Not Singapore!

Andrew Donaldson on the really problemmatic aspect to Zille's recent twitter remarks


THANK heavens for Helen Zille. Here we were all were, poised yet again at the abyss — in this case, the “self-made” social grants catastrophe — and the Premier valiantly offers us a fresh distraction with which to eagerly whip ourselves into frenzied outrage.

Her comments on Twitter on Thursday morning about the allegedly positive aspects of the legacy of colonialism have dismayed her colleagues in the DA, many of whom are now wondering whether it is only remedial surgery that will get that smartphone out of her little paws.

Perhaps it was the jet lag. Zille was returning from a trip to Japan and Singapore to boost trade between the two countries and the Western Cape and she was in transit at OR Tambo International Airport when she took to social media.

She has since apologised, according to her spokesman, Michael Mpofu, for a tweet that “might have come across as a defence of colonialism”. 

However, it was Zille’s other tweets that morning that gave us problems, here at the Mahogany Ridge.

She was evidently very impressed with what she saw in Singapore — and it’s perhaps not difficult to understand why.

“A political scientist who visits Singapore,” the New Yorker correspondent Stan Sesser has written, “would regard the island nation as fascinating, since its authoritarian government functions in many ways like that of a Communist state yet is dedicated wholeheartedly to the pursuit of capitalism. 

“An economist would consider Singapore instructive, because there is no better example of a country that has gone from poverty to riches through good economic management. A sociologist looking at rules and regulations would call Singapore unique in the world. But more casual visitors might characterise Singapore differently, often by using the word ‘dull’.”

Zille tweeted, “I think Singapore lessons are: 1) Meritocracy; 2) multiculturalism; 3) work ethic; 4) open to globalism; 4) English. 5) Future orientation.” And then, “Other reasons for Singapore’s success: Parents take responsibility for children, and build on valuable aspects of colonial heritage.”

Here are some other lessons. 

Singapore is a deeply flawed democracy, a “benevolent” dictatorship. The ruling centre-right People’s Action Party has been in power since 1959. In the 2015 elections, it won 83 of the 89 parliamentary seats. The political environment is stifling and its citizens continue to face severe restrictions on rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. 

In 2014, Singapore was ranked 153rd of 180 nations on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. Publications are banned. Print media is controlled by government, and political bloggers and online media outlets are regularly targeted for prosecution with vague and overly broad legal provisions on public order, morality, security, and racial and religious harmony.

In August last year, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, criticised Singapore’s “broadening crackdown on controversial expression, as well as political criticism and dissent,” noting that the increased criminalisation of speech was in breach of the country’s international obligations. 

Very few governments publicly comment on Singapore’s poor human rights record. It retains the death penalty, which is mandated for many drug offences and other crimes. Since 2012, however, judges have had some discretion to bypass the mandatory penalty and sentence low-level offenders to life in prison. In addition, caning is mandatory for males between 16 and 50 who are convicted of crimes that include drug trafficking, violent crimes and even certain immigration offences.

The treatment meted out to Chia Thye Poh, Singapore’s version of Nelson Mandela, was particularly cruel. Arrested in 1966, he was imprisoned without trial for 23 years for allegedly pro-Communist activities.

Then Chia was placed under house arrest for nine years on Sentosa, a smaller island that is popular pleasure resort. He was confined to a one-room guardhouse while tourists around him played golf or visited the nearby theme park. Chia was also required to pay rent while on Sentosa on the pretext that he was “free”.

He was finally freed in November 1998. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.

In short, you’d imagine Singapore would offer up far more lessons for Jacob Zuma than Helen Zille. 

It is probably the sort of place the President has in mind whenever he complains of the Constitution getting in his way: the streets are neat and tidy,  the citizenry are polite and respectful, knew their place and wouldn’t think of mocking their president — or even question why he wants to gobble up the Treasury.

Certainly, there wouldn’t be any Constitutional Court effectively placing the social grant system into business rescue, labelling his addled social development minister an incompetent disaster and apparently throwing the Zupta machine’s state capture plans into disarray. For now, at least.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.