catherine Lim

prefers the term “shirtsleeves Government”.

The litmus tests of a more open society

Derrick A Paulo

Some call them the MIW (Men In White). Writer Catherine Lim (picture) prefers the term “shirtsleeves Government”.


But she is not referring to the People’s Action Party’s sartorial style.


Dr Lim has been providing the occasional insight into the party’s political style ever since her controversial exposition 10 years ago of theaffective divide between the PAP and the people.


On Wednesday night, in a talk held by the National University of Singapore Society on her dual role of writer and political commentator, she gave her latest take on the new political leadership.


Amid positive comments came the observation that some things do not change.


“This Government is totally amoral and not ideological, for purely pragmatic reasons because it is time-wasting,” she said.


“A problem presents itself, they roll up their shirtsleeves and they set to work and they go about it until the problem is solved.


“But one thing that still exasperates me is this: They somehow have this unshakeable sense of their infallibility and superiority.


“All the changes and so on that they make, I feel, cannot touch at the core. They are not ready for that.”


Addressing a small room of about 40 people, she likened the political situation to a series of concentric circles.


The Government would be “very accepting” of more peripheral, non-political, day-to-day issues, for example, better welfare for foreign domestic workers, she believed.


“It actually gives a sense of openness: The Government is listening. But, really, it is on these issues that don’t touch them at all,” she said.


But, closer to the centre, the leaders might be more uptight about style, although she thinks they are now more prepared for criticism of Government policies.


At the centre, she listed several political “no-nos” such as allegations of nepotism and questioning the judiciary’s independence.


In giving this appraisal, she also suggested three scenarios as litmus tests of whether the Government was willing to “back up its promise of opening up”.


Firstly, “if they allow demonstrations. This is part and parcel of any society. But it is absolutely prohibited. I don’t even mean demonstrating against the Government. Groups could want to show their disapproval

of some international policy, Iraq prisoners, Abu Ghraib and so on,” she explained.


Secondly, if the Government tolerated political cartoons, which Dr Lim also described as part and parcel of “democratic life in any country”.


“Third and this will be the greatest: If somebody sues the Government and wins. I think Singaporeans will sit up and say: ‘Ooh’,” she said animatedly.


However, she expressed her doubts that any of these would occur in the near future. But she will be watching closely the next elections for a more realistic sign of political progress.


“If they repeat what they did at previous elections, I think I will be nettled and rattled … not giving the Opposition enough time, coming in with their hardball politics, making use of the media and the institutions — this sort of thing annoys me,” she said agitatedly.


Here, she expects more openness and less threats, simply because she believes the Government is in a very secure position.


In the post-911 and post-Sars world, the “climate” will be conducive for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to pursue the economic imperative of jobs and stability, which is what Singaporeans really want, she said.


However, due to the changing times and changing world and with a more sophisticated citizenry, she is confident that PM Lee will not go about it in the “knuckle-duster” or “lecturing and hectoring” manners of the past.


“I am quite happy to see what is happening except that I sometimes think: ‘Will you please stop your policy of incrementalism’. This Government is so cautious, they do things in small steps,” she said.

This article is part of a on-line forum discussion thread.You can view it in the context of the entire discussion by going to:


Singapore slams media watchdog for low ranking in press freedom

Singapore slams media watchdog for low ranking in press freedom

Everythings FINE Here

SINGAPORE (AP) – Singapore on Wednesday slammed a media watchdog for ranking the island in the same league as authoritarian North Korea and Myanmar in press freedom, saying outsiders shouldn’t equate freedom with criticizing the government.

Tightly controlled Singapore placed 147th in the annual index put out by Reporters Without Borders – by far the lowest ranking of any developed country in the annual ranking – and just one notch above Iraq and 18 above Myanmar.

Others countries in the bottom two-dozen included Libya at 154, Zimbabwe at 157 and China at 162.

North Korea was ranked worst at 167; Cuba was 166.

Information Minister Lee Boon Yang said the index imposes a standard that fails to take into account “special circumstances” in Singapore, where he said journalists contribute to the nation’s development and are not necessarily adversarial.

Lee said the Reporters Without Borders index “is based largely on a different media model which favours the advocacy and adversarial role of the press.”

“We have a different media model in Singapore,” Lee said in a written comments distributed by the government.

“This model has evolved out of our special circumstances and has enabled our media to contribute to nation building,” he said, adding the government simply “did not agree” with the organisation’s rankings, which were released late last month.

Lee said Singapore’s media “has to be sensitive to our national interests. The city-state’s leaders have repeatedly said it would not change to cater to a more “Western” set of media values.

All aspects of Singapore’s media face strict censorship, while home TV satellite units remain off-limits.

Arts performances and plays remain under constant watch and topics deemed too sensitive, such as race and religion, remain taboo and out-of-bounds for discussion.

Foreign news organizations like The International Herald Tribune, the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Asian Wall Street Journal also have paid large fines or had their circulation restricted from lawsuits brought on by ruling party stalwarts.

In September, the Economist magazine paid Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, and his son Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, 390,000 Singapore dollars (US$237,800; euro183,332) for a reference in an article to the younger Lee’s wife, who heads Temasek.

The magazine had alleged that Lee’s wife, Ho Ching, was not appointed on merit. The magazine subsequently apologised. – AP

Surely the ministers in North Korea, Libya, Zimbabwe, China, Cuba and the other authoriatarian states could cite exactly the same rebuttal as Information Minister Lee Boon Yang, an argument that would render evaluation by any independent body redundant. Or are you going to tell me that every reporter who isn’t Singaporean is a “Westerner”. Exactly what are these “special circumstances”? Size, ethnic and religious diversity, proximity, a state monopoly of national media. Is the good minister arguing that Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba and China are also simply responding to “special circumstances”.

How about a unique “special circumstance” called authoritarian, despotic, nepotistic rulers, anti-democratic …

Singapore’s bedfellows, really do throw Singaporean journalism into the spotlight. And that is shameful for such an economically developed society. What are those in power trying to hide? Is it that ugly underneath the veil of economic success?

Singapore Will Not Promote Condoms To Fight AIDS

Medical News

17 Nov 2004

Singapore will not sponsor a “publicity blitz” to promote condom use in order to prevent HIV transmission “out of respect” for residents who hold “conservative views” on sexual behavior, a senior health minister said on Sunday, AFP/Yahoo! News reports (AFP/Yahoo! News, 11/14).

Balaji Sadasivan, senior minister of state for the country’s Ministry of Health, said that an “in-your-face” approach is not the best option to educate people about condom use and HIV/AIDS in the country, Singapore’s Straits Times reports (Quek, Straits Times, 11/14).

Sadasivan last week announced that Singapore is facing an alarming AIDS epidemic and that if efforts to fight the disease are not implemented, the number of HIV cases in the country would reach more than 15,000 by 2010 (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 11/12).

“Sexual behavior is a private thing, it’s something people don’t want to talk about. It’s not discussed in polite society,” Sadasivan said (Straits Times, 11/14).

He added, “To educate people, you don’t have to be offensive” (Channel News Asia, 11/13).

However, Sadasivan did not rule out a public campaign promoting sexual abstinence and proper condom use, the Khaleej Times reports (Khaleej Times, 11/14).

Action For AIDS criticized the government for not publicly promoting condoms despite the success of such campaigns in Thailand and Cambodia, the Straits Times reports.

“We need a massive campaign to let people know that it is all right to use condoms. We need to de-link condom use from promiscuity,” AFA Vice President Brenton Wong said (Khalik, Straits Times, 11/13).

Action for AIDS Dispute

Sadasivan last week criticized AFA for not taking a tougher approach to HIV/AIDS education in the country and for using “misleading information” about HIV/AIDS on its Web site, according to the Straits Times (Straits Times, 11/14).

Wong defended the group, saying, “Over the last 16 years, AFA has tried to address the multitude of issues surrounding AIDS as comprehensively as possible” (Khaleej Times, 11/14).

Wong said that AFA had been limited by a lack of resources, adding, “We’re all not doing a good enough job in tackling the AIDS problem in Singapore.” Wong said that AFA would “welcome more partners and the chance to sit and talk to the health ministry on expanding our role.” The statement on AFA’s Web site — which says, “Not everyone who has sex contact with an infected person will get infected” — could “actually make things worse by promoting unsafe sex,” Sadasivan said last week (Straits Times, 11/13).

AFA said that although the statement was supported by medical and scientific research, the group will review the wording because of Sadasivan’s concern (Straits Times, 11/14).

Government Subsidies

Wong recommended that the government provide subsidies for antiretroviral medications to reduce the cost burden of proper treatment for HIV-positive people, according to the Straits Times.

Wong added that subsidies also could help with HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, as many people refuse to undergo HIV testing because they cannot afford treatment, the Straits Times reports.

“People will be more ready to step forward to get screened if they can get help,” Wong said (Straits Times, 11/13).

However, Sadasivan said that HIV/AIDS is not a “privileged disease” and that HIV-positive patients are entitled to the same subsidies as patients with other diseases. “There is no reason why an AIDS patient should be more special than a heart or kidney patient,” he said, adding, “We treat all equally” (Khaleej Times, 11/14).

Lack of Experts

There are only 11 infectious disease specialists in Singapore, which doctors say is “not enough” to adequately address the growing HIV/AIDS problem in the country, the Straits Times reports.

More money, research and expertise is needed to tackle threats from HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases that are “becoming rampant,” Dr. Leo Yee Sin, the clinical director of the country’s Communicable Disease Center, said. Sadasivan last week called for the country’s CDC to become more involved in HIV/AIDS prevention to tackle the epidemic, but Leo said that the agency does not have the “expertise to do the job right now,” according to the Straits Times (Basu, Straits Times, 11/15).

Infectious disease public health has been a “neglected field” for years, Leo said, adding that the center needs “many more” specialists to continue its work, Agence France-Presse reports.

In order to step up prevention efforts, the center also would have to review its current strategy, which focuses only on treatment (Agence France-Presse, 11/14).

“Treatment has been our forte. What we’ve been trained for is patient care and that will remain our focus,” Leo said. To expand into prevention and “draw up and implement strategies,” the group would need additional resources and would not focus only on HIV/AIDS, Leo said, according to the Straits Times (Straits Times, 11/15).

Celebrate Human Rights Day!

The following was copied and pasted from the Think Centre.

As much as I would love to attend, I am unable to. Not out of fear but financial contraints and living in the UK makes it a little difficult. But I want to offer as much support as possible.

So LHL promised a more open society, so please take up the opportunity to attend.


This December 11th, we have the honour and privilege of NOT applying for a license for indoor meetings. Will you come and occupy the free-space or will you ignore the call to step forward? We invite you to join in the celebration of our human rights and dignity!


Citizenship Education: Curriculum on Constitutional rights to promote human rights and human development.

Date: Saturday 11 December 2004

Time: Start: 3.00 pm

End : 5.30 pm

Venue: Oxford Hotel

218 Queens Street, Singapore 188549

This December 11th, we have the honour and privilege of NOT applying for a license for indoor meetings. Thanks to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s initiative to overcome unnecessary redtapes and saving our headaches. We appreciate and welcome the initiatives to open-up civil society space. What about you? Will you come and occupy the free-space or will you ignore the call to step forward? OVERCOMING FEAR! is a challenge for citizens, residents and friends. We invite you to join in celebratings the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Fundamental Liberties in the Republic of Singapore’s Constitution.

Our human rights and dignity are ours as humans not privileges. Its the role of governments to promote, protect and fulfil our rights. Governments are elected but do NOT have the power to give or take-away our human rights and dignity.

“Human rights are the foundation of human existence … Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent … Human rights are what make us human. They are the principles by which we create the sacred home for human dignity … It is the universality of human rights that gives them their strength. It endows them with the power to cross any border, climb any wall, defy any force.” Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, 1997

This Dec 10, International Human Rights Day, are you ready to speak up?

Human Rights Day Forum

The Human Rights Day Forum will focus on Citizenship Education and Constitutional Rights. This International Human Rights Day, Think Centre calls for Citizenship education to be formalised in the curriculum. Citizenship education in primary, secondary,junior college and university should become a priority for Singaporeans to become more respectful and treat each other as equal. Citizenship education should be incorporated to promote active citizen participation that is in line with globalization and respect for human rights.

The conference will highlight the latest trends, emerging issues, best practices and key decisions shaping the future of Human Rights Singapore.

2004 marks the 56th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR].

Information on the Speakers and Nominee for the Think Centre’s Human Rights Award will be release soon.

Think Centre’s Human Rights Award

In Southeast Asian countries, there are men, women and children whose human rights are denied. In Singapore, individuals face discrimination, the censure of their colleagues, harassment, and isolation. Many fear the challenge to stand up and speak – to participate and contribute to Singapore’s human development. Refusing to venture beyond our comfort zone.

There are also individuals and organizations who are moved to act and work to advance the cause of human rights and human development. Think Centre’s Human Rights Award seeks to identify and honour these indivudals and organizations that strive to promote haman rights and human development.

Come! Celebrate Human Rights Day!

All participants including the media are welcome to the Human Rights Day’s Celebration.


Think Centre


I will be ABLE/UNABLE to attend the Forum on International Human Rights Day, 11th December 2004, at 3 pm at the Oxford Hotel.

Theme: Citizenship Education: Curriculum on Constitutional rights to promote human rights and human development.



Contact No:

Please complete the Reply Form and return to Think Centre by fax: 6425 0709 or by Email

Banished Booth

Anonymous said…

On a related note, see this other (pre latest AIDS scare) Yawning Bread article ‘The banished booth’:

Let’s beat AIDS, without talking about sex

November 2004

© Yawning Bread

Let’s beat AIDS, without talking about sex

The junior minister for Health said we’re not doing enough to stop the spread of HIV. He said “clear messaging” is needed to get results. “Alarm would be more appropriate.” (See the article Minister warns of AIDS epidemic)

The junior minister for Health said an “in-your-face approach” was not the right way to alarm people. “Sexual behaviour… is something people don’t want to talk about, it’s not discussed in polite society.” Thus we must remain prissy. We must find a way to alarm people without being impolite; we must send clear messages about AIDS without raising the subject of sex.


But the direct approach, with condoms marching down the street, has worked in Thailand and Cambodia. To that, the minister’s response was that we “need to recognise there were conservative people here.” Does he think there are no conservative people in our neighbouring countries?

In his speech on 10 November, the minister cited Randy Shiltz’ book, “And the band played on” about how, in the 1980s, people tried to ignore the growing threat and carry on in denial. What does he think he is suggesting now?

I mentioned in another article, Gambling on the Singapore model, that one of the weaknesses of Singapore in coping with change is our tendency to “concede at least part of the way to the conservatives.”

“But in these times, when we need to make dramatic changes of course to cope with a rapidly changing external environment, the inability to shake off our conservatism, our unwillingness to challenge archaic tenets, holds us back.”

* * * * *

But why can’t we just stick to talking about abstinence? That will please the conservatives and beat AIDS. Very simply, because it is unrealistic.

People are not going to give up sex, anymore than you can expect people to stop craving sugary food, or making rude gestures when they are annoyed. These are deep instincts.

The other problem with talking about abstinence is that it invariably pulls in the word “promiscuity”. Even if the state-sponsored messages don’t use the word, you can bet your last dollar the religious groups will. They cannot resist riding the bandwagon to promote their idea of morality. So each time the secular government says. “abstain”, the ride-along accusation “You’re a promiscuous sinner!” rings in people’s ears.

Let’s understand something about psychology: you cannot convince people to do what you ask if at the same time they sense they are being condemned.

The other thing about promiscuity as a risk factor in HIV transmission, is that it assumes all sex is insertive sex. This is more or less true with heterosex, but it isn’t so with homosex. Frottage and mutual masturbation figure prominently in homosexual practices. As someone on SiGNeL pointed out, you can have a hundred men in a night, but if mutual masturbation is all you do, you’ve hardly been reckless. But the guy who has unprotected sex with a pretty sex worker just once a year – he is the reckless one.

So what then happens is that the “abstinence” message, based on a heterosexual equivalence between sex and insertive sex, is also seen as unnecessarily wide-ranging for gay people. It IS possible to have gay sex without protection, with next to no risk, for gay men, and certainly for gay women. Lesbians are considered to be one of the lowest risk groups.

So here’s another thing about psychology: when people see that your message over-reaches reality, they see your message as alarmist, and perhaps as something driven by another agenda – homophobia, sexophobia, religious crusading, perhaps. Your message is then discounted.

* * * * *

If we want to be effective, we have no choice but to get to the point. We have to talk frankly and in detail about the various kinds of sex, the risk each kind entails, and when protection is necessary. We have to make the idea of wearing a condom as un-titillating as wearing a baseball cap. People must stop being squeamish about asking for one, buying one, handling one, wearing one. We have to talk about the danger without being conservative. We have to talk about the danger without appeasing or giving a free ride to the conservatives.

© Yawning Bread

Singapore will not promote condom use publicly to fight AIDS: report

Sun Nov 14, 2:03 AM ET

SINGAPORE (AFP) – Despite facing an “alarming AIDS (news – web sites) epidemic,” Singapore will not go on a publicity blitz to promote condom use out of respect for residents who hold conservative views on sexual behaviour, a minister said.

“To educate people you don’t have to be offensive,” Senior Minister of State for Health Balaji Sadasivan was quoted as saying on the website of Channel NewsAsia, a Singapore-based regional broadcaster.

“We must recognise there are conservative people in Singapore and there’s no need to say the only way to educate people is to try do it in an in-your-face approach,” Balaji said late Saturday.

Balaji warned in an address to medics last week that the number of new AIDS cases in Singapore was doubling every three to four years.

Figures from the World Health Organisation showed an estimated 4,000 Singaporeans had HIV (news – web sites), the virus that leads to AIDS, he said. There are about three million Singaporeans living in the city-state and another 1.3 million foreigners.

“If we do not act, by 2010 we may have more than 15,000 HIV persons in Singapore,” Balaji said.

“We are facing an alarming AIDS epidemic in Singapore,” he said.

He said gay men’s unsafe sexual practices were the biggest cause of concern amid the alarming rise in HIV/AIDS infection cases.

Some one should inform the Minister that we don’t actually want the condom, “In his face”, we want it “On his penis.”

Where is the evidence that Singaporeans are conservative? Get the minister to cite empirical evidence, say, ‘Attitudes on Family in Singapore’ or the “Flight from Marriage in South and South East Asia.”

Super Tax for Super Rich?

Those of you who dis-like criticism without a solution can now argue against the following possible solution.

Before you read I have decided to prempt a few possible counter arguments.

Calling for a demand to super tax the super rich, ‘Envy’, seems to be built on a very individualistic, rational choice argument. That human beings are only motivated by instrumental rationality, or greed and self-promotion. A society that refuses to acknowledge action based on ‘social’ values seems to encourage the interpretation of human action by rational choice motivation. Claiming that we are all motivated by ‘greed’ seems to de-humanise, or remove our other emotional motivations and render them ineffectual.

The other counter argument is that the wealth will trickle down from the top. An arguement that Margaret Thatcher used in the 1980’s. The 1980’s, a decade of giving, loving and caring for our fellow human beings.

The bigger issue is how do you get those with the super wealth to agree to a super tax? After all they have a very strong influence on the political situation and in Singapore’s case, the politicians are the super rich. [Oops!]

Story from BBC NEWS:

Call for tax on the super rich

The government should consider raising the top rate of income tax to 50 per cent, the former head of policy at the [British] Prime Minister’s Office has said.

Geoff Mulgan, who was in charge of the policy directorate at Number 10 until earlier this year, told the BBC’s Panorama programme that the top earners in the country seem to be getting more influential.

He said the government should be worried about this rise of a super-rich, elite class in Britain – and suggested that a 50 per cent top income tax rate might help combat the problem.

Mr Mulgan’s comments came in a Panorama documentary – “Winner Take All Britain” – which will explore the rise of a high earning elite in Britain. The programme is due to be broadcast this Sunday at 10:15pm.

The top one per cent of earners in the UK currently account for 13 per cent of earnings, more than double the figure when Mrs Thatcher came to power.

There are now more than 475,000 people in Britain who earn more than £200,000 a year.


“It’s a very short-sighted approach to tax people with money”

DeAnne Julius, economist

It is figures like these, and the influence that the high earners may have on both politics and the spending habits of the public, that worries Mr Mulgan,

He said: “The top one per cent of the population seem to be getting richer and richer.”

“They also seem to be becoming more and more powerful in politics and probably also more influential in our culture.”

“We’re also seeing people lower down the scale trying to keep up with the spending and lifestyle patterns of the very rich and finding they can’t do that and therefore getting deeper and deeper into debt.”

Mr Mulgan, now Director of the Institute of Community Studies, believes that the rise of the cult of celebrity has protected the super rich from a backlash over their wealth.

He said: “In the past where there’s been a big surge in the power and wealth of the very rich, people have become envious, they’ve turned to politics or often sometimes it’s turned to rioting.”

“What’s surprising about the last 10 or 20 years is that hasn’t really happened and I think part of the reason maybe the rise of a celebrity culture.”

Short sighted

Mr Mulgan said that action may have to be taken to curb the growing gap between the super rich and everybody else.

He said: “It’s actually proved easier to improve the lot of the relatively poor groups in societies than it has been to reign in the runaway super elites.

“There are things which can be done, whether a 50 per cent rate or a 60 per cent is the key I think is a matter for debate.”

But DeAnne Julius, who used to sit on the Bank of England’s interest rate setting Monetary Policy Committee, told the Panorama team that raising taxes would be a bad idea.

She said: “The particular success of the high-earning one per cent is something that in many cases we should be pleased about.”

“It’s a very short-sighted approach to tax people with money, to tax them heavily because these are also usually the most mobile people.

“The question really then is does the winner take too much, and I think that’s really a question of envy. Envy is a very destructive emotion. Individually, personally, but also for a society.”

Panorama: Winner takes all Britain will be broadcast on Sunday, November 7, on BBC One at 22:15 GMT.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2004/11/07 04:14:12 GMT