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Singapore Sidestep

The president passes on a chance to push his "freedom agenda."

11:00 PM, Dec 5, 2006 • By ELLEN BORK
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WHILE PRESIDENT Bush was in Singapore last month, Chee Soon Juan, a leading democracy campaigner, addressed an open letter to him. The letter asked Bush to press Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, on democracy, arguing that "a democratic and free Singapore will not only benefit the people of this city-state but also contribute to a more stable and prosperous Asia."

In fact, Chee had reason to hope President Bush would assist the cause in Singapore. The president's national security adviser said that the speech would "talk about the freedom agenda and what freedom and democracy since the end of the Second World War have done to help transform Asia." Precisely one year before, at Kyoto, Japan, the president had made a memorable speech extolling his "freedom agenda" and highlighting the importance of democracy to relations between the United States and Japan.

In Singapore, by contrast, it took quite some time for the president to get around to talking about democracy. And, since Singapore isn't one, the president couldn't speak about how democratic values are the bulwark of the partnership between the two countries. Nevertheless, the president could have made remarks in support of freedom of speech and democracy in Singapore itself--he could have praised people like Chee. But he didn't.

One week after the president's speech, Chee reported for a prison term. Libel suits against him for insulting Singapore's authoritarian leaders have ruined him financially, barred him from electoral politics, and made jail terms inevitable. His party reports that he has become ill in prison. Chee is not the only victim of such tactics, just one of the most vulnerable. The American media company Dow Jones is now enmeshed in litigation as a result of an interview published in its magazine, the Far Eastern Economic Review, in which Chee said such dreadful things as: "If we had parliamentary debates where the opposition could pry and ask questions, I think he [Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister's father and the most powerful man in Singapore] is actually afraid of something like that." The Review is now banned in Singapore.

Singapore's soft authoritarianism shields it from the kind of attention that Burma and other such regimes attract. But on two counts, Singapore is a test case for the world's democracies. It is a place where proponents of the argument that trade and development lead to democracy have to put up or shut up. And Singapore, with its mixed population including a significant Muslim Malay minority, and its proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia, also has a role to play in the cause of a moderate, pro-democratic Islam. In Singapore, as President Bush said, "young people who have a say in their future are less likely to search for meaning in extremism." Very true. And so there is a connection between the treatment of Singapore's most prominent democracy activist and the president's "freedom agenda."

Ellen Bork is deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century.