Donald J. Trump is now America’s 45th President. Kicking off his Presidency with a whole slew of executive orders and rollbacks, Trump threatens to undermine years of hard fought progress. But for all the outrage at the speed and severity which Trump is steamrolling his agenda, his policies for the most part have a historical precedent.
As a bystander in Singapore observing US politics from an ocean away, I can’t help but draw parallels between Trump’s America and a PAP-dominated Singapore.
President Trump’s hard line approach to illegal immigration and his refusal to accept any refugees from war torn countries like Iraq and Syria have invited its fair share of controversy. On Wednesday, January 25th, 2017 President Trump signed an executive order outlining plans to deport America’s undocumented immigrants.
“Many aliens who illegally enter the United States and those who overstay or otherwise violate the terms of their visas present a significant threat to national security and public safety,” the order states. “This is particularly so for aliens who engage in criminal conduct in the United States.” Anyone who came to the U.S. illegally — that is without passing through border inspection committed a criminal misdemeanor and could fall into the priority removal category.
Although illegal immigration is not a serious issue in Singapore, the laws that govern the punishment for such crimes are far harsher than even President Trump’s most hard line proposals. When it comes to illegal immigration, Singapore has for decades adopted a zero tolerance approach. The punishment for illegal immigration in the country are deportation, a mandatory caning sentence of not less than 3 strokes and a prison sentence of up to 6 months. Singapore has also repeatedly refused entry to all refugees, regardless of race, nationality or religion.
President Trump also has his share of critics from the LGBT community. Mike Pence, the man that President Trump selected to serve as his vice president, is not without controversy himself. While in Congress arguing against same-sex marriage, Pence asserted that being gay was a lifestyle choice, and warned that “societal collapse was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family.”
When Mike Pence first ran for Congress in 2000, he campaigned to have federal money used to fund research on HIV/AIDS diverted to so called “Gay conversion therapy programs”. But for all of Mike Pence’s anti LGBT views, the one silver lining is Trump relatively liberal attitudes towards LGBT rights. During the campaign, Donald Trump famously waved the LGBT rainbow flag on stage, he stated that he would respect the Supreme Court’s decision on nationwide same-sex marriage and vowed to defend the LGBT community against religious extremism.
Singapore by comparison is far worse off when it comes to LGBT rights. No elected member of Parliament has ever come out in support of same-sex marriage. Draconian censorship laws deliberately erase all positive portrayals of LGBT individuals from the arts and media. The politically active religious right has significant influence in all levels of government. Which is why archaic laws like S377A (criminalizing male homosexual sex) is still in the books. Singapore today would be Mike Pence’s ideal society; where the rights of LGBT minorities are trampled under the guise of morality.
Torture and Detention Without Trial
In his first week in office, President Donald Trump declared he believes torture works as his administration readied a sweeping review of how America conducts the war on terror. This review brought the possible resumption of banned interrogation methods and reopening CIA-run “black site” prisons outside the United States. Bringing back the infamous torture techniques of the Bush era would run contrary to the United States’ international commitments to human rights.
Singapore on the other hand is not bound to such agreements. According to Amnesty International, Singapore is not a signatory to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
On May 21st 1987, 16 people were arrested and detained without trial under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) for their alleged involvement in “a Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore, using communist united front tactics, with a view to establishing a Marxist state.” Despite zero evidence of their involvement, the detainees were incarcerated without trial, tortured using so called “enhanced interrogation techniques” and forced to sign false confessions. The events of 1987 were remembered as Operation Spectrum and it remains a dark chapter in Singapore’s history.
The press is one of Donald Trump’s biggest nemesis. In the face of a free press playing the role of checking the government, President Trump has opted for the knuckle dusters politics of censorship. In an unprecedented move, President Trump blocked news outlets like CNN, BBC, New York Times and The Guardian from White House press briefings – because tough questions from journalists are too much for the President to handle.
In Singapore, foreign publications that carry articles the government considers slanderous, including The Economist and the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), have been subjected to defamation suits and/or had their circulations “gazetted” (restricted). Singapore ranks a measly 154th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. The Media Development Authority Act, the Films Act and the Broadcasting Act empower the Media Development Authority (MDA) to censor journalistic content, including online content. In Trump’s America, news outlets that run afoul with President Trump are blocked from White House press briefings. In Singapore, independent journalists face defamation suits, forced website closures and trumped up sedition charges.
While it’s easy to sit back and judge the sorry state of American politics, it’s time we took a good look at ourselves. Many existing policies in Singapore not only mirror the Trump Administration’s, they expand on it.