Will Cook show Labour's love of Singapore has cooled?

On the eve of the Foreign Secretary's visit, Steve Crawshaw questions the human rights record of the state praised by Blair
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The Independent Online
Once upon a time, it was close to being a love affair. Tony Blair, the then opposition leader, went to Singapore and waxed lyrical about the system there. Two years on, Labour is in power, and the Foreign Secretary is about to arrive in Singapore.

When Mr Blair visited in January 1996, his enthusiasm seemed unqualified. As a guest of the Singapore government he laid out his ideal of the "stakeholder society". Speaking to businessmen he called for "an active politics, the bringing of a country together, a sharing of the possibility of power, wealth and opportunity".

Praising Singapore and its cradle-to-grave welfare benefits, the future Prime Minister talked of "the economic justification for social cohesion", and suggested Britain should imitate Singapore in creating high-quality goods and services with "the engagement of the whole country". He praised the city-state's success, saying: "Working as a team is an effective way of working, or playing a sport, or running an organisation. A successful country must be run the same way."

On one level, Mr Blair's praise was understandable - and will be reflected by Robin Cook in meetings with Singaporean leaders this evening and tomorrow. Singapore's economic achievements are certainly impressive. Growth was 8.9 per cent in 1995 and 6.5 per cent last year. Barely four decades after independence from Britain in 1959, the country has a higher income per head than we do.

On his four-country tour of South-east Asia, however - Singapore is the last stop - Mr Cook has been promoting not only trade, but human rights. This element was bafflingly absent from Mr Blair's paeans of praise, posing the question of how far Labour's admiration of Singapore extends.

Freedom of speech sometimes seems an alien concept to the Singaporean leadership. The famed cleanliness of Singaporean society - chewing gum in the street is forbidden and you can be fined for not flushing a public toilet - includes the need not to say anything that the government does not wish to hear. In the domestic press, self-censorship is rife. A number of leading foreign publications have been banned in recent years, including the Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review, which has only just been allowed to have a correspondent in Singapore again after a long ban. Itscrime was to have reported too thoroughly on Singapore.

The government also uses the courts in what can best be described as an unusual manner. The Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong - who Mr Cook will meet tomorrow - is suing an opposition MP for factual comments that he made earlier this year. But Joshua Jeyaretnam's defence lawyer is George Carman, veteran of some of Britain's starriest libel cases. His cross- examination of Mr Goh has produced some of the most remarkable exchanges ever seen in a Singapore court - or anywhere else, come to that.

Mr Carman told the Prime Minister: "You create in the minds of people in Singapore a climate of fear. You say you believe in the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of the courts, but there comes a point when you adapt them for your own purposes to stay in power and stifle opposition." Mr Goh retorted: "If it was outside the court, I would sue."

The libel case revolves round Mr Jerayetnam's disclosure to an election rally that one of his colleagues had made a police report about Mr Goh and his party colleagues. "In almost any part of the Commonwealth," argued Mr Carman, "a judge and jury would treat this case as no more than the cut and thrust of political electioneering."

Because the judge has not yet delivered his verdict, Mr Cook is unlikely to comment on the case directly, but the Government's unease is clear. Mr Blair's effusions about Singapore have never been repeated - next to nothing was said, for example, when Frank Field, Labour's principal social welfare strategist, visited Singapore to study its welfare system. But the Foreign Secretary cannot remain entirely silent: even if his criticisms are coded, it seems unlikely that the Labour message of today will be quite as fulsome as it was.