Skip to content

Orwell’s 1984 Is Alive and Well in Lee Hsien Loong’s Singapore

William Gibson, the iconic American science fiction writer famously described Singapore in 1993 as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” in an essay he wrote for Wired magazine.  (In 2013 I wrote a retrospective essay, also for Wired, entitled “DIsneyland with the Death Penalty Revisited”)

Equally apt would be to call Singapore a recreation of the world of George Orwell’s 1984. Certainly the two famous, seemingly contradictory, official slogans of the Party, Freedom Is Slavery and Ignorance Is Strength, are the slogans of the PAP and drilled into Singaporeans from their first days in PAP kindergarten.

Ignorance is Strength

The PAP, from the time of LKY and reinforced under his son’s leadership, have always considered the ignorance of SIngaporeans to be the source of their strength. Singaporeans are told that they have no right to know what the reserves are or what the Government owns, (Working backwards from the misleadingly named Net Investment Returns Contribution, I recently calculated the hidden reserves to be of the order of $2 trillion and total reserves (excluding the value of 80% to 90% of Singapore’s land which is owned by the Government) to be at least $2.6 trillion. Yet from Lee Hsien Loong downwards to Tharman and Heng Swee Keat, Singaporeans are told taxes must go up if there is to be more investment in our citizens. And of course only regressive taxes like GST while there continues to be almost zero taxes on capital and unearned income.

Similarly from Tharman onwards to Lawrence Wong, Singaporeans are told that they cannot find out what civil servant and Government scholar Mrs Lee Hsien Loong is paid as she works for a private company. Heng Swee Keat issued a bigger rocket barrage than Hamas of POFMAs against Singaporeans who dared speculate on Ho Ching’s salary, presumably on the grounds that if anyone found out what she was paid it would bring the Government into disrepute.

Like the Soviet Union, where its citizens were shown films of Dickens’ books and told the hardships depicted therein were how people lived in present day England and even the recent movie Nomadland, which China loved only partly because its director was born in China but largely because it depicted older Americans as eking out a precarious existence, the PAP Government wants its subjects to think that their life in HDB estates (which they were told by LKY and LHL were an appreciating asset but revert back to the Government after 99 years) is much better than that enjoyed by the citizens of other countries. So determined is the PAP to gaslight its own citizens that when UBS published a study in 2011 which showed that the Singapore worker had a comparable living standard to a worker in Kuala Lumpur or Moscow and behind workers in Hong Kong, Taipei or Tokyo, there was so much unhappiness expressed by the PAP leadership that UBS, which presumably gets big tax benefits, was prevailed upon to drop Singapore from future surveys. My back of the envelope calculations showed that Singaporean median earnings on a per hour basis were about $19, whereas in London and New York (since Singapore should rightfully be compared with cities rather than countries) the figure was $41 and $61 respectively.

Freedom is Slavery

Similarly our fork-tongued Law Minister, Shanmugam, is tasked with the brief of gaslighting Singaporeans that freedom in other countries has unleashed all kinds of apocalyptic horrors and that Singaporeans are better off living under the yoke of an authoritarian Government. Thus he labels advocating freedom of expression as enabling hate speech and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention as leading to anarchy, rape and murder in the US and other Western countries. This justification for authoritarianism was issued in his speech at Columbia University in 2010:

Anyone can walk along most streets in Singapore, day or night. Any child can take public transport, and many do – parents will not have to worry too much.

Shanmugam was not the first nor is Singapore the first or the only totalitarian state to use this justification, so incisively memorialized by Orwell back in 1948. Never mind that even in the US, with its very high levels of gun ownership, people in most cities can walk most or take public transport without worrying too much, and this is even more true for other Western democracies. As with their supposedly Swiss standard of living promised by Goh Chok Tong, where the Government tries to hide statistics that show that ordinary Singaporeans are not that well off, the people are being gaslighted into believing that they need the PAP to keep them safe, externally against our Muslim neighbours and internally against critics and opponents of the regime.

“A Culture of Editorial Independence”

The 1984 world that the PAP want to imprison Singaporeans in was illustrated once again by Iswaran’s defence in Parliament of the plans to hive off SPH’s media assets into a separate company limited by guarantee (CLG) when he said:

“The member asked about structures for editorial independence or ensuring a culture of editorial independence. I would venture that that culture already exists in Singapore in the news media. And I think we do a disservice to our journalists and editors to suggest anything to the contrary.”

The minister said that Singaporeans have a high level of trust in local media, as indicated in the results of surveys conducted by British market research firm YouGov, public relations agency Edelman and the Institute of Policy Studies.

There is no independent media in SIngapore, apart from a few news blogs (most of which are PAP controlled or infiltrated). Through the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, brought in by LKY when he closed down The Singapore Herald, the last independent newspaper in Singapore, in the 1970s, the Government holds the management shares in SPH, with 100 times the voting rights of ordinary shares, and can appoint and dismiss the Editor. All other media assets are controlled by MediaCorp, which is part of Temasek, headed by LHL’s wife. Singapore only has state media and SPH is largely an arm of the Internal Security Department. After my father was elected, LKY, unhappy with the way the State Times had reported the Anson by-election and blaming it for the loss of the seat, actually moved the ex-head of the ISD, Nathan, to be head of SPH, describing it as giving Nathan his newspaper:

It’s like handling a piece of china. If you break it, I will pick up the pieces but it won’t be the same again.”

Every journalist working for state media knows that their copy will be be rewritten by their editors who take their orders from the PM and other PAP Ministers. Unscripted questions at press conferences, such as you see with US Presidents, are prohibited. There is a good reason that Singapore ranks 160th out of 180 countries, 10 places below Russia (whose predecessor state, the Soviet Union, was the model for Orwell’s 1984) on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters WIthout Borders. Famously Paul Theroux, the American travel writer, described the State Times as toilet paper, back in the 1970s. It is not even fit for that any more.

When Iswaran says Singaporeans have a high level of trust in their media, all that means is that Singaporeans know nothing better as they have lived all their lives under the state media monopoly. As we know from polling figures in the US Presidential election, which showed a huge majority for Biden, those polled may be giving the pollsters the answers they want, out of fear or some other motive, The best criteria for judging what Singaporeans think of the State Times is the fact that it is losing money hand over fist even though it is a monopoly and the Government is having to restructure it as otherwise commercial realities would demand it be closed down.

Iswaran gaslighting Singaporeans about a mythical culture of editorial independence resembles nothing more than Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland:

 “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” 

Whatever the structure of the CLG, and so far Singaporeans have been treated like the proverbial mushroom farm (kept in the dark and fed on excrement) the only certainty is that  Lee Hsien Loong, his wife and his son will retain ultimate control over everything their servants write.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: