Singapore: how a 'smart nation' turned into a police state
Wham, like the protests he’s become known for, is quiet and animated by a kind of contained mischief. Born and raised in Singapore, he has spent most of his adult life as an activist, fêted by human rights groups, but portrayed as a foreign-funded bogeyman by the establishment. He is famous for protests that resemble a kind of performance art in the way they point out the absurdities of Singaporean order; he’s been arrested multiple times, convicted of holding a public assembly (on his own) and of scandalizing the legal system on Facebook.
Activism in Singapore is a complex task. The government has been controlled by a single party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), since independence. Over the years, the party has created a quasi-autocratic, quasi-democratic bureaucracy which is almost impossible for outsiders to navigate. Wham, who was executive director of a migrant rights group for a decade until 2016, was advised to lobby discreetly, to never be aggressively critical of policy or the party, and to avoid joining pro-democracy groups. Pushing too hard or stepping outside the lines would be counterproductive, he was warned, and would blow back on him and his work.
“I was tired of having to self-censor and ‘negotiate boundaries’,” Wham told Rest of World. “Such strategies only ended up entrenching authoritarianism.” He turned to a more confrontational approach. By the time he was found guilty again in February, Wham had already been to jail twice. He declined to pay the fine, and went to Changi for the third time.
He went straight into solitary confinement for a fortnight, a measure introduced to prevent new inmates from spreading Covid-19 through the prison population. Prisoners were given tablet computers loaded with an approved list of books, mostly out-of-copyright classics. Bored, unravelling from the solitude, Wham started to perform. “I saw Hamlet. I was like, OK, I haven’t read this in 20 years. I remember liking it,” he said. “So I just did a lot of the soliloquies. Just acted everything out.”
That, and everything else he did from the moment he arrived in Changi, was recorded — he thinks. It’s hard to be sure. He was watched constantly by security cameras, some of which have microphones too. Prisoners don’t know when or if the feeds are watched by the guards. At least some are so-called smart cameras, though, which feed images in real time to a system called Avatar, which in turn is supposed to be able to detect aggressive behaviour. The cameras in every cell are a relatively new addition. The prison service declined a request for an interview, but former inmates told Rest of World that they started appearing over the last two years.
Inmates are watched for the length of their sentences, Wham said — something that’s justified as being for their own safety. “This is the kind of narrative that’s always been put forward whenever someone wants to invade your privacy. And in Singapore, it’s a very effective argument,” he said. “ Nobody can argue against being safe.”
As in prison, so outside. Singapore has built a global brand out of its schoolmasterly for-your-own-good discipline, with disproportionately severe punishments — including the death penalty for drug smuggling — acting as a deterrent against disruptions to good social order. For those who stay inside the lines, it offers comfort, prosperity, and a textureless sort of freedom; the average citizen is expected to trust the government to deliver safety, in exchange for a certain loss of control over their individual liberties. Technology is becoming an increasingly visible part of that bargain.
Singapore is often rendered as an aspiring techno-utopia. In World Economic Forum videos, in-flight magazines and its own pliant state-backed media, it offers a soft-focus science fiction backdrop where driverless buses ply routes between beach clubs and tech hubs, where robot dogs enforce social distancing and flying taxis flit between glass-fronted public housing overflowing with lush “sky gardens.” It’s a place where pilot projects hint at a future — just over the horizon — where the intractable problems of today are automated out of existence. Where vertical farms and “NEWater” made from treated sewage cut the island’s reliance on neighbouring Malaysia for food and water. Where robots care for the elderly and drones service freighters. Where warehouses and construction sites are staffed by machines, obviating the need for the migrant workers who make Singapore function, but make Singaporeans uncomfortable. Technology keeps them safe, fed and independent; secure in a scary world, but connected to it through telecoms and air travel.
That safety requires constant vigilance. The city must be watched. The smart cameras that are being trialled in Changi are just a part of a nationwide thrust towards treating surveillance as part of everyday life. Ninety-thousand police cameras watch the streets, and by the end of the decade, there will be 200,000. Sensors, including facial recognition cameras and crowd analytics systems, are being positioned across the city.
The technology alone isn’t unique — it’s used in many countries. But Singapore’s ruling party sees dangers everywhere, and seems increasingly willing to peer individually and en masse into people’s lives.
“What [technology] will do for people is make our lives a hell of a lot easier, more convenient, more easily able to plug into the good life,” said Monamie Bhadra Haines, an assistant professor at the Technical University of Denmark, who studies the intersection between technology and society. “But … the surveillance is what is here, now.”
Ninety-thousand police cameras watch the streets of Singapore.
It has a global reputation as one of the safest cities in the world, but Singapore’s national narrative is one of profound and enduring insecurity. Since being severed from Malaya in 1965 — both sides claim to have instigated the split — the “little red dot” dangling off the end of the Malay Peninsula has portrayed itself as an island of prosperity surrounded by hostile neighbours who covet its land and money. Singapore’s young men have to sign up for two years of military service, then stay on call for decades to come. Some weekends, the primary color vapidity of daytime radio is interrupted by broadcasts mustering the reserves to their battle stations, the callsigns sounding like the leftover echoes of some Cold War emergency.
The Singapore Air Force’s F-15 fighters fly regular sorties through the island’s airspace, coming out of Paya Lebar in the north and tracking over the hundreds of container ships that wait in the sheltered straits dividing Singapore from the Indonesian island of Batam, home to the triple threat of sinful massage parlours, outlet malls and religious fundamentalism. The jets sweep above the glass, steel and neon skyline of Marina Bay, where they buzz the iconic three-pillared Sands hotel and casino — a monument to vice, and the city-state’s flexibility of principles in the service of international capital. Beneath the towers, gondoliers punt along a subterranean faux-Venetian canal lined with luxury retailers and high-end food courts.
The land it sits on didn’t exist three decades ago. Most of Marina Bay was “reclaimed” — although the “re” feels a stretch — by dumping millions of tonnes of concrete and sand into the South China Sea. On the seaward side, new empty areas lie fallow, dark green with growth and seething with insects, as the land beneath them settles and hardens enough to support the foundations of another strata of skyscrapers between the old coastline and the new. The physical expansion of the nation is an aggressive defense against Singapore’s geographical limitations, a manifestation of how this tiny country sees engineering and technology as force multipliers and equalizers.
The country has “an almost uncritical faith in technology,” Adrian Kuah, a professor in public policy at the National University of Singapore, told Rest of World. “The history of the nation is written using the language of vulnerability and insecurity, and having to be one, five, 10 steps ahead of the competition.”
Speculative investments in novel technologies have undoubtedly helped propel Singapore’s economic development. Already one of the world’s busiest ports in the 1970s, the government offered sweeteners to attract technology manufacturers. By the 1980s, the country was the world’s largest producer of hard disks, and emerged from a recession in the mid-80s with a new philosophy: a unique, ideologically irreconcilable blend of Thatcherite capitalism and state control. The government courted the international banking sector with a mix of permissive regulations, low taxes and reliable infrastructure.
“In Singapore … we have a certain predilection for the technocratic aspect of the human condition.”
The first commercial internet providers launched in the mid-1990s, and the government rolled out a nationwide broadband network in 1998. By 2013, every home and business had access to high-speed fibre and 4G mobile data.
Facebook, Twitter, ByteDance and Netflix have built regional headquarters in Singapore, alongside many smaller tech companies. To try to attract new growth sectors, like fintech, cybersecurity and medical technologies, the government has directly invested in startups and created a “regulatory sandbox,” giving companies a long leash to try out products and new technologies, from self-driving cars to electronic payments.
As connectivity increased and smartphones proliferated, the government began talking about using tech as a way to achieve social goals. In 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the “Smart Nation” initiative, promising to apply cutting edge technology to almost every aspect of life in the city-state, from A.I.-optimized transport systems to cashless payments at its fabled hawker centers, to the digitization of government services.
“Our vision is for Singapore to be a Smart Nation: A nation where people live meaningful and fulfilled lives, enabled seamlessly by technology, offering exciting opportunities for all,” Lee said at the launch. “We should see it in our daily living, where networks of sensors and smart devices enable us to live sustainably and comfortably.”
His government’s ambitions have grown since then. Under a “30 by 2030” initiative, vertical and smart farming will produce 30% of the country’s nutritional needs by the end of the decade, up from the current 10%. More than 100,000 “smart lamp posts” will monitor traffic and environmental conditions (and people). In a rapidly ageing population, robots will help the elderly stay fit, healthy and upright. A nationwide biometric database will speed up processing at the already snappy border points, and improve security at banks and public services.
These initiatives, usually launched with great fanfare and repeated in uncritical news stories, had the virtue of ensuring that Singapore is routinely associated with the wildest, the most cutting-edge, pilot-stage tech: a kind of search-engine optimization for a nation. But they were also a natural extension of the PAP government’s approach to governance.
“In Singapore … we have a certain predilection for the technocratic aspect of the human condition,” said Kuah, who is also the director of the National University of Singapore’s internal think tank, the Futures Office. Technology offers something that is “the cornerstone of our policy discourse, the be-all and end-all of our vocabulary,” he said. “Efficiency.”
Delivering in the name of efficiency has worked for many Singaporeans. Trust in the system is high, and a majority of people’s experiences with it are benign — occasionally frustrating, but benign. There’s a widespread belief that social change is incremental, and delivered by the system; calling for a dramatic break just gets in the way of progress.
That belief is embodied in someone like Gaurav Keerthi, a telegenic ex-air force pilot and Stanford graduate. By day, he is the deputy chief executive of the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore; in his spare hours, he is director of projects and co-founder of the “tech for good” nonprofit Better.sg. “Tech for good” carries a belief in digital solutions for society’s problems, and Keerthi is an almost-too-perfect example of that view.
He first experienced tech-for-social-good organizations in the U.S., he said, but found that they were too antagonistic, focused on tracking government spending or monitoring the police. “In the U.S., there’s a very strong sense of building technology to hold the government accountable,” he said. “Maybe I’m naive … but I just didn’t think that was necessary in Singapore.”
Better.sg, which has around 1,000 members, works in areas where the government can’t or won’t, Keerthi said. “We don’t talk about who’s responsible for the problem. We don’t talk about who is responsible for solving the problem. We just talk about: Can we pivot this whole situation? Can we flip it around? Can we fundamentally shift human behaviour to be better?” he said.
Among the group’s projects are a platform that gives migrant workers access to low-cost calls back to Bangladesh and a “climate diet” app that lets consumers see the carbon footprint of their meals. Perhaps more problematically, one app that had been under development was a ‘catch-a-predator’ chatbot, which parents would install on their childrens’ phones to monitor conversations. The concept of the software was to goad potential groomers into incriminating themselves, and report their activity to the police.
“The government’s not going to build this. … It is hostile, it is almost borderline entrapment,” Keerthi said, matter-of-factly. “Are we solving a real social problem? Yeah. Are parents really thrilled about it? Yeah.”
Better.sg created a choose-your-own adventure game, #ToBeYou, that guides players through the experiences of citizens of different races in Singapore. Initially, some minority members of the group wanted to make racism a central part of the game. Discrimination was very present in the narrative, said Keerthi, but there was an equal emphasis on helping players “understand why [a racist Chinese character] thinks that way, and learn to empathize with him.”
“We forgot to ask, for whom, and for what purpose?”
To illustrate how Better.sg tries to diffuse tensions, Keerthi recounted how a dark-skinned, ethnically South Asian member of the group had proposed a project after an interaction that she considered racist. She’d gone to an ethnically Chinese doctor with a dermatological complaint, but he refused to accept her as a patient, saying he couldn’t confidently diagnose conditions on dark skin. She wanted to build a map that collated reports of similar incidents with medical professionals. Keerthi said that he suggested an alternative product: why not build an image library of how skin conditions present on different skin tones, to help doctors out?
Experts in civic technology warn against approaches that de-center the experience of minorities, saying that they can lead to greater alienation and exclusion. Pressed on this, Keerthi said he’d seen something similar to #ToBeYou in the U.S. “You start off playing as a black male. And in every ending of the story, you are killed by a white person,” he said. “I’m like: What is the point of this game? You are just seeding animosity. You’re bringing awareness to an important issue, but it’s not making society better. I think it’s making it worse.”
This philosophy carries weight in Singapore, where top-down government is the norm and where people are discouraged from, or penalized for, voicing their own concerns. That can mean that technology gets built to solve problems for the government, rather than for citizens. At times, it can be based on naive assumptions.
For example, creating centralized, digital platforms for citizens’ data is efficient for the government, but adds little more than administrative friction for citizens, said Kuah, the NUS academic. A digital education plan for the pandemic assumed that all children had access to devices, and that all households had one parent spare to supervise them, he added. That simply wasn’t the case, and lower income families suffered disproportionately. “You can map these dysfunctions and asymmetries onto certain socioeconomic statuses,” Kuah said.
Observers like Kuah think this creates systems that, while not malign by design, can be dehumanizing for people who fall outside their bounds. “I think, while we’ve always had this embrace of technology, which was, of course, important, who doesn’t want to be a forward-looking progressive society? We took it to such an extent that we kind of lost sight of the human dimension,” he said. “We forgot to ask: for whom and for what purpose?”
Singapore triggered its “circuit breaker” on April 7, 2020. With Covid-19 cases rising, the government put the whole country into lockdown. Residents were told to stay indoors and only leave home to buy necessities or to exercise. Away from the city, in the migrant dormitories — huge, barracks-like complexes that house some 300,000 laborers, mostly from South Asia — no one could leave at all.
Singapore’s migrant workers have always been expected to exist in a parallel demimonde, distinct from mainstream society. Their relationship with Singapore is deliberately, explicitly transactional. They can come, build tower blocks and tunnels, sweep the streets and hack back the jungle foliage that permanently encroaches on the city-state’s roads and houses. They can earn hard currency to send home. But they can never be true residents.
Their labor and their identities are clearly commodified, something which is, at times, heartbreakingly visible. In a country that’s notoriously obsessed with safety, where jaywalking and failing to wear a seatbelt can be punished with jail time, migrant workers can be transported on the expressways in the back of goods vehicles. Calls for change after a series of fatal accidents this year were rejected, on the grounds it would be too expensive for their employers.
The coronavirus burned through the close-packed migrant dormitories. By the end of 2020, more than 150,000 migrant workers, nearly half of them, had been infected, compared to just 4,000 in the general population.
For the rest of the country, the circuit breaker lasted just under two months. To manage the transition back to something approaching normality, the government naturally turned to technology. One system, TraceTogether, required users to download an app and register using their national ID card number, or to collect a bluetooth-enabled token. The system records whenever users pass in close proximity to one another.
To enter any building, residents had to check in using a QR-code-based system, SafeEntry. TraceTogether was initially voluntary, but the two systems were later merged, making it essentially compulsory to have the bluetooth tracking app or a token. Both were linked to citizens’ Singpass and HealthHub accounts — digital gateways for government services — meaning that their vaccination status and recent test results were displayed across all of the platforms.
There was nervousness about the creation of what was essentially an always-on, mass tracking system, but the government reassured the public that the data would only ever be used for contact tracing. Besides, the payoff was worth it: the system allowed bars, restaurants and malls to reopen. It empowered more than it imposed, and quickly took on the cadence of an observance. Users would queue in the doorways, scan and enter, either through automatic gates or by flashing their certificate to one of the bored students or septuagenarian security guards employed as the first line of defense against the virus.
For migrant workers, the technology was intrusive. TraceTogether was made mandatory for them early in the pandemic. Most also already used the SGWorkPass app, which held basic information about their employment status. During the pandemic, the app was expanded to incorporate other data, including the Covid status of other people in their dorms, whether they’d had or missed a scheduled swab test, whether they’d used their allotted recreation time. Each morning, the workers check the app to see whether they’re allowed to leave the dorms.
“Sometimes it’s red color, sometimes it’s green. If green, I’m allowed to work, if red, not allowed to work,” Shamim, a worker from Bangladesh, told Rest of World. He has to use TraceTogether to check in and out everywhere he goes, and record his temperature twice a day on yet another app.
Inside the dorms, the systems seemed calibrated to trigger near-constant lockdowns; each time a positive case is found in a dormitory, its residents are isolated. Eighteen months on, migrants are still largely shut in. They’re only allowed to leave their dormitories to work, or, once a week, for a few hours at a designated recreation centre. Earlier this year, Shamim spent four straight months inside.
“That time [went] very fast… but on the other hand, very slow,” he told Rest of World. “All day we stay in the dormitory, [in the] same room. We cannot go out, [we were] only allowed to go to the toilet and shower. Even cannot go [into the] corridor.” Nights were the worst. Having spent most of the day sitting on his bed, watching movies on his phone, he found it hard to sleep. “This was a very, very bad time,” he said. “We’re lazy, our bodies also feel very weak.”
The sprawl of TraceTogether and SGWorkPass combined is a common pattern, said Alex Au, vice president of advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) — that laws, systems and technology grow beyond their roots. “The nature of these multiple purpose apps is that one part of it may be legitimate or justifiable. But because [of that], you don’t question the other parts that come bundled together.”
In August 2020, the police added a new tool to help them physically monitor the dorms. They deployed another robot, M.A.T.A.R, as well as drones, to patrol the dormitories and enforce “safe distancing” rules.
Singapore’s migrant workers are used to having technology imposed on them. In December 2019, TWC2 submitted a report to the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights detailing how Singapore’s employment-related technology, which can manage anything from work permits to employment disputes, often disadvantaged the workers and gave power to their employers. Workers were also already subject to more intrusive data collection, and forced to opt in to various management technologies and systems. With the pandemic, that now includes private, health-related data.
The Ministry of Manpower didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
“We have zero transparency as to what the government does. Some of these things only come out if there is a breach.”
Singapore society at large had a reminder of system creep in January this year. In June 2020, as the government tried to get more of the population to sign up to TraceTogether, it had reassured people that their data was safe, and that it would only ever be used for contact tracing. Seven months later, it admitted that wasn’t true: that the police could access the data, and had already used it in an investigation.
This reversal came as little surprise to privacy experts and activists, who said that the state is rarely open about its use of residents’ personal data. “We have zero transparency as to what the government does,” Indulekshmi Rajeswari, a Singaporean privacy lawyer and LGBTQI activist, told Rest of World. “Some of these things only come out if there is a breach.”
And data breaches have occurred. In January 2019, the government admitted that the names and addresses of 14,000 Singaporean citizens and residents with HIV had been leaked online. In a state where it’s technically illegal for men to have sex with men, it was felt as an extraordinary breach of trust. In another lapse, private correspondence between 13 death row inmates and their lawyers was passed onto the attorney general’s office. (The high court has said the government can’t be held accountable over the breach.)
Sometimes the data is released deliberately. In December 2019, the Central Provident Fund Board, which administers the state pension system, revealed the name of a woman whose claim that she’d been driven to attempt suicide due to financial distress went viral.
These incidents are seen either as aberrations, or as necessary collateral damage in the government’s drive for efficiency. The government has been able to justify the collection and use of data on the grounds that this gives them the tools to improve governance. But it hasn’t put in place any checks and balances on itself.
“Efficiency is the overriding principle for everything. [It] doesn’t necessarily mean efficient for the citizens. It might be more efficient for the government,” Rajeswari said. “With efficiency, basically everything is permitted.”
People have to trust that there are limits to this organizing principle. If the government changed its mind about enforcing the law on homosexuality, for example, “it would be able to subpoena the location data of every queer person in Singapore to see who they’re meeting,” Rajeswari said. “There are jokes in our community about the government having files on us… but they’re morbid jokes.”
In the end, the robots got out of the dormitories before the migrant workers did.
In September 2021, the Home Team Science and Technology Agency, which developed the M.A.T.A.R robots used in the migrant dorms, started testing another, almost identical system. The robots, called “Xavier,” which look like 1970s sci-fi props, boxy and topped with a proctological array of cameras and sensors, have been patrolling around Toa Payoh, a residential district in central Singapore.
Xavier wasn’t just tasked with checking social distancing. Its cameras can automatically detect anti-social behavior — like the prison Avatar system — from smoking to illegal food stalls and gatherings, barking orders out of its speakers, recording video and reporting back to headquarters.
It’s helped the authorities so far that their heavier-handed surveillance tends to happen on the fringes, directed at people like prison inmates and migrants, who garner little sympathy in the popular press and who have few practical avenues for speaking up or pushing back.
But activists and academics who spoke to Rest of World said they fear that what starts in captive populations often finds its way into the mainstream. “A lot of these spaces that are marginal … they become spaces of technological experimentation,” Bhadra Haines, the professor of civic technology, said. “You have these seemingly exceptional spaces but they’re not exceptional. They become slowly mundane.”
The pandemic has given a good cover for this expansion; an all-encompassing emergency that allows any individual to be redefined as a threat to the public order. There are few reliable ways to take the political temperature in Singapore, since publishing opinion polls before elections is illegal.
But there is clearly discontent, on social media and in private conversations, about the pandemic rules, which have flipped from permissive to restrictive and back again as the country figures out how willing it is to “live with Covid.” Few experts expect that the additional surveillance measures put in place for contact tracing will ever end, even when the risk of transmission subsides. There’s a general acceptance that these are now permanent, political tools.
Wham, currently out of prison but facing more charges, said he meets this total surveillance with a mix of extreme caution — verging on paranoia — and fatalistic acceptance. He keeps his mobile phone in a shielded bag and avoids downloading any government-made software.
“I believe the government has access to all the data,” he said. “People may think what I say is extreme. But if you live in an authoritarian one party state, I don’t think … such perceptions are extreme at all.” But, he admits, he often doesn’t bother to use the pouch anymore, on the basis that whatever the government wants to know, it’ll find out.
“I believe the government has access to all the data.”
He, like activists and academics who spoke to Rest of World, believe the environment for dissenters is getting worse. Although it’s hard to measure, there’s a sense of growing nervousness in public life. Academics warn of greater interference into their research; previously loquacious commentators on the state of the nation politely decline requests to speak. For every academic quoted in this article, several others asked only to speak on background—even about their own research.
The government has recently passed two laws that give it even more power over public discourse: The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which is ostensibly aimed at tackling misinformation, but has mostly been used to target opposition politicians, independent media and critics of the ruling party; and the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA), which allows the minister of home affairs to declare individuals or organizations as politically exposed and to demand to see their finances.
The clampdown could be a reflection of the government’s own insecurities. The current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, the son of the country’s first leader, Lee Kuan Yew, is due to retire, but has no clear successor. At the last election in 2020, the PAP’s share of the vote fell significantly.
Several times, Wham has been caught up in the tightening space for dissent. In 2020, he was jailed for 10 days for hosting a live discussion via Skype with the Hong Kong pro-democracy figurehead Joshua Wong. A Facebook post saying that Singapore’s judges were less impartial than their Malaysian counterparts led to a charge of “scandalizing the judiciary.” Other online critics and independent media have been targeted with an array of legal tools, being forced to register as political organizations and being targeted by criminal defamation proceedings.
Wham, who continues his activism work, has turned his time inside into another opportunity to draw attention to the disproportionality of the state’s actions against him. As he wearily troops in and out of court to answer more cases, he also wants to start his own legal action, challenging the government on what it’s going to do with all the data it collected on him.
“I basically want to bring this matter to court to say, what are you doing with all this footage of me dancing naked in the cell?” he said. “I understand there is a need for safety, security, but what are you going to do with my footage? How will you ensure that it’s not being abused? Whether some weird guy decides to jerk off to my footage. I think these are questions that are important to ask.”
He hasn’t, yet, found a lawyer willing to take the case.