Friday, January 13, 2006

Qn: Is Singapore an open global society? Soros: Obviously Not!

George Soros, one of the most recognizable names in Southeast Asia. This is due his rather infamous role as a currency speculator in the Asia financial crisis.

However few know that he is also a big time philanthropist and liberal political activist. Recently he was Singapore for a forum attended by an audience of 1,600 academics, government officials, businessmen and undergrads. Below are the reports on the forum.

Thursday, January 12, 2006
A liberal speaks his mind
Billionaire Soros calls for open societies that are tolerant of differing views

Clement Mesenas

Within the plush comfort of the Raffles City convention centre, billionaire George Soros held court yesterday to an audience of 1,600 academics, government officials, businessmen and undergrads, enthralling them with his beliefs and vision for a global open society — and declaring that Singapore had yet to score in his book of liberal politics.

Having made his wealth by the time he hit 50, Mr Soros is now into encouraging transitional and emerging nations to become "open societies" — open not only in the sense of freedom of commerce, but more importantly, tolerant of new ideas and different modes of thinking and behaviour.

His Open Society Institute, which he founded 25 years ago, is a network of philanthropic organisations that is active in more than 50 countries — from Africa, Central America, Asia and South America.

Mr Soros emerged as a liberal thinker as he engaged a distinguished panel that included Mr Kishore Mabhubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Professor Tommy Koh, chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies.

Interestingly, the United States, unquestionably the world's freest nation, earned the ire of Mr Soros, especially the Bush administration's war on terror following the 911 attacks.

"How can we escape from the trap that the terrorists have set us," he asked. "Only by recognising that the war on terrorism cannot be won by waging war. We must, of course, protect our security; but we must also correct the grievances on which terrorism feeds ... Crime requires police work, not military action."

Admitting his admiration for America, where he worked many years as Singapore ambassador to the United Nations, Mr Kishore Mabhubani believed that as the US grew in power, it felt less of a need to get to know the rest of the world, and in the process, was becoming more and more closed as a society.

Agreeing to some extent, Mr Soros maintained that the US was a functionally open democracy, but "yes, we have lost our way", he said, pointing to the time in 2004 when the Bush administration, in his view, made a colossal blunder in launching the invasion of Iraq.

Though he donated close to $40 million in an effort to defeat US President George Bush during the 2004 elections, he views the US as a viable democracy. "We can criticise our government, we can change our government and in due course, we will correct the wrong."
With Mr Soros's drive to bring about change in China, where he admitted failure, and Myanmar, where efforts continue, the focus inevitably fell on Singapore. Panel member Benjamin Lee, a third-year National University of Singapore student, asked Mr Soros how he rated Singapore as an open global society.

Mr Soros was blunt.

"Obviously, Singapore does not qualify as open society," he said. But Singapore is prosperous and prosperity and an open society tend to go hand in hand, he said.

"I detect a desire of greater openness," he said, adding that he had great respect for the achievements of Singapore's energetic leadership.

"But I hope they will be brave enough to take the next step in the development of an open society."

One way forward, he felt, would be to allow greater freedom of expression. The use of libel suits and financial penalties can be a tremendous hindrance to such expression, said Mr Soros.

Responding, Prof Koh, stressing that he was not a member of the ruling People's Action Party, said that "open" and "closed" societies are two ends of a spectrum. "While the US appears to be moving from a more open to a less open society, Singapore is moving in the other direction — from close to open."

Singapore ought to be encouraged, and it will in due course, make progress towards becoming a more open society, he added.

In response to Mr Soros's remarks, a Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts spokesman told Today: "If we were not an open society, George Soros would hardly be able to make the comment at an open forum in Singapore, and be reported in the Singapore media."

Friday, January 13, 2006
Debate on openness not closed – yet
Derrick A Paulo

Another day, another forum and the same question: Is Singapore really an open society?

Speaking at the Singapore Perspectives conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, author Catherine Lim and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) political scientist Ho Khai Leong said yesterday that the new administration has taken only "half steps" towards a more open society, in which political freedom is like a "stream which meanders and sometimes disappears into the ground altogether".

Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan countered that political openness was not an end in itself but part of the process of good governance.

According to Dr Lim, though, even if Singapore is to a certain extent succeeding in showcasing an alternative model to Western democracy, it is likely in the long run to lead to its own ruin.

The need for authentic expression was too important, she said. "It can neither be intimidated into permanent silence nor seduced by material wealth," she said. "And if it is, we are all worse off for it."

She called on the Government to let mavericks and "troublemakers" play their roles, as they give society a certain rambunctiousness. That kind of environment, she noted, nurtured a leader like Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

The alternative, she said, is a monolithic society, which makes standard copies of its leaders.

She also had a bigger concern.

"I've come to believe with a heavy heart that even if the Government wanted to do something about it, Singaporeans are so used to the Government making decisions for us, any major change will be viewed with alarm," said Dr Lim.

Another participant asked: "Are we depending too much on the Government changing, and not on ourselves changing?"

Dr Balakrishnan agreed.

"In a democracy, the people get what they deserve. The people decide whether they go along with policies. The people provide candidates for elections," he said.

Dr Ho, meanwhile, said there is now a greater need for openness due to "new realities" created by issues in the past year, such as academic freedom and the National Kidney Foundation scandal.

The latter "confirmed many Singaporeans' suspicion that something is rotten in the state of Denmark", said Dr Ho.

However, Iseas director K Kesavapany said later that "credit should be given where credit is due". "Did the Government sweep it (NKF) under the carpet?" he asked.

Wrapping up, Dr Balakrishnan emphasised results over openness or even partisanship.

"I don't really care whether the PAP is in power 50 years from now. I do care whether the Government 50 years from now is a Government with competence, honesty and commitment, one which is pragmatic and recognises the world as it is," he said.

"As for political dissidents, there will always be a place for them. But up to a point, they have to ask themselves: Are they willing to take responsibility, do more, get their hands dirty and have their results judged in real life — tangible outcomes, not mere theories."


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