Civil rights activists in Singapore were puzzled when their government issued a challenge to Sir Richard Branson. The UK billionaire entrepreneur was invited last month to take part in a televised debate in response to his blog post criticising the city-state’s strict drug policy and death penalty.
Home affairs and law minister K. Shanmugam’s offer of a plane ticket and accommodation for him to come and argue his position seemed at odds with Singapore’s stance at home. The government had shown a willingness to use the country’s laws and other means to silence local criticism, discourage opposing views and stop behaviours deemed unacceptable, critics said.
Writing on Twitter, Jolovan Wham asked Shanmugam why the minister could not debate the issue with his local community in Singapore instead. In response, Shanmugam blocked Wham on social media and deleted his comment, the activist told the Financial Times.
The incident serves as a reminder that while Singapore continues to embrace western commerce and has shifted on some issues such as gay rights, the island remains politically authoritarian and socially dirigiste.
Singapore is trying to attract global talent in everything from cryptocurrencies to the metaverse, after leaping ahead of Hong Kong in September to become the world’s biggest financial hub behind London and New York.
As the ruling People’s Action party — in power since independence in 1965 — prepares for new leadership, it has redoubled efforts to protect the cultural status quo, according to experts. But its popularity is in decline and its stance ignores the views of a more liberal, younger generation of Singaporeans.
In October alone, a global fashion magazine has been chided for promoting non-traditional families, a bill has been introduced to amend the constitution to protect the heterosexual definition of marriage, a controversial film has been banned on religious grounds and an adult content creator has been jailed. Unlike Branson, some local activists against the death penalty have been issued with police warnings.
“The government has always taken an interesting position that even if it is unable to really regulate individual activities, it does feel it needs to state its position on values publicly — even as a symbolic act,” said Chua Beng Huat, a professor at the Yale-National University of Singapore college. “There is a will to govern not just the economy but also social values that are important to political stability.”
One of the biggest moves came a week ago when the government filed bills in parliament to prevent court challenges to laws and policies concerning marriage.
Despite softening attitudes towards homosexuality — the city decriminalised sex between men in August via the repeal of a colonial-era law — Singapore has sought to protect itself against court challenges that could legalise gay marriage. The intervention effectively makes this a political issue the PAP can control, rather than a legal one.
A similar sentiment was at play last month when Vogue Singapore saw its licence cut from one year to six months. The fashion magazine was issued a warning by the information ministry over nudity and content that promoted non-traditional families, the ministry said. Vogue did not respond to a request for comment.
A new film, #LookAtMe by local film-maker Ken Kwek set in Singapore and which premiered in New York, was banned by authorities in October. The movie is about a young man who is offended by a pastor’s stance on homosexuality. Government agencies said the film had the potential to cause social division and denigrated a religious community.
“You’re seeing a series of reactions based on insecurity,” said Michael Barr, an associate professor in international relations at Flinders University and the author of several books on Singapore politics. “I have spoken to a few academics and civil society types and the sense of the creeping level of repression is very real.” He added that decision makers feared losing control of the narrative.
Singapore maintains that the majority of its citizens support the government’s stance. In a speech in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted longstanding reservations by religious groups on legalising homosexuality. Shanmugam points to public surveys of Singaporeans that show majority support for the death penalty as a deterrent to drug trafficking.
But experts said the liberalisation of Singapore’s cultural scene and the growth in activism were unavoidable. “People are more liberal across generations. It is becoming more visible,” said Chua.
That is especially true of online activity, another area where Singapore has clamped down. A court last month fined and jailed Titus Low, a 22-year-old OnlyFans creator, for three weeks for accessing his account in breach of a police order to stay off the video site. Low’s channel features many sexually explicit videos and photos. He was originally charged with transmitting obscene materials by electronic means last year. Low’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Even so, some citizens are hopeful the repeal of Section 377A, as the law banning gay sex was known, will mean opportunities to push boundaries without breaking the law.
“If peaceful activism and changing attitudes contributed to [the repeal], maybe there is hope for a softening on other issues, such as the death penalty,” a Singaporean student told the Financial Times. However, even for them, it feels far away. “For now I am still worried about posting my views on Facebook — or in a newspaper.”