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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek

MARCH 24, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 11


Agents Of Change
These People Will Tell You -Transforming Singapore Is No Easy Task
By ALEJANDRO REYES Singapore

In recent years Singaporeans have enjoyed some loosening in the media and the arts and a freer business environment. And trendy nightspots sprout up almost every week on Club Street and Mohamed Sultan Road. But will locals ever rid themselves of their enduring image as a buttoned-down society that is boring and obsessed with rules, results and founding father Lee Kuan Yew? It's happening, but old habits die hard. Asiaweek spoke to Singaporeans from various walks of life to assess how real they perceive the new openness to be and where they still encounter out-of-bounds markers.

JEREL KWEK, 21
junior entrepreneur

In a society where educational qualifications count, Jerel Kwek, right, stands out for having few. The lanky young man is close enough to his teen years to say "cool" - and get away with it. But behind the stripling image is someone with years of business experience. Kwek made his first buck selling stickers when he was five. He later branched into dog-breeding and vegetables grown by hydroponics. But it was when he got into the Internet for the first time in 1994 that he found his calling. "In one minute, I knew that was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life," he says. When he was 17, he set up an Internet consultancy - registered under the name of his father, an air-force officer, because Kwek was too young. Imagine Multimedia made revenues of about $59,000 in its first six months, most of it profit.

The young entrepreneur recently launched a second venture, MyAngel.net, a career and human-resources website that occurred to him when he experienced difficulties hiring staff for Imagine. A third project, a business information portal, is already on the way. Kwek managed to fit in two years of national service, during which he helped revamp the Defense Ministry's Web service. He was accepted last year to an undergraduate program at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, but put it off for a year. He is likely to defer for another 12 months.

Putting off school? For a Singaporean, that sounds sacrilegious. But for Kwek, it is the right thing to do. After all, he can't let his (much older) colleagues down. And he has bad memories of junior college. He says he felt constrained, practically straitjacketed, by Singapore's results-based, narrowly focused education system - which the government has recently been trying to reform by encouraging innovation and creativity. "I was always disgruntled," he says. "You are just taught that whatever they say is right, to never question, and that everything else is wrong. That is terribly cruel, it is wrong. It is not developing people to their full potential. Our education [system] has done a tremendous disservice to our budding entrepreneurs because it pushes them into a box where they are taught not to challenge, debate or question. But the New Economy is about constantly reinventing yourself and being creative and moving to where you can charge your customer a premium. How else can you do that without breaking the rules?"

While most of his pals are busy becoming engineers, Kwek courts potential investors, liaises with clients and constantly hunts for new tech talent to recruit. He recognizes that some people may find it difficult working with a boss so young. "Anybody younger than 20 is looked on as someone who can't do a good job in business. We have to prove ourselves by being better than others." He wouldn't have it any other way, though. "I've always been a rebel. Singaporeans have never been known to be risk-takers. They have been taught to stick to the status quo and never to challenge. In the New Economy, that is a recipe for disaster."

INDERJIT SINGH, 39
technopreneur and legislator

 
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Viewpoint: False fears about globalization

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Ruling People's Action Party legislator Inderjit Singh, top, opposite, knows the frenzy of launching a start-up. He used to be employed by Texas Instruments but left more than two years ago to set up semiconductor services company Utac with colleagues. It's been non-stop since. "When I started, I found it very difficult to raise backing," recalls Singh. "About 60% of my funds came from Taiwan because I couldn't get Singaporeans to commit. The Taiwanese saw the value [of the venture] very quickly and had the confidence that there was a team willing and able to make it work." To part with their money, his Taiwanese investors were satisfied with just a 30% to 40% chance of success. "But Singaporeans wanted to have almost a 90% chance before they would back us."

Utac recently moved into new premises. It now has 400 staff, rising to 700 by the end of this year, and may soon list on Nasdaq. "Singapore is in a transition," Singh says. "In the past 34 years of development, we've been used to a very strong and stable government and the strong hand of government in the way things are done. Being a scholar and then going into a stable career as a civil servant or an executive at a multinational corporation has been the model. But that means there is a reluctance to try something new that could potentially make a lot of money, but which could also be a big failure."

Changes are afoot, Singh insists. "It takes time. The problem is not resistance, but inertia - this is the way things have been done." The MP doesn't shy away from prodding ministers for a faster pace - and a lighter touch. "My advice to the government all the time has been to create the environment and then back off. Let there be a bit of chaos. It's okay. We cannot have everything so structured all the time." Singh recently called in Parliament for the privatization of Singapore's government-linked companies. "To be successful in the global environment, they have to be run on a purely private-sector basis," he says. That's a proposal that may have seemed radical not long ago, but may soon become conventional wisdom.


Munshi Ahmed for Asiaweek

SHELLEY SIU, 55
"missionary for women"

Want to know how fast Internet speed is? Follow Shelley Siu, below. She divides her time between running her own human-resources company, shepherding a new Web service for female entrepreneurs and speaking to young and old on a range of issues. And she has just written a new book on Singapore women. Barrier Breakers, which is the Lion City's first e-book (it is also available in hard copy), is a collection of profiles of 13 women achievers. Siu could count herself among them.

She says that when she was young, she was "conditioned to accept that girls are not as important as boys." But Siu reckons the situation has improved. Now boys are taking home economics, while women are allowed in technical courses. Just look at the numbers, she says. The literacy rate among women 15 years and older in 1997 was 89%, compared with 73% in 1980. Since 1995, more than half the intake at Singapore universities has been women. And a third of the senior managers and professionals in the workforce are female, as opposed to 20% in 1990.

Siu says the space for women in the workplace is now wide open. "As long as you are capable, there are no barriers to what you can be." But there is lingering social discrimination, she admits. Some people's perceptions, particularly at the grassroots level, have yet to change - she still encounters men who expect her to make the coffee and clean up and who don't like it when women are complimented for their work or speak about their accomplishments. Siu is also troubled by policies such as a quota set on female medical students and the fact that foreign husbands of Singaporean women do not automatically qualify for permanent residence, while the foreign wives of the men do. Siu describes this immigration rule as a "hurdle" for her daughter, who lives with her American husband in the U.S. Siu and her husband also have a married son in Britain.

Siu's latest business initiative is FemmE-net.com, a website for women entrepreneurs. And she is starting an IT retraining program. She is pleased by the government's recent decision to allow tax rebates for home offices since this will encourage more women to set up their own businesses. Singapore needs more affordable child-care facilities and greater flexibility on working hours, Siu argues. And there are not enough women in Parliament - only six of 93. "More women have to come forward," she says. Preferably at Internet speed.

ALEX AU WAI PANG, 47
gay-rights activist

Freelance writer Alex Au, not pictured, runs Yawning Bread, a website that deals with homosexuality and issues of particular concern to the gay community - as well as delivering an occasional sharp commentary on everything from the latest films to Singapore Telecom's failed bid for Cable & Wireless HKT. "For readers who are not homosexual, I hope [the website] can serve as a window into the thoughts of gay people, particularly gay Singaporeans," Au writes. "For readers who are homosexual, I hope [it] can be a catalyst to self-reflection, self-discovery, and a better understanding of where we stand in society, and why we stand where we stand. I hope it is of some help to you in breaking out of any sense of isolation you may have."

Launched in 1996, Yawning Bread (the name just appealed to Au) now has an average of 2,900 hits a month. Early on, Au decided to house the site on a server outside Singapore because he feared it might be censored. He doesn't think he would have any problems now, but it's just too much trouble to transfer all those kilobytes. Not that Au is about to celebrate any new openness. He and fellow gay activists keep a low profile - though nobody would describe them as being out of sight.

In November 1996, they applied to the government to have a group called "People Like Us" registered as a society so it could hold group discussions on gay and lesbian issues and circulate a newsletter, among other things. In April 1997, the application was rejected. Au and his colleagues appealed twice to the Home Affairs Ministry. Both failed. Finally, they wrote to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. The petition was denied. Au believes treatment of gays is the test case of the authenticity of the government's drive for a more open society. He is not hopeful.

The government says its decision to refuse People Like Us a license merely reflects current mores, but Au and his associates complain that they have no means to plead their case to the public if they are not allowed to do so openly. The good news is that at least the bad old days of regular police dragnets to entrap homosexuals seem to be over. Meanwhile, Au keeps adding new slices of life to his Yawning Bread loaf. Recent offerings include an essay on the future of ASEAN, a humorous account of how he helped his nearly 80-year-old father get wired and a reflection on cruising public toilets.

HARESH SHARMA, 35, playwright
ALVIN TAN, 37, artistic director

For Haresh Sharma and Alvin Tan, blurred boundaries are a good thing. Tan, right, below, is artistic director of the theater group The Necessary Stage (TNS), while Sharma is its resident playwright. The way they see it, written rules governing the local drama scene don't actually match practice. For example, touching on such sensitive areas as race, religion and sex, particularly homosexuality, is officially discouraged, but many plays deal forthrightly with these supposedly taboo topics. "It's good in a way that the OB (out-of-bounds) markers are blurred," Sharma says. "Sometimes you just don't know where the lines are. If we were to push too much and they made the rules very clear, then maybe no plays would get performed, which would be even worse."

As it stands, TNS no longer has to submit scripts to the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit, but must still pass them to the National Arts Council. The group also voluntarily slaps a rating on its own performances, particularly if a work contains sensitive material. If the National Arts Council reckons something is too on-the-edge, it may have it reviewed by a committee. "Where it goes from there, we're not quite sure," says Tan. "Most of the time, though, everything is all right."

Last December, a day before a presentation of sex . violence . blood . gore ., a play by twenty-somethings Alfian Sa'at and Chong Tze Chien, the censors asked for three scenes dealing with race to be cut. Tan considered canceling the show, but decided to go ahead. The contentious scenes were not performed, but Tan had the text photocopied and distributed to the audience. When the scenes were reached, the house lights were turned up and the situation was explained to the public. Actors carried on "in fast-forward" with no words. "The censorship was against the scenes being performed, but not against the text," explains Tan. "It was a loophole, but we moved right to the brink. By being pragmatic, we preserved as much of our integrity as we could." By censoring, Tan reckons, the government contradicts its own aim of fostering a more open society.

Sharma says he doesn't feel constrained as to what he can or cannot write. He is now working on a play about two drag queens that he wants to be performed by real transsexuals. Tan points out, however, that scriptless performance art and so-called audience-participation forum theater remain "proscribed" - not strictly banned, but unlikely to be licensed. Because organizers would have to place a $59,000 deposit with the authorities, nobody tries. But that's not stopping resourceful playwrights. Some plays that are approved and staged include improvisation and audience participation - with no complaint.


Munshi Ahmed for Asiaweek

JAMES GOMEZ, 35
Internet political activist

He's a former student unionist with two degrees in politics, as well as a Singapore-based researcher with a foundation associated with Germany's Social Democratic Party. And now he's author of a self-published book whose title alone is provocative - Self-Censorship: Singapore's Shame. But James Gomez, opposite page, whose father was one of the founders of the Singapore Mercantile Workers' Union, seems proudest to be known as "a political entrepreneur," the sole proprietor of Think Center, which he set up last year. He explains: "It's an independent political research initiative - a dotcom company, but what I do is political. It's new age, new look, young. It's a concept."

A participant in the government's Singapore 21 consultation exercise to discuss how to develop a more active civil society, Gomez has set out "to fight the inertia" of what he believes is the Lion City's culture of self-censorship. By registering Think Center as a company - "It took only a few hours" - he neatly avoided having to go through the arduous process of applying for official approval under the Societies Act, which governs activist groupings, among other things. "I exist on the Net; all my operations and promotions are there," Gomez says.

He has leveraged his website and his recently published book to promote a series of seminars. The fourth and latest one, a discussion of human rights in Singapore, took place March 10 and attracted about 150 people. Advertising was through the Think Center website and e-mail. "The dotcom approach to politics has a multiplier effect," Gomez says. "If you receive a mailer, you forward it to other people who may be interested. It snowballs."

Going about his political business hasn't been such a smooth ride, though. After his inaugural forum on youth and politics in October last year, police called him in for questioning for allowing into the room a number of people who had not pre-registered online. The authorities said they had received a complaint that an offense had been committed, but would not give specifics. After a few months of investigation, Gomez and three colleagues were let off with a warning, advising them to apply for a license whenever they hold meetings.

"I raise eyebrows," Gomez says with pride. "People ask, 'Can you really do this? Is it allowed?' Many people just stay away, but others ask to be put on our mailing list." He sees Think Center as only one activity in the process of trying to stir up Singapore society. There should be as many things going on as possible, he argues. "I'm against old-fashioned notions that we must be rigid and march forward in a tight formation. I'm a bit more funky, relaxed, slip-and-slide, groove-and-jive. We can move in different ways but get there together in the end."

So far, the official reaction to his book has been muted. Some bookshops have accepted it, while others have taken only a token number of copies. The National University of Singapore bookstore had stocked it at the request of a teacher for use in a course, but subsequently returned the consignment to the distributor. That riled Gomez, who suspects self-censorship. "If you want to censor, then come out. Don't hide behind advisories and memos. Justify yourself."

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