FOR a nation that aspires to be a regional arts and media centre, Singapore seems contrarily unconcerned about the adverse impression it may from time to time convey to the communities it wishes to cultivate. Over the past few months, the Government has taken issue with advertisers over their copy, an international newspaper over two articles it published and a leading author over her comments about the republic's leadership. Its reputed toughness towards critics caused a university publication to exercise self-censorship and the global computer network Internet to cancel a conference here. The government's resort to litigation against the International Herald Tribune in respect of two articles in the space of three months reinforced Western perceptions of a Singapore deficient in press freedom, although the nation's leaders would say they had no alternative but to act as they did. On the face of it, the political climate has seldom looked less conducive to the encouragement of free expression and communication, the bedrock of artists and writers. And yet, the intellectual environment is not as constrained as recent events might suggest. Articles have appeared in the press, books have been published and plays have been staged in the past 12 months that would never have been submitted to public gaze a few years ago. Opposition parties have been given more opportunity to express their views in the media this year than at any other time in the recent past. Playwright and journalist Tan Tarn How's Undercover created a stir by making fun of an internal security department, providing theatre-goers with laughs at the expense of Singapore's ever-watchful watchdogs. It prompted critic Koh Buck Song to remark on the current extent of openness of Singapore society. Philip Jeyaretnam's novel, Abraham's Promise, was published to critical acclaim despite controversial political content, which was redolent of the trials and tribulations of his father, veteran opposition leader Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam. More surprising has been the publicity given to these works in the establishment-supporting newspaper, The Straits Times, which also published the article mainly responsible for the National University of Singapore Society scrapping an entire edition of its magazine, Commentary, for fear of upsetting the government. The Straits Times, which at times publishes reports which appear to have been lifted from a branch newsletter of the ruling People's Action Party, also carried two thought-provoking articles by author Catherine Lim. One contended that the government had lost the affection of many people while the other said its voice had become sterner and its stand harder. A sternly critical response from the Prime Minister and his press secretary on consecutive days rather proved her second point while indicating that not all the signals coming out of Singapore were benign. Both took exception to her suggestion that part of the explanation for the sterner government voice lay in the 'continuing influence of the Senior Minister' and former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said Dr Lim had 'gone beyond the pale' in implying he had allowed himself to be overwhelmed by Mr Lee. Chan Heng Wing, his press secretary, said the Prime Minister expected and had received loyal support for his decisions on the few occasions when Mr Lee disagreed with him. Mr Goh said it was important that his authority was not undermined by 'writers on the fringes'. He also said anyone who wanted to 'set the agenda for Singapore by commenting regularly on politics' should enter the political arena. Mr Chan suggested Dr Lim could support the opposition in the next elections. The Straits Times gave Mr Goh's remarks added impact by making them its main front-page story under banner headlines. But it also devoted most of its Forum page to letters from Dr Lim and other writers defending her article. Russell Heng, a writer and playwright, said he was concerned at the reference to non-politicians setting the political agenda. Remarking that he was hard pressed to identify any such person, he said journalists, writers and other artists had taken seriously the Prime Minister's promise of a kinder and gentler Singapore. 'He has given them more space, they are using it,' he said. Another letter-writer criticised Mr Chan for urging Dr Lim, a citizen 'expressing her views', to join the opposition. DR Lim said that she had hoped by presenting the problem clearly and calmly to engage equally interested and concerned Singaporeans in debate that was informed, principled and 'certainly free from rancour and stridency'. Conspiracy theorists say the hard-hitting response of the Prime Minister to Dr Lim represents the true voice of the government and the freedom accorded writers to express themselves is merely a sop to the intellectual community. They argue that the works of Singapore's leading English-speaking writers have no impact on the mass of people, especially Chinese speakers, who don't read books, don't go to plays and don't read the features section of The Straits Times. But Dr Lim saw a division among the nation's leaders, which the heading over her article described as 'One government, two styles'. She said the Goh administration was launched upon the brightest of hopes but the promised style of people-orientation was being subsumed under the old style of top-down decisions. Referring to Mr Goh's 'quiet restraint' with regard to Mr Lee's 'less acceptable proposals', she said it must be 'that of a man who waits patiently for the full unfolding of his own style'. 'Above all, this co-existence of opposite styles must mean an attitudinal polarisation within the Government itself, with some adopting the stern, no-nonsense, pre-emptive approach, and others a gentler, more conciliatory one,' she said. She said the prevailing perception of the government as arrogant and high-handed was the 'most persuasive evidence of the former dominating the latter and the final retreat of Mr Goh's earlier ideals'. It had led to a 'serious emotive estrangement between the Government and the people.' Dr Lim urged a return to the earlier promise of a gracious and caring society. 'In a continuing process of engagement between the government and the people that will be encouraged by a climate of openness and tolerance, there will be the expected share of rude shocks and losses,' she said. 'But there will also be the pleasant surprises of unexpected skills never before tested and of the gains from new and higher levels of understanding and co-operation that invariably come with full, open engagement. 'Best of all, because the process is based on trust and therefore entirely spontaneous, it will represent the true maturing of Singapore. Singapore politics will truly have come into its own.' Until this happens, the signals from Singapore seem likely to remain, at best, mixed. In the intellectual community, the hope is that at least the voice of people like Dr Lim will not be silenced.