Time for Singapore to Grow Up

Limits on expression hamper creativity.

Photographer: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

In building Singapore into a modern economic power, the late Lee Kuan Yew displayed admirable flexibility -- scrapping policies that didn’t work, expanding those that did. His political heirs should be similarly pragmatic about revising the illiberal social and political policies for which Lee was equally famous.

One might ask, not unreasonably, why. Singapore's economy remains strong, and it continues to attract foreign investment. There is no groundswell of popular opinion calling for an end to caning, for example, or for the establishment of a truly free media. And where loud constituencies are demanding change -- to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, for instance, which criminalizes sex between men -- officials can point to equally strident calls to maintain the status quo.

Doing nothing, however, has costs. Some laws simply tarnish Singapore’s reputation; its chewing-gum regulations are probably Singapore's single most famous public policy (even if its most misunderstood -- there are limits only on buying or selling gum, not chewing it). The damage other laws do is more serious. Limiting free expression will in the long term make Singapore's economy and culture less creative and vibrant.

The most egregious laws belong to another era. Section 377A falls under this category, as does the Internal Security Act, which dates to when Singapore was still part of Malaysia, then battling Communist insurgents. Some of the latter's provisions might be useful for combating terrorism, as proponents argue. But the sweeping law, which allows for preventative detention for as long as two years, remains open to abuse. A more narrow statute would better serve both Singapore's government and its citizens.

Singapore could also stand to reconsider how it punishes people who break its laws. This is not just about caning, which dates to British colonial times and is unfitting for a 21st century economic power. Singapore has recently shown flexibility in easing harsh sentencing laws that call for a mandatory death penalty in drug cases. There have been no discernible ill effects -- and there’s no reason the government couldn’t go further and alter sentencing rules for other crimes as well.

Unfortunately, the government’s creativity has more often gone into developing subtler ways to control dissent -- tying up opponents in court rather than arresting them. Libel suits have routinely been used as a political tool, and "scandalizing the court” -- a catchall charge that chills virtually any open debate about the working of the judiciary -- remains an offense in Singapore.

A freer media needs to be encouraged, not just tolerated. Singaporeans can already access news from virtually any source they want, including a few outspoken local blogs and news sites. Trying to circumscribe those online outlets -- forcing the most popular ones to register with and pay fees to the government -- is short-sighted. Better to compete by encouraging state media to be more daring -- and credible.

Lee liked to argue that Singapore’s economic success was inseparable from its nanny-state rules -- that the city would have been a "ruder, cruder," more chaotic place without them. That’s debatable, and almost certainly no longer true. Singaporeans can afford to abandon this bit of Lee’s legacy, and they should.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.