New Internationalist


April 1994

new internationalist
issue 254 - April 1994

Country profile: Singapore

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  Where is Singapore? [image, unknown]
photo by CAMERA PRESS Where is Singapore? [image, unknown]
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Squeaky-clean Singapore prides itself on being a model of capitalism that works. In this sanitized Orwellian city-state, making money is definitely seen as more important than individual freedom. It is so heavily policed that the long arm of the law will reach you for not flushing a public toilet, for spitting or dropping litter.

Critics say Singapore would earn greater respect without its obsessive, nosy commandments which have obliterated much of its earlier Southeast Asian charm, replacing this with a modern but soulless society. Singaporeans however are confident that the future belongs to them, especially when rival regional economic competitor, Hong Kong, reverts to China's control in 1997. Many of Hong Kong's international investors have already shifted their headquarters to Singapore and more may do so post-1997.

Singapore enjoys relatively good relations with its closest neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia. Yet some people in this tiny, wealthy nation feel they lack enough military protection to defend themselves when sabres rattle.

But the cavalry is at hand. Following the closure of its military bases in the Philippines, the US found facilities in Singapore. Its strategic location on the Strait of Malacca is attractive to the US because much of the world's shipping (especially of oil) bound for Japan and eastern Asia passes through there.

Singapore's modern, well-scrubbed facade hides a seamier side. Human-rights organizations are concerned that about 1,000 people are imprisoned without charges under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The Government describes the detainees as gangsters and drug traffickers. Singapore has a mandatory death sentence for drug pushers and at least 37 people have been hanged for trafficking since 1975.

Ironically, the harsh drug laws have worried US military officials and Washington has pushed for its personnel to be exempt from the death sentence. The ISA is also used against anyone deemed a threat to national security. Critics say the Act suppresses normal dissent.

The Government meanwhile continues its censorship of the media but Beatles music and Cosmopolitan magazine may soon be allowed.

To outsiders Singapore presents a clean, sparkling city where everything seems to work. Tropical beaches, spacious green parks and glistening shopping malls attract visitors from all over the world. When tourism recently slackened off because of Singapore's reputation as a boring city, developers recreated the infamous Bugis Street which earlier spiced night life with its transvestites and other adventuresome attractions. The street was demolished in 1985 but was recently recreated, complete with the popular food stalls, cross dressers and other lures in the hope that tourists will return to its night markets.

Richard S Ehrlich


LEADER: Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $14,210 (US $22,240)
Monetary unit: Singapore dollar
Main exports: Petroleum products, electronic components, TVs and radios, clothes and chemicals.
Main imports: Machinery and equipment, manufactured goods, foodstuffs and mineral fuels.

PEOPLE: 2.8 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 6 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Mostly Chinese people with some Malaysians and Tamils. Predominantly Chinese culture with an overlay of sanitized popular Western icons. Formerly a British colony; occupied by Japan during World War II. Separated from Malaysia in 1965.
Religion: All major religions are represented.
Language: Bahasa Malaysia is the national language; Mandarin and Tamil also common. English is widely used.

Sources: The State of the World's Children 1994; The Asia and Pacific Review 1993/4; Asian Development Bank, World Bank, World Health Organisation, government statistics.

Last profiled in February 1983



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Basic needs of most people are met.

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
90 per cent: reflects high government spending on education.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Needs to import virtually everything, but flush with cash to do so.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Imprisonment without trial; strict censorship laws forbid dissenting views.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Education has opened options but traditional ideas still powerful.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
74 years for women, 68 years for men (US 76 years).

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Politics now

Politics then

Democracy but People's Action Party holds virtual monopoly on power.


NI star rating

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This feature was published in the April 1994 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 254

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