Some people might have been surprised to discover that British journalist John Kampfner, who has authored a book that takes aim at Singapore’s model of economic prosperity without political freedom, was recently allowed to enter Singapore, let alone to give a seminar at the venerable Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
After all, Singapore has a clear history of quashing dissenting voices one way or another.
So why did Singapore embrace Kampfner, who laments in Freedom for Sale that the insidious Singapore model has also taken hold in China and Russia and, to a lesser extent, in the Western world?
It is evident that the academics at the Lee Kuan Yew School were slightly nervous about his presence because their preview of his seminar makes no mention of the fact that the Singapore experience provides the nub of his book (classic self-censorship).
Yet, in reality, critics like Kampfner fit perfectly into the government’s “managed dissent” strategy for two key reasons.
Firstly, Kampfner’s largely theoretical argument about the Singapore model is very unthreatening to the government. The People’s Action Party is less concerned about writers who criticise it in general theoretical terms than it is about activists who try to mobilise the public or journalists who threaten to uncover embarrassing or uncomfortable stories about the city-state.
Secondly, Kampfner is the ideal straw man for the government to attack, giving them yet another opportunity to trot out their tired arguments about how “Western liberal democracy” is not appropriate for Singaporeans who hold “Asian values” such as collective well-being and social harmony (i.e. the government telling everyone what to do) dearer than individual liberties such as free speech.
Hence, Kampfner’s visit prompted a 1700-word feature in the state-backed Straits Times, which was in essence an extended essay on the overwhelming success of the Singapore model. In addition, the Straits Times published several letters attempting to knock down Kampfner’s arguments, including a right-to-reply from a senior civil servant who insisted that “there can be, and there is, vigorous debate on public policies” in Singapore (yeah, right).
A blog that Kampfner wrote for The Guardian on the same subject last year also elicited a right-to-reply from Singapore’s fastidious high commissioner in London as well as a story in the ever-faithful Straits Times headlined “Singapore ticks off British writer”.
If they had done their homework better, the academics at the Lee Kuan Yew School would have realised that they had nothing to worry about. As far as the government is concerned, it seems that Kampfner is welcome any time.