August 10, 2017 10:00 am JST

Singaporeans reveal a pent-up desire for debate on social issues

Prime minister's family feud goes viral, provides public a rare chance to vent

PETER GUEST

One of the strangest things I have been accused of this year is the vicarious murder of two dozen chickens. It was February, and the Singaporean papers were a few weeks into a long-running drama that would only peter out in late March, and which was by then the basis of animated monologues from Singapore's frank and imaginative cabbies.

In January, the government had declared that flocks of semi-wild chickens roaming near housing estates in Sin Ming were a potential health hazard, and had them removed. That, I was told, was just the cover story. In truth, the birds' fate was a symptom of Singapore's rush to build condos for ang mo, or white men, like me, whose vision of gentrification had no place for livestock. Later, I would hear that the chicken slaughter was in fact a sign that the technocrats that run this gleaming city have no respect for the mythical "kampung days" when people lived in idyllic villages. In one elaborate work of fiction, the chickens had gone into cooking pots across the Malaysian border.

In the broader Asian context, Singapore's internal conversations can often seem parochial. This is a region that, in the past 18 months, has produced Rodrigo Duterte's Trumpian lunacy in the Philippines and an embezzlement scandal in Malaysia featuring a cast of Hollywood A-listers, Middle Eastern royals and art-loving, yacht-owning playboys. In infamously buttoned-down and buttoned-up Singapore, scandals are either foreign affairs, or told in tightly worded articles buried in the national papers -- which is why a public feud between the children of Singapore's legendary leader, Lee Kuan Yew, over the fate of their childhood home prompted such feverish introspection.

RARE PUBLIC SQUABBLE In a series of missives on Facebook, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang accused their brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, of exploiting their father's legacy to further his own political ambitions, and of trying to establish a system of dynastic rule by grooming his own son for office. The rift centered on their childhood home, a bungalow on Oxley Road, which Lee Kuan Yew had said he wanted demolished after his death.

The prime minister has denied all of the accusations, but the story spiraled out of control, culminating in Hsien Loong facing questions in parliament.

With the protagonists all members of the Lee family, the affair could not be spun or talked down. It punched a hole in the pressurized canister of public discourse, giving brief license to talk about succession within the ruling People's Action Party, the party's long-term dominance of the political system, the tussle between property development and the preservation of Singapore's heritage, and Lee Kuan Yew's legacy.

Since Lee's death in 2015, the mood in Singapore has changed. The city feels less confident and secure. The external challenges and internal tensions feel more present, more immediate than ever before. Questions facing the country -- about its openness to capital but its aversion to migration, about its slowing growth and rising inequality, about its political transitions and dynasties -- are not fundamentally different to those faced around the world. However, they are magnified in a state that has barely had to challenge or justify its model in a generation.

As much as it wants to, the state cannot control the national narrative the way it once did -- while the national media is generally calm and measured, never straying far from the government line, online debates are increasingly fierce and frenetic. Stories -- many entirely fabricated -- that play into entrenched tension between Singapore's racial groups are widely shared, exposing the real, and rarely confronted challenges of inter-community cohesion.

The government is cracking down on fake news, but in doing so, it has to tread a fine line between reining in potentially destructive fabrications and stamping out free speech in a way that risks deepening the sense of isolation and disenfranchisement felt by minority groups. It is hardening its stance on protest -- as seen at the recent Pink Dot gay rights rally, where foreign sponsorship was banned and foreigners barred from even observing the event.

Reinforcing the rigid bounds of discourse in this way seems counter to the obvious, pent-up desire for debate on social issues, and risks souring citizens' relationship with power. With little space to discuss and challenge, even the smallest story -- whether it is about a family home or a flock of birds -- fractures into thousands of alternate narratives: some true, some false, some benign, some profoundly dangerous.

Peter Guest is a Southeast Asia-based writer.

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