The Social Laboratory

singapore surveillance state

 

Almost the whole world erupted into anger when Edward Snowden leaked NSA’s super-secret surveillance program in 2013, which gathers sensitive data of not only nearly the whole Americans’ daily communications, but also wiretaps upon numerous world leaders’ private conversations. Nonetheless, this ambitious, and pretty much dangerous, idea of supervising the entire world’s communication systems can be traced back a decade earlier, as one of many strategies devised to anticipate any possible terrorism attacks.

And it turns out that there’s already one country which extensively uses this system in all aspects of the society’s life: Singapore.

The city-state, populated by 5.4 million people, continuously keeps itself at a ‘siege mentality’, given its geographically infinitesimal size compared to the rest of the others. Given such existential perils, where everything, if unanticipated, may bring turmoil to this tiny nation, Singaporean government realizes it necessary to impose very strict controls on the whole populace. And so appears the idea of Total Information Awareness (TIA), an all-out cyber-security big-data mining campaign by which government agencies extensively monitor data flows in social media, and even use all their keywords and tags to produce sophisticated algorithm which can predict ‘all kinds of possible perilous scenarios threatening the country’s existence in near future’. Hundreds of people have been arrested arbitrarily for posting ‘sensitive’ information on the public, thanks to the campaign, imposed in all aspects of societal life.

When Americans feel they are increasingly ‘intimidated’ by their own government, Singaporeans instead, willingly or reluctantly, ‘welcome’ it (realizing their ‘tiny-red-dot’ position in this planet). Read the full article in Foreign Policy.

 

Excerpt:

 

Because of such uproars, many current and former U.S. officials have come to see Singapore as a model for how they’d build an intelligence apparatus if privacy laws and a long tradition of civil liberties weren’t standing in the way. After Poindexter left DARPA in 2003, he became a consultant to RAHS, and many American spooks have traveled to Singapore to study the program firsthand. They are drawn not just to Singapore’s embrace of mass surveillance but also to the country’s curious mix of democracy and authoritarianism, in which a paternalistic government ensures people’s basic needs — housing, education, security — in return for almost reverential deference. It is a law-and-order society, and the definition of “order” is all-encompassing.

Ten years after its founding, the RAHS program has evolved beyond anything Poindexter could have imagined. Across Singapore’s national ministries and departments today, armies of civil servants use scenario-based planning and big-data analysis from RAHS for a host of applications beyond fending off bombs and bugs. They use it to plan procurement cycles and budgets, make economic forecasts, inform immigration policy, study housing markets, and develop education plans for Singaporean schoolchildren — and they are looking to analyze Facebook posts, Twitter messages, and other social media in an attempt to “gauge the nation’s mood” about everything from government social programs to the potential for civil unrest.

In other words, Singapore has become a laboratory not only for testing how mass surveillance and big-data analysis might prevent terrorism, but for determining whether technology can be used to engineer a more harmonious society.

The Dutchman who built Singapore

albert winsemius

 

The little-known story of Albert Winsemius, a Dutch economist who, to Singapore’s luck, dedicated his whole life to the success of economic development in the city-state.

Read his full story in International Institute of Asian Studies.

 

Excerpt:

 

 

Dr Winsemius’ first impression was anything but hopeful. “It was bewildering,” he remembers. “There were strikes about nothing. There were communist-inspired riots almost every day and everywhere. In the beginning one has to very careful about passing any judgement – one does not know the country, one does not know the people, one does not know the men and women who are trying to steer this rudderless ship. But after a couple of months the pessimism within our commission reached appalling heights. We saw how a country can be demolished by unreal antitheses. The general opinion was: Singapore is going down the drain, it is a poor little market in a dark corner of Asia.”

Within a year, on 13 June 1961, the Winsemius team offered Singapore a development plan. The final assessment was written by Winsemius personally: ‘Expectations and Reality’ was his motto. This was permeated with an emotional appeal for unity, a passionate warning that time was running out if Singapore was not to sink away into the mud. The gloom was not completely unrelieved, there was one bright spot on the horizon: “In our opinion”, wrote Winsemius, “Singapore has the basic assets for industrialization. Her greatest asset is the high aptitude of her people to work in manufacturing industries. They can be ranked among the best factory workers in the world.”

Disneyland with the death penalty

singapore_

 

 

William Gibson (that William Gibson who authored Necromancer, literally) chronicled his brief visit to Singapore – and described the shock upon learning some similarities between the city-state and one envisioned in his novels’ dystopian, cyberpunk future.

Read the full article, dating back to September 1993, in Wired.

Excerpt:

Singapore is a relentlessly G-rated experience, micromanaged by a state that has the look and feel of a very large corporation. If IBM had ever bothered to actually possess a physical country, that country might have had a lot in common with Singapore. There’s a certain white-shirted constraint, an absolute humorlessness in the way Singapore Ltd. operates; conformity here is the prime directive, and the fuzzier brands of creativity are in extremely short supply.

The physical past here has almost entirely vanished.

There is no slack in Singapore. Imagine an Asian version of Zurich operating as an offshore capsule at the foot of Malaysia; an affluent microcosm whose citizens inhabit something that feels like, well, Disneyland. Disneyland with the death penalty.

But Disneyland wasn’t built atop an equally peculiar 19th-century theme park – something constructed to meet both the romantic longings and purely mercantile needs of the British Empire. Modern Singapore was – bits of the Victorian construct, dressed in spanking-fresh paint, protrude at quaint angles from the white-flanked glitter of the neo-Gernsbackian metropolis. These few very deliberate fragments of historical texture serve as a reminder of just how deliciously odd an entrepot Singapore once was – a product of Empire kinkier even than Hong Kong.

MacDonald House bombing

macdonald house bombing

 

Indonesia-Singapore relations have never been generally smooth. There are moments of glory, there are moments of gloom. But let us see in brief the points of contention that prevail for the bilateral relation among the two countries.

Majority of the Indonesians will complain the overwhelming control of Singaporean companies on Indonesian economy – take Temasek Holdings, for example, which has significant stakes in our country’s major banks and telecom giants. Or the giant haze caused by, local businesses aside, either Malaysian or Singaporean palm oil companies operating in Sumatra and Borneo. Or the refusal of Singapore’s government to extradite some corruptors who took away tens of billions of dollars during the climactic periods of 1997 Asian financial crisis. Or the fact that Indonesia’s tax-evading money, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, is sitting safely in Singaporean banks.

At the same time, majority of the Singaporeans will gripe much about Indonesia’s massive ‘export’ of haze caused by the fires spreading across the archipelago’s lush forests. Or the country’s wanton, oftentimes capricious, legal enforcement, as many of the tourists may squawk. Or Indonesia’s mistreatment of ethnic minorities, in particular, those of Chinese descent (remember the fact that 75% of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese). Or lamentation about some of the Indonesians’ excessive displays of wealth (yeah, I remember one taxi driver said, “you know what? All luxury condos in Orchard Road belong to Chinese Indonesians. Even we Singaporeans could not afford them lah!”)

At this moment, though, grievances aside, another war of words occurs: the Indonesian government’s decision to name a navy ship based on two mariners executed for a 1965 bombing in the city-state’s business district – conducted during the heightened tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia (or known as Konfrontasi), where Singapore was still part of the latter – has sent the latter down their deep resentment.

 

What exactly happened in the bombing? Read the full article on Wikipedia to find out the answer.

Bonus: to get even more insight, you can read the complete archive of the bombing report on Singapore’s National Library.

 

Strange Encounters in Medan by a Singaporean

medan

 

Picture source: RT11 RSPO

 

A Singaporean expatriate shares his good-and-bad experiences of living in Medan, Indonesia’s fourth largest city (literally, my hometown). Read his full story on Living in Indonesia.

 

Excerpt (this is the most interesting part, which often reminds me of how my mom usually drives):

If you can drive in Medan, you can drive in any place on earth! Fortunately, my company provides me with a car and a driver who chauffeurs me daily to work from home. Driving in Medan is probably the most challenging place to drive on earth! A Malaysian colleague told me that Singaporeans classify Malaysian drivers as ‘too bold and aggressive’. But Malaysian drivers are just “kittens” compared to Medan drivers. Driving in Medan follows the rule of “First Mover Advantage”, i.e., whoever reaches a spot on the road first has the right of way. I was amazed that my driver, who was turning right from a road junction, got into the middle of the opposite road and blocked the incoming vehicles from the opposite direction. He would probably have gotten beaten up in Singapore if he did that. But in Medan, they waited for him to pass without any sign of anger.

Trying to beat red traffic lights is also a common sight here in Medan, even in full view of the traffic police observing the whole event. I could see the traffic policeman shaking his head, but he did not give the motorist a summon ticket. When I asked my local friend why the traffic police did not issue a summon ticket, his candid remarks were, “Why would he want to do more work without getting any extra money?” I have never met a more “practical” traffic policeman! Despite all these crazy road behaviors, there seems to be no traffic accidents at all!

The two faces of Singapore

singapore rich

 

 

The existence of this tiny, little, 5.5-million-people-strong nation is primarily due to the inflow of two main things this country critically needs: capital inflow and foreign talents.

Speaking of capital influx, it takes this city-state no more than five decades of absolute one-party control to restore law and order, from a previously poverty-laden, conflict-plagued shantytown into one of the world’s richest metropolises equivalent to its doppelgangers, either Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York City, or London. With social stability perfectly well-maintained, the flow of capital is well sustained. It is now one of the planet’s most promising banking hubs, and also tax havens, tantamount to that of Switzerland or Cayman Islands.

Simultaneously, as Singaporean population’s fertility rate is critically below its replacement rate (1.2 instead of 2.0), the government also finds itself increasingly necessary to attract foreigners to come, work, and also live in this tiny country whose GDP size is equivalent to that of its counterpart, Malaysia. Approximately 1 million foreign workers make up one-third of Singapore’s workforce currently, and overall, nearly 2.5 million people living in Singapore are not born in this island. The government has even announced plans to import ‘another’ 1.5 million migrants until 2030 to stabilize the population structure, which is expected, altogether with the number of migrants, to reach 7 million by that year.

Nevertheless, there are unexpected costs with such phenomena.

With global nouveau riches, and also an influx of foreign workers from Third World countries, flocking in to Singapore, problems arise. Relationship between them and the locals becomes intense, social gap widens, and most commonly, political repression prevails. Many, among the latter, who do menial jobs, complain of low pay and unequal treatment, but opinions are frequently suppressed in the highly strict government.

And with the Little India riots recently taking place two days prior (and conducted, ironically, by foreign migrant workers), this is becoming an increasingly alarming concern among all the populace in the country.

Two articles below highlight the two faces of Singapore: one dominated by the globe’s millionaires, and the other by commoners struggling for a better life in a brand-new megalopolis.

 

This is the article, about the former, from Wall Street Journal. Here is the excerpt:

 

Welcome to the world’s newest Monaco, a haven for the ultra-rich in what until recently was mocked as one of the most straight-laced, boring cities in the world. When most people think of Singapore, if they do at all, they think of an order-obsessed Asian version of Wall Street or London’s Canary Wharf, only with implausibly clean, sterile streets and no crime. The southeast Asian city-state of five million people is perhaps best known for banning the sale of chewing gum or caning vandals, including American Michael Fay in 1994 for spray-painting cars. Drug traffickers face the death penalty, and even Ault complains the authorities won’t let him import his prized gun collection, which now sits in his other homes in Palm Beach and Manhattan.

But over the past decade, Singapore has undergone a dramatic makeover, as the rich and famous from Asia and beyond debark on its shores in search of a glamorous new home—and one of the safest places to park their wealth. Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin gave up his American citizenship in favor of permanent residence there, choosing to live on and invest from the island while squiring around town in a Bentley. Australian mining tycoon Nathan Tinkler, that country’s second wealthiest man under 40, whose fortune is pegged at $825 million by Forbes, also chose to move to Singapore last year. They join Bhupendra Kumar Modi, one of India’s biggest telecom tycoons who gained Singapore citizenship in 2011, as well as New Zealand billionaire Richard Chandler, who relocated in 2008, and famed U.S. investor Jim Rogers, who set up shop there in 2007. Gina Rinehart, one of the world’s richest women, slapped down $46.3 million for a pair of Singapore condominium units last year.

 

And this is the latter, from The Daily Beast, primarily concerned about foreign-hired construction workers. Here is the excerpt:

 

Construction workers don’t get issued regular work visas; they are considered “transient workers,” welcome in Singapore only for the labor they are doing. The rules stipulated in their work permits bar them from marrying Singaporean citizens (unless approved by the government) and from changing jobs. With permission to be in Singapore conditional upon their employer, workers are discouraged from rocking the boat. Complain too much and you could find your work permit cancelled and your right to remain in Singapore withdrawn. An unlucky worker might even find himself forcibly repatriated.

This gives employers an enormous amount of power over their migrant workers. Activists say they’ve come across contracts with all sorts of unreasonable and downright illegal clauses. A 2008 contract from a subcontractor stipulated that workers would not be entitled to payment for overtime or work done on public holidays. Workers who complained to any government ministry could also be made to pay between $80—$240, which could account for about three to ten days’ worth of wages, for the employers’ trouble in addressing these complaints. And these are for the ‘lucky’ ones, who actually have contracts.

 

Singaporean haze: now you still see me

now you cant see me

 

The relationship between either Singapore or Malaysia and Indonesia has never been obviously easy. Our relationship with the two nations have been put into countless tests: some housemaids indiscriminately ill-treated, numerous young people trafficked and exploited inhumanely either in industrial sectors or prostitution, Malaysia claiming some waters and portions of our cultures we ourselves, to be honest, rarely appreciate, Singapore rumored to have illegally imported sands from Riau archipelago for its reclamation projects, and at its top list today, the en masse haze pollution brought about as a consequence of mushrooming ‘slash-and-burn’ tactics employed in numerous palm oil plantations across Sumatra and Borneo.

The haze has seemingly been on its satanic cycle, reiterating what the age-old wisdom says, ‘history repeats itself’. Indonesia itself has, as cynically described, ‘exported’ huge amounts of haze to Malaysia and Singapore, firstly in 1997, secondly in 2006, thirdly in 2009, and the latest in 2013. Singapore’s air pollution indicator, or PSI, even climaxed at 400, the level beyond which may trigger a nearly post-apocalyptic phantasm. Virtually all the populace were hardly able to view the city-state’s skyline, as though thoroughly consumed by smog.

Here comes the question: who is to blame for such rehearsed occurrence? The pin-pointing diplomatic war has just commenced. Indonesian government accused Singaporean and Malaysian palm-oil giants of failing to abide by ‘zero-burn’ policies; both authorities, in response, criticized our venal, red-tape-takes-all-the-baksheesh administration which had let loose the corporations in exploiting the nature. President SBY himself, meanwhile, had offered an official apology, but as a consequence, became subject of ridicule for bulk of the parliament. Indonesia, instead of cooperating with Singaporean and Malaysian emergency teams, opted to seek assistance from Russian military planes to extinguish the raging hot spots. Online, most Singaporeans incessantly castigated to both Singaporean and Indonesian governments for failing to sanction the most possible penalty for the companies involved.

Pin-pointing, ironically, never makes us look subtle. We instead only haul over the coals to other sides without utter contemplation at our own. And that is, in my personal opinion, what currently happens between our wiggle-waggle relation. Indonesia aims for a greener economy, but the implementation of zero-burn policies merely remains valid on paper. The government targets 1-billion-tree campaign, but our forests prevail on fire beyond control. Those plantation giants are, miserably, Janus-faced; on one side, they have planted hundred millions of trees and mangroves. On the other, they blindly pollute the environment, and destroy more woods. Either Indonesian or Singaporean government promises strict punishment for plantation giants. In the end, only petty farmers, or small or middle plantation owners, taste the bitter justice, while corporations with influential political ties remain safe.

The hail may have come to Singapore today, but in the future, with little measures taken until today, everything is beyond predilection if such things, probably on larger scale, may possibly take place again.

 

Read the report about Singapore’s downpour in Global Voices Online.

For those with the foggiest ideas, refer to the full chronology in Wikipedia.