Singapore unwinds slowly

Sunday, July 13, 2003

SINGAPORE -- Singapore will now permit bungee jumping. Also, people can dance on the bar in saloons allowed to stay open 24 hours. And theater performances can use explicit language.

"In fact, so changed is our mind-set that we will even allow reverse bungee," Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said Saturday, in launching a "Remake Singapore" program designed to shake up the dull image of this famously uptight city-state.

Or at least try.

While being catapulted into the sky at the end of a giant rubber band is now allowed, jaywalking at bus stations is forbidden, under tougher rules also announced Saturday.

So Singapore's government remains in strict control, even in its efforts to loosen up and market itself as a media and arts center.

Among the committee's more than 100 proposals to remodel society is an "Audience Development Fund" to "educate" citizens about art and encourage flea markets with no government permit.

Earlier, the prime minister also said his administration would begin employing openly gay people, a surprising development in Singapore, where homosexuality is thought to violate conservative Asian social norms.

"Not every room needs to be furnished to the same taste," Goh said. "Some may like their room to have cool colors, while others may prefer to decorate it with pinups."

Permitting bar-top dancing -- once a legal offense -- also was announced earlier this week, along with the longer bar hours.

"If we want our people to make more decisions for themselves, and if we are to encourage a derring-do society, we must allow some risk taking and a little excitement," Goh said.

Spitting fines

Singaporeans enjoy one of Asia's highest standards of living under some of the world's strictest laws. The government regularly fines people for spitting and not flushing public toilets and only recently allowed the sale of chewing gum.

Critics have long argued that there is not enough room for dissent and that the pace of liberalization in this Southeast Asian island republic of 4 million is glacially slow.

The government censors movies and television shows it considers too racy, such as the HBO series "Six Feet Under," deemed too explicit and out of line with Singaporean society.

Cosmopolitan magazine and HBO's "Sex and the City" are banned.

But Saturday, Goh encouraged Singaporeans to speak up if they were not happy with the government -- so long as the critic observes "proper etiquette."

"We want to encourage a participatory democracy where initiatives also come from the people themselves," said Goh, though topics such as race and religion are likely to remain taboo.

The new jaywalking rule takes effect Monday, the result of 38 accidents at bus stations and parking lots in the last three years, the city-state's Land Transport Authority said on its Web site. Offenders face up to three months in jail and a $571 fine -- repeat offenders, six months.

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