Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je's (柯文哲) recent remarks about countries south of Taiwan at the 30th anniversary of local magazine The Journalist ruffled some feathers. His comment that Hong Kong “doesn’t even have a soul that is free” drew a rebuttal from Hong Kong's pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong.
“Today’s Hong Kong is tomorrow’s Taiwan,” Wong said. “Even though our histories and systems are different, when it comes to the China factor, it is necessary for Hongkongers and Taiwanese to join hands.”
However, Ko's remarks about Singaporeans being “caged canaries” largely went unchallenged. It did not evoke a response from any of Singapore’s political leaders or civil society, perhaps a reflection of the subdued behavior that has evolved in the island state.
Indeed when pressed further on his remarks, Ko said that he had mentioned something along similar lines in the face of a senior Singaporean official when he previously visited Singapore. He also said that he had even once thought of moving to Singapore but gave up on that idea when he realized after visiting that Singapore is not what he had imagined it to be.
This is an about turn from Ko.
Prior to winning the Taipei mayoral election in 2014, Ko told Singapore’s Straits Times that, “Singapore is a very good model for Taiwan,” and that he hoped to learn from Singapore. Speaking to Foreign Policy after winning the election, he even made the remark that, “For the world’s four Chinese-speaking regions — Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and mainland China — the longer the colonization, the more advanced a place is.”
He added: “Singapore is better than Hong Kong; Hong Kong is better than Taiwan; Taiwan is better than the mainland.”
Since then, however, Ko seemed to have been schooled on Singapore’s “advancement” and has spoken up against the island nation several times. It took him six months to realize this. When he had initially set the goal to overtake Singapore within eight years, he has since decided that Taipei should not learn from Singapore because Taiwan has embarked on a “democratic path” and should not go down the road of Singapore.
Perhaps a contradiction right from the start, Ko had campaigned on a platform of “budget transparency” while Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said to The Telegraph that he “does not believe transparency is everything” when talking about the management of the country’s two sovereign wealth funds for which Lee is the chairman of one and his wife Ho Ching the CEO of the other.
By some metrics, Ko’s allusion of Singaporeans as canaries living in cages was describing a situation that is commonplace knowledge among some international observers of Singapore. Singapore is ranked at a low 70th as a flawed democracy by The Economist Intelligence Unit's 2016 Democracy Index. Taiwan is 33rd. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2017 report ranks Singapore even lower at 126th as partly free. Taiwan is 37th. Singapore’s press freedom ranking – a measure of democracy – is also ranked 154th by Reporters Without Borders in 2016 which is its lowest ever ranking. Singapore ranks just four spots above Iraq and is even lower than Russia. Taiwan ranks 51st which is also the reason why Reporters Without Borders has recently decided to open its Asia bureau in Taipei.
“The choice of Taiwan was made […] also considering its status of being the freest place in Asia in our annual Press Freedom Index ranking,” the agency said.
High GDP, but….
At the same time, many observers also praise Singapore’s economic achievements – its high GDP per capita, they say is an exemplification of the enviable lives its citizens must be enjoying. But probe a bit deeper and the stark contrast in livelihoods among Singaporeans in the island state puts paid to the question of Singapore’s success.
Despite Singapore’s seemingly illustrious growth – its GDP per capita after converting for purchasing power parity is twice as high as Japan and South Korea – 8 percent of Singaporeans still earn below S$1,000 (US$715) last year. On the contrary, Taiwan’s minimum wage in 2017 is NT$21,009 (US$690), Hong Kong’s minimum wage would be HK$7,176 (US$920) from May this year, and South Korea’s minimum wage is 1.35 million won (US$1,190), quite mind-boggling when you consider how Singapore has been ranked by The Economist as the most expensive city in the world for the fourth year in a row and where Taiwan ranks a far 55th, but where the citizens in the other Asian Tigers can even earn higher wages than their Singaporean counterparts.
Whilst the poverty rate is 19.7 percent in Hong Kong in 2015 and a much lower 1.7 percent in Taipei last year – which is impressive even when compared with European countries – Singapore’s relative poverty rate has been estimated to be as high as 35 percent in a report by the Singapore Management University’s Lien Centre for Social Innovation.
The real housing and pension stories
Public housing is another widely admired project by the Taiwanese who clamor at how over 80 percent of the Singaporean population is provided with a roof over their heads by their government. But this ignores the grievances many Singaporeans have over a public housing program which they deem as sapping money out of their retirement funds and thereby rendering many Singaporeans unable to retire – Singaporeans contribute 37 percent of their wages into a public pension scheme which can only be used to fund housing, healthcare and university education.
The pension has become so unable to upkeep Singapore’s pensioners that the Singapore Ministry of Manpower reported that more than 40 percent of elderly Singaporeans aged 65 to 69 were still working in 2015, which is an increase from 24 percent in 2006. Headline news from The Straits Times also describe how kidney patients in Singapore refuse treatment and choose to die, one reason they cited being that healthcare is simply too expensive in the city-state. However, this has raised eyebrows as Singapore’s pension fund, the Central Provident Fund (CPF), is ranked the 8th largest in the world by WillisTowersWatson. A 2009 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked Singapore’s pension funds as having one of the lowest replacement rates while Taipei had one of the highest. Singapore’s pension fund is one of the sources of funds of Singapore’s largest sovereign wealth fund, GIC, which the Prime Minister chairs.
Of course, Taiwan has its fair share of problems with its pension system. Taiwan’s pension fund is at risk of going bankrupt, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)said last year. Nonetheless, a study conducted by the Ministry of Civil Service showed that 42 percent of Taiwan’s civil servant pensioners receive more than NT$60,000 in pensions and benefits every month, which at three times the minimum wage, is vastly adequate for retirement.
Moreover, Singapore’s housing dilemma is considered to be smaller than Taiwan. With a home price to income ratio of 15.07, Taipei is almost as expensive as Hong Kong, where housing prices are 18.1 times the gross annual median income, according to the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey 2017. For the whole of Taiwan, however, the ratio is only 8.97 but this is still higher than Singapore’s 4.8.
But Singapore’s housing problem has its detractors. What lies hidden behind Singapore’s public housing program is that Singaporeans do not “own” their homes in the sense that the Taiwanese do. In Taiwan, people buy their property freehold and own the title deed to their homes. However, Singaporeans are only lessees. They do not own the public housing they “purchase” which they only rent for 99 years. In fact, the Singapore government has admitted that upon 99 years, the flats would have zero value (and declining value from the 50th or 60th year onwards according to economists) and would be returned to the government at the end of their leases, but where a government plan to buy the leftover leases of public flats for redevelopment of the land only helps 4 percent of flats, many Singaporeans are likely to lose their homes at the end of their leases, which has recently sparked a public furor, albeit one which has been contained online.
Perhaps this was what opened Ko’s eyes to Singapore. But it is not just Singapore’s economic disparity that puts Singapore in the spotlight (Singapore has the second highest income inequality among advanced economies, after Hong Kong).
The Taipei government said that after Ko returned from Southeast Asia on his recent trip, “he realized that there are many values of Taiwan which we should be proud of: freedom, democracy, diversity, and openness.”
Indeed, Singapore’s most famous political dissident in recent years was granted asylum in America last month after high-profile arrests and jail terms for two consecutive years in 2015 and 2016, where the Singapore government’s actions of imprisoning a child sent shockwaves around the world. American Judge Samuel Cole who presided over Amos’s case, said: "His prosecution, detention and general maltreatment at the hands of Singapore authorities constitute persecution on account of Yee's political opinions.”
A tale of two deaths
But lesser known cases in Singapore shed more light on Ko’s “caged canaries” statement. When Corporal Hung Chung-chiu died in military confinement due to heatstroke and organ failure after days of relentless drills to punish him, huge protests of more than 100,000 swamped Taipei, 18 army officers were charged and then-Minister of National Defense Kao Hua-chu resigned.
In Singapore, when Private Dominique Sarron Lee who was asthmatic died due to an allergic reaction to smoke grenades when his officer exceeded the regulations of two smoke grenades and threw six during military training instead, his parents pursued his case and wanted to sue the government but the High Court threw out their lawsuit and said that the government and the officers involved have “statutory immunity” against legal action and even ordered the family to pay S$22,000 in costs which the judge said was reasonable.
To his credit, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said that his ministry should waive the costs. Regardless, the government argued that the family’s legal suit is frivolous, and that the government and officers involved are indemnified from being sued for negligence for deaths, and the judge agreed with them. The Singapore Army later said that the two officers involved were punished, Ng said by “suffer(ing) a setback in their careers”, but netizens later dug out information that one of the officers involved was even promoted two years later. The Army later said that, “welfare grants have been disbursed, and an offer of compensation has been made to the family,” but it turned out that Dominique’s family have not accepted any compensation at all.
Posting on a Facebook page in memory of Dominique, the family said: “Please be transparent. We do not think that Dominique’s death is in any way a matter of national security that requires secrecy.
“While you’re at it, kindly, with our permission, reveal to the public the compensation that you had intended to offer the family, so that all Singaporeans will know how much the life of a promising young man is worth to MINDEF (Ministry of Defense),” the family added.
Afraid of difference
On same-sex rights, Taiwan has made huge strides with hopes of being the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. A 2015 online poll done by the Ministry of Justice of more than 300,000 respondents showed that 71 percent were supportive of same-sex marriage, though a poll last year by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation put support at 46.3 percent, still higher than the 45.4 percent who do not. Still, both supporters and critics are amiable to having civil unions, which means that Taiwan is likely to see same-sex unions be cast into stone, just in which form it would take. The Singapore government’s approach, however, has been to ban foreign entities from participating in Singapore’s Pink Dot, an annual event that celebrates same-sex love. After its eighth run last year, the government changed the laws to prohibit international companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter from sponsoring the event, after some of them have done so for several years. But the canaries do not seem that caged after all when the organizers announced recently that more than 50 local companies have helped to raise more than 70 percent of the total sponsorship they got last year.
But this tiny glimmer of hope on the little red dot is not the trend. The Singapore government’s far-reaching tentacles are gaining a stronger foothold than before. The country changed its constitution to mandate only allowing a candidate from the Malay ethnic group to run in the upcoming presidential elections, leading observers to believe that a government-approved candidate who is currently the Speaker of Parliament is most likely to resign from her seat to run in the September polls. The constitutional changes were also seen as an attempt to block Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who is from the Chinese-ethnic background and who nearly won against the incumbent, from running and who is seen as a moderate who would have been able to keep the government on its toes as an effective check. When Tan asked the government to explain the legal advice they received to support their changing the constitution, the government refused to respond to him. The President in Singapore holds a key role in safeguarding the Singapore reserves which the sovereign wealth funds manage. The last time a president – Ong Teng Cheong – dared to challenge the government in 1996, they stonewalled him. If this sounds familiar, the same inkling has been said of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive election, where pro-Beijing lawmakers who dominate the Hong Kong legislature voted for Carrie Lam to be Hong Kong’s new leader. Where the first female leaders in both cities would have been a call for celebration, the question on many peoples’ minds are, so what, if these female leaders are voted in by a process that is neither transparent nor democratic?
The irony of having an election reserved for Malays is not lost on Singapore’s citizens. Opposition politician Muhammad Faisal Abdul Manap raised the question last year in parliament as to why there are no Malay officers in the navy. However, Defense Minister Ng retorted by saying: “Where we can, we will accommodate. And I’m certain that there are situations where I cannot please or accommodate all requirements.”
In 2015, Faisal also said in parliament: “It is also very disappointing to find out that the exclusion of Singaporean Malays from Navy ship is a result of a “practical issue”. But, what is most worrying is that the practice of excluding Singaporean Malays from Navy ships may be wrongly perceived by Singaporeans as evidence that there is bias against Malays in the SAF, and that there is an issue over the loyalty of Singaporean Malays to this nation.”
Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Amos Yee was charged for hurting religious feelings and among other things, for insulting the country’s first prime minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, but it was the late Lee who had also made scathing remarks about the Malay Muslim population in Singapore.
In his book, “Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going,” the late Lee wrote: “I think we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came, and if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration – friends, inter-marriages and so on – than Muslims [...] I would say, today, we can integrate all religions and races, except Islam.”
Lee later apologized but by Singapore’s standards, Lee should have been charged and even jailed, as the Ministry of Home Affairs had said itself in response to Yee's successful asylum bid.
"Singapore takes a very different approach. Anyone who engages in hate speech or attempts to burn the Quran, Bible, or any religious text in Singapore, will be arrested and charged," it said.
This had led to some quarters to question if the government practices double-standards and would only persecute critics from the opposition.
Shutting down dissent
But Singapore’s twin relationship with Hong Kong does not stop there, as the two cities’ fortune becomes more intertwined. In late-September 2014, protests were held in both cities, the one in Singapore to demand transparency, and the one in Hong Kong for democracy under the banner of “Umbrella Movement”. However, six protestors in Singapore were swiftly investigated and charged a month later. The two organizers both have a string of political persecutions on their tails – Roy Ngerng was sued for defamation by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee in 2014 and has been ordered to pay S$150,000 (US$110,000) in damages and S$30,000 in costs which he would finish paying off only in 2033. The police also raided his home over online posts he made during a by-election in 2015. He was fined S$1,900 for his part in the protest. The other organizer, Han Hui Hui, was fined S$3,100 and was imprisoned for failing to pay her fine and the government threatened to charge her over remarks she made about her court case, under the contempt of court law that the government refined last year that would see people who are found guilty, be fined up to S$100,000 or jailed up to three years, or both. The government amended the law to even apply to comments made overseas.
Just when it was thought that the Hong Kongers do not suffer the same fate, news emerged late last month – after Chief Executive Lam’s win – that the government charged nine leaders of the Umbrella Movement. Their crime? Public nuisance – exactly what the protestors in Singapore were charged for. So, who’s taking a leaf out of whose book?
Just a few days later, the Taipei District Court acquitted 22 people of the 2014 Sunflower Movement who occupied Taiwan’s legislature.
The judge ruled: "Expressing their political views on public affairs is in line with the social interest," the court said in a statement.”
A tale of three tigers
Three different cities, and three very different fates. Was this why, then, that Ko said Hong Kong “doesn’t even have a soul that is free” and that Singaporeans are “canaries in cages.”
It is perhaps sad that the Hong Kongers and Taiwanese continue to hold on to the illusion of Singapore’s grandeur and aspire to be like Singapore, believing that some freedoms can be given away for the sake of economic growth, which is not evenly shared anyway. While the Hong Kongers do not realize it, their dream of becoming like Singapore is becoming a reality as each day goes by – a high GDP per capita in a highly unequal society ruled by a totalitarian (Chinese) regime that would take away their rights and freedoms in exchange for a compliance to a society where the rich get richer. Hong Kong is already Singapore in the making.
For the Taiwanese, they do not have to wish for it. They had lived through it. The 40 years of Taiwan’s period of White Terror where dissidents were persecuted and jailed is what Singapore still does: from 1963 hundreds of politicians and activists were jailed for years and decades, such as Chia Thye Poh who was detained for 32 years and named by Amnesty International as “Singapore's longest serving prisoner of conscience.” Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison. When the era of White Terror in Taiwan ended in 1987, Singapore arrested 20-odd activists and imprisoned them on fabricated charges, these detainees have now come out to say. Since then, politicians have been sued until the 2000s and activists are still being persecuted, two of whom editors of an online news site were jailed for 8 and 10 months just last year.
But Ko is right. Taiwan has let go of the period of White Terror and has embarked on a “democratic path,” amidst one that has seen ups and downs, but a democratic path nonetheless. Meanwhile, to some, Singapore continues to live in the period of White Terror, under the guise of the Men in White – the ruling party’s dress code is white overalls. Taiwan’s White Terror lasted 40 years but Singapore’s has been going on for nearly 60 years and does not show signs of abating.
It is one thing to look to another country as a model. But just by “looking up” to a wealth that is perceived and an economic model that marginalizes significant groups, without realizing its inequality, is doing a huge disservice to oneself. If Taiwan hopes to return to an era of political persecution and fear, the Singapore model is one that has exacted its revenge. Otherwise, Taiwan’s future is waiting to be unlocked, if only the actors stop with the bickering and start getting out of the gridlock, and work together towards uplifting Taiwan, to let Taiwan be the new shining beacon of hope for Asia.
It is time to look inwards to bring out Taiwan’s uniqueness. It is time for the Taiwanese to believe in themselves and to turn the country around to a home they can be proud of.
Editor: Edward White