I grew up moving to a different country every two years, but no experience stands out more drastically than my time living in Singapore. On my first week, I remember I was taking a subway from my house to the financial district downtown. Casually, I took a sip out of the bottle of water I had bought earlier, and before I knew it, I was getting an embarrassing public scolding from the station manager, along with a $500 fine. This was no isolated incident—according to the national metro website, water is not permitted on board because it “could spill and wet seats” or “cause a fellow commuter to slip and fall.”
This is hardly the most draconian or bizarre of laws enforced by the Singaporean government. Others include the prohibition of chewing gum, and a $700 fine for spitting it out on the streets. Not flushing a toilet is a crime, and if you thought about urinating an elevator, think again—elevators are equipped with urine detectors that will set alarms and trap you inside until the police find you. Public assemblies and protests are illegal without permits. Government criticism of any form is flagged. If you are caught with drug possession, you can receive “canings” (where authorities tie you down and whip you intensely) or even worse, face the death penalty.
As per Schedule 2 of the Act, the death penalty may be prescribed if you are convicted of possessing any of the following:
|· Heroin – 15 grams or more
· Cocaine – 30 grams or more
· Morphine – 30 grams or more
· Hashish – 200 grams or more
|· Methamphetamine – 250 grams
· Cannabis – 500 grams or more
· Opium – 1,200 grams or more
As a result of such strict governing, Singapore is one of the cleanest and safest countries in the world. But how are these laws enforced?
First, through the ubiquitous presence of cameras. Cameras are literally everywhere. What is perhaps more frightening than constant visual surveillance however, is constant digital surveillance—especially when it is legitimized and openly admitted to by the government through programs such as the RAHS.
The Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) was originally designed as an anti-terrorism tool, established in 2003 by the Singaporean government with the help of former US National Security Advisor, John Poindexter. The idea was simple—to gather and record every civilian’s internet searches, phone logs, e-mails, airline and hotel bookings, and financial transactions and alert law enforcement if any suspicious behavior or possible terrorist plot was detected.
Another key rationale for its implementation was the anticipation of any form of “potential future shocks” that could negatively impact Singapore socially or economically. For instance, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 caused a death toll of 33 and significantly decelerated the Singaporean economy. However, Peter Ho, then Singapore’s Secretary of Defense, believed that if a big data analysis system like the RAHS had existed before the outbreak, it could have been prevented. Apparently, there were a large number of unusual reports of lung infections in China leading up to the arrival of SARS in Singapore, and if scrutinized in tandem, could have warned officials about the imminent crisis. Thus, the selling point to civilians was that RAHS would play a large role in ensuring public safety for all.
As you can probably imagine, the government was never going to stop there once it had its hands on this wonderfully powerful beast. To be fair, most of its use have been for the genuine betterment of the nation—it is used to make economic forecasts, study housing markets, develop education plans, and develop immigration policies. But officials admitted to the fact that a significant portion of the material RAHS focuses on today are blog posts (thank goodness I’m here and not there), Facebook statuses, and tweets. Primarily, the program kept a vigilant eye on two things—pornography and racially offensive statements. It also looked for signs of discontent or ungratefulness for the programs offered by the government, or the direction of advancements in policies. Any one of these things could result in the police knocking on your front door.
Some of you may be thinking, “come on. How realistic is it that the government can surveil your every action in the digital world and accurately single you out as an enemy of the state?” Well, consider this. When I first got my SIM card for my smartphone in a Seven Eleven, I had to hand them my passport. This means that the telecommunications provider links the card to me, and in turn, the government knows who I am calling and can tie the content of the text messages directly to me. To make data collection even easier for the government, setting up an internet account and obtaining access to the web is impossible without presenting the service providers with a valid, national ID card. And it has been reported that these provides hands over information on users to government officials on a regular basis.
What about the U.S.?
Throughout the semester, we have had numerous discussions about the advancements in digital technology, data collection by tech giants, and the implications on privacy. If this post was able to provide a sneak peek into what the realization of our largest fears may look like, you can rest assured that American citizens will never have it as bad as the Singaporeans do. I think the sheer size of the United States, along with the foundations on which it was built, ensures that this government cannot go as far as the Singaporean one has, at least not so openly. The RAHS works effectively in Singapore because it is a strange mix of democracy and autocracy, and because it is a very small country that does not see civil liberties as a priority.
I, for one, am grateful that I am able to post this blog without thinking twice about the consequences—I could have been in some real deep trouble if I had to write this blogpost for an ISYS class in Singapore.