Featured News Opinion OPINION | Singapore, a land of contradictions, at once progressive, at once...

OPINION | Singapore, a land of contradictions, at once progressive, at once stuck in the Middle Ages

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"To what extent is it really true that Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister? While this may have been true in former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's time, does this still ring true?" — Ghui, OPINION

In many ways, Singapore has a stellar international reputation. It is seen as a hub of innovation and a forward-thinking rich nation in many ways.

Recently, the island nation even made global headlines for its creative idea of turning multi-storey car parks into farms – an effective use of space for land-scarce Singapore while also producing food!

With the ongoing war in Ukraine and the spotlight this has shone on the increasing need to be self-sufficient, this is a novel idea for Singapore.

According to the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), some of these car park farms are already turning a profit. As a spokesperson for the SFA said to BBC news: “Food security is an existential issue for Singapore. As a globally connected small city-state with limited resources, Singapore is vulnerable to external shocks and supply disruptions.”

Yet, Singapore’s progressive stance on innovation contrasts sharply with some of its draconian and seemingly bloodthirsty laws.

Aside from its innovation, Singapore’s recent execution rates appear to have caught the eye of the international community, with the United Nations calling on authorities to have a moratorium on drug-related executions.

While Singapore’s mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking has long since been controversial, the execution of Nagaenthran “Nagen” Dharmalingam, who had a low IQ of 69 and whose execution was initially delayed because he had tested positive for COVID-19, caught the attention of the international press.

After all, it seemed odd that he was deemed unfit to die when he had COVID-19 but was deemed fit to die when he tested negative despite having a low IQ.

Among other things, the UN report noted the sharp rise in execution notices issued in Singapore this year and is concerned that a “disproportionate number of those being sentenced to death for drug-related offences are minority persons and tend to be from economically disadvantaged backgrounds…“The practice amounts to discriminatory treatment of minorities such as Malays and vulnerable persons.”

For a country whose Government has long since prided itself on its policies of racial harmony, this does seem like a slap in the face. Does Singapore send out mixed messages in its racial policies?

To add to matters, recourse to the full extent of what is available in the legal system may also be limited for such convicts as they struggle to find legal representation in their desperate fight to save their lives. For example, in May this year, lawyers M Ravi and Violet Netto, were ordered by the Court of Appeal to pay thousands of dollars in costs in connection to their defence of Nagen, who was executed in April, despite calls for his pardon from many in Singapore and around the globe.

Should the Government not take this as an opportunity to reflect on its current policies? Do they still deter drug traffickers, or has the mandatory death penalty become an unwitting blunt tool to discriminate against those from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Further, is Singapore a land of contradictions, where its certain policies just do not match up with its reputation as a progressive country on other fronts?

Another bone of contention in Singapore is the leadership selection within the Government. Over the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore’s leadership selection took on many twists and turns, almost akin to a reality TV show. While Lawrence Wong has now been chosen as the successor designate, questions remain in relation to the issue of diversity in Singapore.

The search for the next leader of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom is now underway, with the final two choices being a minority man in the form of Rishi Sunak and a woman in the form of Liz Truss. Whoever wins, the UK will have a minority leading the pack – a sign that there is successful diversity in the UK.

In the Singaporean context, despite being so forward-thinking in issues such as car park farming, we still have leaders publicly saying, without a trace of irony or any empirical evidence, that Singaporeans were not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister.

Singapore has also hitherto never seen a female Prime Minister. In the selection process for the fourth generation (4G) leader of Singapore, all three contenders were Chinese men, namely Ong Ye Kung, Chan Chun Sing, and Lawrence Wong. 

Halimah Yacob, the current President, is the first female minority to occupy the post, yet it is important to note that the office of the Presidency is largely ceremonial with little to no political power.

This means that the position of power is still held by a Chinese man, while the position of limited power is held by a non-Chinese woman. While I am not suggesting that Mr Wong is not a good choice or that there is some deliberate agenda to keep minorities out, it does provide some food for thought.

To what extent is it really true that Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister? While this may have been true in former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s time, does this still ring true? After all, Senior Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam has remained stubbornly popular.

Why are there certain areas where Singapore still seems so stuck in the Middle Ages while yet, in others, it is such a thought leader?


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