SINGAPORE—Walk the streets of Singapore and you may think you’re in the world’s most modern country. But Singaporeans you’re pacing alongside who wish to speak freely about their country might not feel that way.
“In the entire world,” Fareed Zakaria has written, “there is only one country that has reached a Western level of economic development and is still not a fully functioning democracy—Singapore.”
This is especially the case with regard to press freedom. This wealthy island nation ranked twenty-third out of 182 countries in the 2007 UN Human Development Index, and has the seventh-highest GDP per capita (around $50,000 a year) and the thirteenth highest life expectancy in the world (80.2 years). In Freedom House’s 2009 global press rankings, though, Singapore ranked 151 out of 195 nations, performing worse than states like Pakistan, Egypt, and Liberia. Perhaps with the exceptions of the UAE and Qatar, few if any countries have made such astonishing development advances while fiercely refusing many basic human rights.
Singapore’s leaders fit the quintessential description of benevolent dictators, as they support economic policies that clearly benefit their people, but are sternly intolerant of criticism. In March 2010, the International Herald Tribune paid $114,000 for suggesting that Singapore’s longtime rulers, previously Lee Kuan Yew and currently his son Lee Hsien Loong, were a dynasty that had maintained power by means other than merit and the people’s blessing. (The toothless obedience of the New York Times-owned Herald Tribune, which dutifully shelled out a hundred grand before it was even formally sued, deserves a case study all its own).
What Singapore’s overseers don’t seem to grasp is that without a press free to monitor power and challenge wrongdoing, even otherwise “developed” countries suffer greatly. One need look no farther east than Dubai for an example of a locale which, in the absence of an unencumbered press able to expose profligacy and corruption, is now bearing a debt crisis for which its rulers and citizens were pitifully unprepared.
But the relationship between an unshackled press and societal development goes beyond the benefits of financial preparedness. There is some evidence that improvements in press freedom lead to improvements in overall human development. In a recent study I conducted, the release of which is forthcoming, I examined UN Human Development scores and Reporters Without Borders press ratings for 130 countries from the years 2002 and 2007, and found evidence that changes in press freedom predate changes in overall development, even in many so-called developed nations. Changes in press freedom from 2002-2007 were more predictive of human development scores in 2007 than 2002-2007 changes in human development scores were predictive of 2007 press freedom ratings.
An understanding of this analysis, called cross-lagged correlations, isn’t necessary here. The results simply suggest that, for many countries, improvements in press freedom lead to improvements in overall development, not the other way around. Many autocratic states, both “developed” or on their way, deflect calls to expand press freedoms with the assumption, sometimes inexplicit, that free speech guarantees can be postponed as long as the regime is addressing other issues like unemployment, inflation or deflation, currency destabilization, housing shortages, and so on. Jordan, China, and Singapore are among such nations. All three have made striking economic advances in the last few decades, while their governments declined to expand press freedoms.
Press freedoms, though, speed nations’ general upward mobility. An empowered press educates and informs the public on matters of prenatal health, maternal mortality, nutrition, corruption, infectious disease, macro- finance, and personal debt.
“If we have a tremendous journalism that informs and engages people,” wrote Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their 2010 book The Death and Life of American Journalism, “it will lead to more efficient and effective governance, a healthier economy and a vibrant culture. All our lives will be fuller and richer…Likewise, if the market downgrades and corrupts the production of journalism, it will lead to an ignorant citizenry with resultant corruption and misery.” Without a rousing press, future development is slowed and progress made is unguarded.
In Singapore, the regime guards everything. In 2000, the government famously created what’s referred to as “Speaker’s Corner,” a spot in a public park where citizens are purportedly permitted to speak to the masses without government interference. Unregistered public meetings and demonstrations are illegal in this country. Even if the fact that Singapore’s government demarcated a few square feet for free expression excites you, Speaker’s Corner has been an abject disappointment. Visitors to the country aren’t welcome to share ideas there, citizens have to register online in advance for the privilege to speak and show an ID card before taking the stump, and Singaporean law states that speech mustn’t “be religious in nature and should not have the potential to cause feelings of enmity, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.”
Singaporeans are born into a country with phenomenal healthcare, globally competitive public education, and a rewarding workplace, but the quarantined press and neatly cordoned public square leave many citizens wanting more. “The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still,” wrote Maya Angelou, who beautifully detailed the will of the aspirant who wants freedoms they’ve been denied.
While Singapore’s autocrats give their people a lot, citizens here can move their city-state even further along if they’re voices aren’t celled.Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin